Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

The Drama of Truth and Jesuit Theatre

(Unpublished, 2023.)

Moses Hadas (1900-1966), the great Columbia University classical scholar, as well as Eric Auerbach (1892-1957), the equally renowned German-American philologist whose later career was centered round Yale and Princeton, were in agreement on many things. The most important of these was the fact that Christianity provided the classical artistic achievement a greatly needed “shot in the arm”. Much too fixed on an exact repetition of what were for them already venerable models, Greek and Latin writers of the Roman Imperial Era could not break free from unchangeable and by now quite stale themes and formal modes of expression.

Hadas shows how this unthinking form of classical conservatism prevented its victims from dealing with crucial, unanswered questions posed by their own Tradition, not to speak of fresh ones emerging from the fact that “the Kingdom of God was at hand”. In contrast, Christian authors, energized by Revelation and Grace, were able to tackle all of these matters, intensifying and personalizing their significance in ways that were beyond the capacity of the ancients, venerable though they were. Hence, to take but one of Auerbach’s examples from his magnum opus, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), nothing in the ancient repertoire could bring home the individual’s anguish over his fallen state in the face of the living God like the simple Gospel depiction of “the tears of St. Peter” after his denial of Christ.

Leaving the New Testament and heading through the Psychomachia of Prudentius (348-c. 405) to the crusading ballads of the Byzantine warrior Digenes Akritas, the “songs of the deeds” of every defender of Western Christendom from Roland to Richard the Lionhearted, the medieval Passion Plays, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Christian ability to relate the “drama of truth” is repeatedly demonstrated. And perhaps no other representative of the many different religious and secular “corporate societies” composing a variegated Christian Civilization contributed to the development of this capacity in a cultivated but popular fashion than the Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) in 1540.

The way in which the structures enabling this artistic work were developed is as interesting as the consequences emerging from them. As everyone knows, Loyola came to his vocation due to the injury ending his earlier military career. He then was educated in a quite eclectic manner, including studies at the University of Paris that brought him into contact with the initial disciples with whom he eventually formed his new religious order. Although these Jesuits-to-be all had academic backgrounds, they saw themselves at first as being called specifically to missionary work in the Holy Land, and expressly excluded the idea that they would engage in teaching.

It was the thwarting of their desire, a regrouping in Rome, and a placing of themselves at the disposal of the Papacy that led to the official establishment of the Society and a providential embrace of a vocation in education. This began with the training of young men attracted to their ranks and eager to share their ever-growing commitment to a highly diversified militant engagement with the world around them. The early Jesuits application of all of the influences that had formed them themselves created a harmonious mixture of the scholastic philosophy taught at the traditional centers of higher learning such as Paris, Salamanca, and Louvain, the literary studies favored by Renaissance Humanists at academies outside of the old universities, and a concern for ensuring “personal appropriation” of what was learned by the individuals entrusted to their care through a spirituality developing many of the lessons first taught by the so-called “Modern Devotion” appearing in the Lowlands in the 1300s.

No religious order up to this point in time had ever undertaken the project of opening up schools to the public. Here, too, Providence entered into the picture, with citizens of the city of Messina in Sicily, apparently prompted by far sighted members of the Society, convincing St. Ignatius to open the the first of its colleges---our secondary schools---in the years between 1548 and 1551. The idea caught fire, with one school after another coming into being very swiftly throughout the Catholic world, with the Roman College of 1552---soon to engender a university of its own---as the jewel in the crown. There were 769 throughout the globe by 1706.

All of these schools were run by means of what was referred to as the “Parisian Method”, with students moving, as “classes” from lower to higher stages in their education. The Parisian Method fit together well with the Jesuit vision of the need for the individual appropriation of learning, since it stressed having to “do” things personally rather than merely ingesting intellectual material coming from outside oneself.

That this moved from “hands on” oratorical displays to theatre is really not surprising. After all, Loyola’s transformation in hospital from military man to militant religious was helped along by a reading of “songs of the deed” making him realize that he could now become an active “soldier of Christ”. Moreover, his growing Christian Humanism transmitted to the Jesuits a conviction that spiritual realities had to be made known to individual students at their colleges through the physical dramatization of their holistic impact on creatures of flesh and blood as well as mind and soul. One can see this throughout his Spiritual Exercises, such as in the fifth, regarding Hell, where he discusses the need:

To see in imagination the vast fires, and the souls enclosed, as it were, in bodies of fire; to hear the wailing, the howling, cries and blasphemies against Christ our Lord and against the saints; with smell to perceive the smoke, the sulfur, the filth, the corruption; to taste the bitterness of tears, sadness, and remorse of conscience; with touch the flames which envelop and burn the souls.

Although it began at Messina in 1551 with simple dialogue and debate between two or more characters, Jesuit collegiate theater after 1555 led to the production of full-fledged tragedies and comedies throughout Europe and all of the order’s worldwide missionary territories. Students provided the performers and the audiences alike, with parents and patrons also in attendance, among them Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, and King Louis. By 1600 these theatrical pieces began to be published, and although their real heyday was the 1700s, scholars reiterate the astonishing fact that already in the seventeenth century there were at least one hundred thousand Jesuit dramas playing on European stages.

Among the many Jesuit producers were the Italian Fr. Stefano Tuccio (1540-1597), the Germans Jacob Bidermann (1578-1639) and Jacob Masen (1606-1681), the Spaniard Pedro Pablo de Acevedo (1521-1573), the Frenchman Nicolas Caussin (1583-1651), and the English martyr, St. Edmund Campion (1540–1581). The great Spanish and French dramatists Félix Lope de Vega (1562–1635), Tirso de Molino (1579-1648), Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681), Pierre Corneille (1606–1684), and Molière (1622–1673), were all were introduced to the theatre at Jesuit colleges, while the Venetian Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793), was deeply indebted to their work as well.

Both the order’s official educational guideline, the Ratio Studiorum, alongside Jesuit theorists such as Jacob Masen’s in his Primer for Dram,a Gianantonio Viperano (1535-1610) with De poetica, and Franz Lang (1654-1727) through his Dissertation on Stage Acting spelled out the justification for commitment to the theater very clearly. The 1586 version of the Ratio saw performance as a means by which students could learn to speak Latin, improve their memory, gain vocal control, poise, general physical grace of movement, and social confidence: all of which tools would be immensely useful for religious and secular careers alike. Even more importantly, poetry they argued, was nothing other than an especially effective means of teaching philosophy, and poetry itself cold and lifeless without the theatre. The French Jesuit, Charles Porée (1675–1741) summarized the Society’s attitude in 1733, in noting that there was no public or private virtue and duty, whether natural or supernatural that was not effectively inculcated, and no vice so surely deflected as though the medium of the theatre. Even the secular stage, which the Jesuits disdained, could be baptized and raised up to the greater glory of God by following the models coming from the colleges. The more exalted these depicted the heroic struggle of the protagonist, the more the spectator himself would embrace such struggles and the suffering accompanying the entire existential drama of truth.

A standard operating procedure sketched out by St. Ignatius himself in 1556 was given official status in 1586 and final codification in the Ratio of 1599. At least one play per year was encouraged, generally at the beginning of the academic program, but also in some places at carnival time and on the days marked out for prizes designed to stir competition and the development of better acting techniques. The language was to be Latin, often in hexameter verse, but with lyrical musical choruses and dancing accompanying the spoken word. The Ratio forbade the representation of women on stage or the wearing of women’s clothing by male actors.

Nevertheless, these rules were more honored in the breach than in the observance. Most missionaries realized that in order to teach the population, plays had to be performed in the local vernacular. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, most of these were written in the vernacular in Europe as well. As Jesuit drama developed, the productions were also performed in other venues on public occasions. Piazzas and palaces were both suitable for spectacles, on Corpus Christi, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, local feast days, and for canonizations, commemorations of events of historic importance, and royal marriages. Women appeared, at least off stage, as well.

The subject matter ranged widely from biblical stories and the lives of the saints and Jesuit missionaries to retellings of classical mythology, folktales, and the deeds of great historical figures: patrons include. More than four hundred plays dealt with matters relating to Japan. And, once again, let it be stressed that it was not just tragedy that made it to the Jesuit stage, a fact reflected in the greeting by children of members of the Society in Italian streets with the delightful cry: “here come the comedy priests!”

Despite their great respect for Aristotle, Fr. Vincenzo Guiniggi (1588-1653) explained that Jesuits understood that the traditional Aristotelian theatrical norms were insufficient for depicting the fullness of the Christian drama of truth. In addition, appeals to the emotion were in no way neglected. Bidermann’s dramatic refutation of Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura in the work entitled New Beliefs (1602) was said to be electrifying to the public, with the actor playing the title role in Munich in 1609 so moved by what he was saying that he himself joined the Jesuits and took Holy Orders. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, after attending a Jesuit college performance in Regensburg wrote:

They despised nothing that could in any way be effective, and treated the matter with love and attention…it is a delight in the thing, a participation in the enjoyment that is given, as in the ordinary ways of life. Just as this great religious society counts among its numbers organ-builders, sculptors, and gilders, so are there some also who devote themselves with knowledge and inclination to the theatre, and in the same manner in which they distinguish their churches by a pleasing magnificence, these intelligent men here have made themselves masters of the worldly senses by means of a theatre worthy of respect.” (Wetmore, pp. 6-7)

All of this meant that staging could be quite extraordinary, with singing and dancing enhanced by gymnastics, the use of trap doors, flying objects, various machines for deities to descend from and disappear into the clouds, and extraordinarily large numbers of performers: such as one in Munich in 1574 boasting 185 actors and the aid of apparently 1,000 extras. Jesuit love of dance had a profound impact upon the growth of the ballet and the scenery utilized in its secular forms. The 1622 Apotheosis of Saints Ignatius and Francis Xavier, celebrating their joint canonization, began with a prologue spoken by Wisdom personified, “enthroned in the clouds,” and was followed by dramatic events from the two men’s lives combining acting, ballet, and opera. One scene showed Ignatius attacked by demons in league with the various enemies of the order; another presented a dramatic illustration of a prophetic vision in which the founder witnessed the future successes of his disciples. (Wetmore, p. 8). Fr. Guiniggi’s Ignazio in Monte Serrato, also from that same canonization year, was not to be outdone:

Dramatizing the personal conversion, spiritual struggles, and religious victory of the two saints, the play presents dances by Indians, by centaurs, and by ocean waves, some riding on dolphin backs; airborne chariots bearing personified continents, battles on land and sea; scenes in Hell and in Heaven. Allegory govens all, with Earth, the Church, Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Spain personified. (Oldani and Yanitelli, p. 22)

Jesuits were not shy about popularizing their ideas and techniques. Jean Dubreuil’s (1602‒1670) Treatise on Perspective had a profound influence on artists, architects, and theatrical designers. Andrea Pozzo (1642‒1709), a Jesuit brother, who wrote a Pictorial and Architectural Perspective also sought to guide theatrical painting and design as well. And Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) seems to have delighted in utilizing a lantern in combination with transparent slides to create and magnify projected images to tell a theatrical tale and even illustrate a lecture. Some contemporaries considered him to be a magician; historians of the cinema as a precursor to the founders of the motion picture.

Although the heyday of the Jesuit theater was the eighteenth century, the numerous enemies of the Society were ever more active seeking its destruction by that golden age as well. Many and diverse as its critics may have been, the main thrust of all of their cultural complaints were focused on their dislike of seeing any intrusion of the supernatural into the natural world whatsoever, an attitude that spilled over into a hunt for a “nobly simplified” liturgy free of mystical fancies as well.

This naturalist, secularizing argument, characteristic of the anti-Christian Enlightenment as a whole, was to create what Blanford Parker in The Triumph of Augustan Poetics (Cambridge, 1998) called “a formula of exclusion” eliminating all reference to doctrinal and dogmatic issues in literature and polite society; in effect, eliminating the fullness of the drama of truth taught by the Faith. This formula, along with the actual step-by-step dissolution of the Society of Jesus between 1757 and 1773 was to signal the death knell for Jesuit theatre. But its memory remained, and the drab, humorless, godless era of the Revolution--- whose most grotesque assaults on both tragedy and comedy our own naturalist enemies of the drama of truth have outdone a hundred fold---engendered a renewed yearning for the union of all things natural and supernatural for the greater glory of God. The Jesuits were restored; the nineteenth century witnessed a great Catholic revival. For the drama of truth will not be over before until the end of time, and Catholic theatre will always be needed to awaken audiences to its struggles and glories. Abandon heresy, ye sons of St. Ignatius, and let your orthodox spectacles commence anew!

Sources Consulted:

Jean Misrahi, “The Beginnings of the Jesuit Theatre in France”, The French Review (Vol. 16, No. 3, January, 1943, pp. 239-247.

Louis J. Oldani and Victor R. Yanitelli, “Jesuit Theater in Italy: Its Entrances and Exit”, Italica (Vol. 76, No. 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 18-32)

Henry Schnitzler, “The Jesuit Contribution to the Theatre”, Educational Theatre Journal (Vol. 4, No. 4, December, 1952, pp. 283-292.

Kevin J. Wetmore, “Jesuit Theater and Drama”, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935420.013.55.

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