In the world of ancient Rome, there were only two temples to have theatres – those dedicated to the gods Venus and Bacchus. The early Christian community, naturally, saw these gods as patrons of lust and drunkenness. Not a good starting point for any Christians assessing the value of theatre in human culture! Indeed, the Council of Carthage in 398 AD decreed that those who attended a theatrical performance instead of Mass would be excommunicated and actors would be forbidden receiving the sacraments.
However attitudes softened a little over the centuries and the richness of Catholic liturgies fostered the evolution of pious performances and morality plays. By the time Jesuit schools were emerging in Renaissance times, drama and the stage were included as central pedagogical experiences. Naturally, this raised some eyebrows. The Jesuits in the schools had already been the subjects of some suspicion in that they enthusiastically taught “pagan” authors in the curriculum, alongside the scriptures and more catholic texts. But, it was argued in this Renaissance era, the Greek and Roman classics firstly taught the classical languages well, and then cultivated an eloquentia perfecta (flawless eloquence). At the same time, these classics of literature, poetry, plays and histories explored the great ideas of virtue, the triumph of good over evil, wrestling with moral choices, extolling heroic and generous lives. Reflections, if you like, of the great themes and values presented in the scriptures. So we embraced drama.
Ignatius himself certainly encouraged dramatic performances in the Colleges and, at one time, wrote:
“Our schools will accept persons from every walk of life provided they wish to observe modesty and ordinary discipline. And in order to arouse their enthusiasm a little more and to give them and even their parents a little consolation, let them present, several times a year, a public recitation of orations, verses, and dialogues in the Roman manner, whereat even the good standing of the school will be increased.”
At first, the goals of such theatrical performances in our schools were primarily religious and educative. Tragedies and comedies, if performed, were to be in Latin and were to be few in number. They were also to be “in good taste” and female characters and costumes were not to be employed. But, in time, these strictures were loosened. A very strategic and insightful innovation was also adopted: when plays were written for the Colleges, it was expected that the heroic characters would be similar in age and class to the students, so that their virtuous choices and actions might be more readily emulated.
This week the O’Kelly Theatre was certainly celebrating that long Jesuit tradition in the brilliant Year 10 performances of The Birds. As it so happened, the source of the play was, in fact, one of those Greek classics by Aristophanes. Once again, in our fashion, it was “adapted to times, places and circumstances”, as Ignatius would encourage. The story presented two characters, disillusioned by the meaninglessness of city life and seeking an alternative. They are directed to a community of birds where they hope to find a fresh vision. As it eventuates, even in this world of non-human creatures, they find themselves entrapped once again in every familiar human weakness and foible from which they had just walked away. This production was at heart a social commentary. But wrapped, as it was, in light-hearted comedy and barbed satire, its message was sent home all the more pointedly. It was interesting to experience in the audience various shady characters of the play make amoral references to child labour, manipulating refugees, racism, bullying, or taking advantage of the poor. We were shocked and wanted to laugh at their callousness and slick rationalisations, but we laughed almost guiltily. We winced. Perhaps the truths were too familiar and too telling. The playwright knew well his target. When such plays make us just a little uneasy as they reflect our world, when they touch something deep in terms of values and virtues or meaning, then they have clearly earned a place in any Jesuit curriculum, in any age.
In the seventeenth century, Fr Luiz de Cruz SJ, who taught drama at our College in Coimbra, Spain, wrote:
“Why is it that the Society of Jesus makes use of the drama? What have we to do with the theatre? Do we delight in the histrionic art and in composing plays? I remind you of the preparation and other troublesome features of the work. There is but one purpose we have at heart and will always have, namely, to be of service to the state by instilling virtue. We shall continue to labour at it, even in the face of difficulties, as long as it will help to expel wickedness, increase piety, inflame love of virtue and afford becoming amusement.”
Yes, the triumph of goodness and holiness, the appeal of virtue and even amusement. Encore to all that!