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Chapter 4
The Play's The Thing . . .

This public performance has again convinced me of the cleverness of the Jesuits. They despised nothing which could in any way be effective. . . . There are some also who devote themselves with knowledge and inclination to the theater 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 theater worthy of respect. (Goethe in Italian Journey)

Drama in Jesuit Schools

Drama entered the curricula of the Jesuit schools quite early. The first Jesuit plays in Rome, performed around 1565 at the German College and the Roman College, were intended as a means of competing with other entertainments that the city offered to students during carnival time. Soon, however, the plays developed a life of their own as a means of instruction in rhetoric and religious values. Drama was perceived as a logical and natural help in deepening the learning process as well as inspiring and edifying viewers. Its purpose was didactic, directed to the education of the students who were the actors as well as to those who watched them. It offered an opportunity for pupils to display their abilities to express the religious and moral values they had learned.

In an unpublished dissertation Richard Curry, S.J., includes among the reasons drama was so important in the Jesuit curriculum: "instilling self-conscious restraint in appearing before a large audience, a nobility of carriage, an easy grace in the use of gestures, a clarity of diction, a true and just expression of sentiments." Moreover these theatrical presentations aided the development of the memory and enlarged the vocabulary. The dramatic presentations contained moral instruction for both actors and audience. He quotes one of the early Jesuit educators, enumerating five reasons for drama in the Jesuit curriculum:

  1. clever acting of poor students on stage often moves the wealthy to help them;
  2. the plays bring renown to both masters and school;
  3. plays are excellent for exercising the memory;
  4. plays are helpful to the students in learning Latin;
  5. plays inculcate lessons of virtue.

There is no desire here to suggest that the Jesuits were the first teachers to adapt the drama to educational purposes but rather to affirm that they took their drama in education very seriously and that it was most compatible with their educational aims and objectives. (Curry, 1985, p. 38)

While defending the place of drama in the Jesuit schools' curriculum, the Jesuit educator Allan Farrell, S.J., quotes Luis de Cruz who was a seventeenth century drama teacher in a Jesuit school in Coimbra.

Why is it that the [Jesuit] Society makes use of the drama? What have we to do with the theater? 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 labor 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.

(Farrell, 1938, p. 123)

Stage scenery at a Jesuit school in Hungary (McCabe)

The Catholic Encyclopedia comments on the extent of Jesuit drama and introduces a recent book on the subject by William H. McCabe, S.J., a Jesuit who had spent most of his life studying drama in the early Jesuit schools.

At a conservative estimate there were between the years 1650 and 1700 about 500 continental Jesuit colleges, which "had a vast international chain of the same number of playhouses, engaged in a coordinated production of plays." There were at least two plays a year in each college, in addition to those presented on special occasions, such as the visits of royalty. It has been estimated that at least 100,000 plays were produced on these Jesuit stages in this period. The first such play recorded was at the Collegio Marnertino in Messina in 1551 [only three years after the first Jesuit school was established], but the genre soon spread all over the Continent: to Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Italy, France, Bohemia, etc. It is impossible to include a comprehensive account of this massive development in a short article, but the nearest approach to this staggering task is contained in the study by W. H. McCabe, S.J. (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, 7, p.893)

Jesuit College of St. Omers in London (McCabe)

In his 1929 doctoral dissertation W.H. McCabe presented a thorough treatment of Jesuit theater which was later published posthumously by Louis J. Oldani, S.J. in 1983. He indicates that there was nothing haphazard about drama in the Jesuit schools. For example, the plays were grounded in sound Catholic theology. McCabe treats of some theological principles on which Jesuit drama rested and compares them with principles which can be deduced from Shakespeare's works. One issue concerns balancing the implications of free will and Divine Providence, while saving both. The corollaries from these assumptions include man's responsibility as well as God's continual guidance of men's actions. McCabe identifies a curious parallelism between the Jesuit tragedies and Shakespeare's tragedies. He uses four categories.

Shakespearean tragedy

  1. A moral order laboring for good, established by an ultimate good power.
  2. Through human action which is wrong, evil comes to birth within this order, and for this we hold the agents responsible.
  3. By an infallible moral necessity, the evil done returns on the head of the agent. Since agent and act are part of the moral order, the latter is thus at war with itself.
  4. We acquiesce in the outcome because we feel that the ultimate power is good; we pity and fear; we experience a sense of waste because the evil cast out springs from the order which expels it.

Jesuit tragedy

  1. A composite moral order established by an all-good God for man's good.
  2. Through a misuse of man's free will, evil is generated within this order, and man is responsible.
  3. His misuse of freedom renders man liable to their sanction, which is his disaster. Man and his acts being part of the moral order: God remains omnipotent, man free.
  4. We acquiesce in the outcome because we know God is good; but this does not diminish our pity, fear and a sense of waste we feel on seeing the moral order despoiled by evil generated within it.

(McCabe, 1983, pp. 150-151)


In his history of the Jesuits, Fülöp-Miller quotes the book Italian Journey by Goethe ;who happened to be present at a theatrical performance in the Jesuit College at Regensburg which impressed him deeply.

This public performance has again convinced me of the cleverness of the Jesuits. They despised nothing which could in any way be effective, and treated the matter with love and attention. This is not cleverness as one thinks of it in abstracto; it is a delight in the thing, a participation in the enjoyment that is given, 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 theater 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 theater worthy of respect.

(Fülöp-Miller, 1930, p. 419)

The popularity of the plays went far beyond the classrooms. The audiences consisted of members of the students' families as well as distinguished dignitaries both civil and ecclesiastical.

During his childhood, Louis XIV was on more than one occasion a member of the audience at Clermont College, and in I653 he attended a performance accompanied by Cardinal Mazarin and the exiled King of England. In Vienna, also, the court and nobility were in the habit of attending the Jesuit performances; during the peace negotiations at Munster, the plenipotentiaries in a body paid a state visit to the theater of the local college.

Everywhere, large audiences attended the Jesuits' performances. In Vienna, the number of spectators amounted to as many as three thousand, while, in I737 at Hildesheim, the city police had to be called in to keep back the public. The effect of the plays which were staged was sometimes remarkable. In Munich once, fourteen important members of the Bavarian court withdrew from public life in order to practice devotional exercises, so strongly were they impressed by the Jesuit play. (Fülöp-Miller, 1930, p. 411)

The emphasis was on the visual as well as the spoken word, and this is what differentiated Jesuit drama from other school drama of the time. What drama there was in other schools relied mainly on the actors reciting their scripts accompanied by little or no scenery. Jesuit drama differed from secular drama in another way; not so much in its themes and forms as in its didactic objectives. W.H. McCabe mentions another important difference between drama in the Jesuit schools and in the Protestant schools.

As time went on, the Protestant and Catholic dramas became markedly differentiated, for the former sank more and more into a mere vehicle for all sorts of political and ecclesiastical controversies, often spiced with the wittiest satire and directed especially against the papacy, while the Jesuits worked on silently [without polemic] in their their Biblico-historical plays The plays of the Protestants without attacks on the Pope were unthinkable, and these attacks constitute the whole wit of the authors. (McCabe, 1983, p. 27)

Left: The set for the play Mirame (Paris, 1641)
Right: The hundredth anniversary of the Gesu in Rome

Jesuit theaters appeared in all parts of Europe, and the popularity of the plays at the Jesuit schools was remarkable. More than one historian has commented on it: the Jesuit historian William Bangert gives a few examples of their popularity and size. "In 1574 the students at the Jesuit school in Munich produced a play [Constantine] by one of their teachers, Georg Agricola. The town itself, beautifully decorated, was the stage. One thousand actors took part, and it lasted two days. The climactic point was the entry of Emperor Constantine into Rome driving four span of horses and surrounded by four hundred horsemen in glittering armor." (Bangert, 1986, p. 72)

In the Oxford Companion to the Theater, Phyllis Hartnoll reports on the activities and success of the plays at the Jesuit schools throughout Europe and the abandonment of school theater after the Suppression of the Jesuits because they were perceived as an unnecessary extravagance.

The opponents of the Jesuits in France seized upon their [Jesuit] cult of the theater and attacked it fiercely. The highly developed ballet in particular was sharply criticized, and plays and ballets alike were severely censured by the University of Paris, and in numerous polemical writings. The attempt to defend and illustrate the theater failed to convince such confirmed opponents; and in I762 [the year of the Jesuit Suppression in France], when taking possession of the college when the Jesuits had to give it up, the [new] Rector openly rejoiced at the cessation of such entertainments. (Hartnoll, 1951, pp. 421-422)

Theaters appeared in the mission countries where the natives were trained to become good actors as well as good Christians. The missionaries in India adapted their plays to the local customs and found that nothing attracted the poetry-loving Indians more effectively than plays.

Ballet in the Jesuit Schools

Dancing played a large part in the Jesuit theater and the best dancing teachers available were sought after. Some of these dancing teachers moved from one Jesuit school to another, and some taught in several Jesuit schools at the same time. The historian Fülöp-Miller was impressed by the extent of ballet in Jesuit schools.

It was on the Jesuit stage that the ballet assumed that character of magnificent sets which it has maintained from then on to the present day. The most celebrated dancing-masters of the time were called upon to superintend the rehearsals of the Jesuit ballets and even took part in them. Since at that time skillful dancers enjoyed an extraordinary popularity, their brilliant performances formed an added attraction for the Jesuit institutions. Much more than is the case today, the ballet, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, depended mainly on allegory, and this entirely corresponded to the tendency of the Jesuit school theater.

(Fülöp-Miller, 1930, p. 416)

Innovations in Stage Management from Jesuit Drama

The stage directors working in the Jesuit schools realized that they were competing with professional theaters as well as wandering troupes of actors whose only means of attracting viewers was the subject matter accompanied by the spoken word. So to enhance their own productions they introduced innovative stage effects which played a very important part in the evolution of theater: brilliant settings, scenic effects and complicated mechanical devices. Using curtains the masters at the Jesuit schools divided the stage into middle, side and back stages, thus making simultaneous action possible. The scenery was copied from nature with great accuracy. Often enough it consisted of real shrubbery, actual furniture, and dishes and cutlery borrowed from some benefactor. The artwork for the scenery was done in geometrical perspective to provide surprising effects for the audience. The wings were arranged so simply that moving a lever would change the scenery. Fülöp-Miller mentions details of Jesuit stage management.

In many Jesuit theaters, there were trap-doors for ghost apparitions and vanishing acts, flying machines and cloud apparatus. On every conceivable occasion, the Jesuit producers made divinities appear in the clouds, ghosts rise up and eagles fly over the heavens, and the effect of these stage tricks was further enhanced by machines producing thunder and the noise of the winds. They even found ways and means of reproducing with a high degree of technical perfection the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites, storms at sea, and similar difficult scenes. . . .

For certain effects, the fathers even made use of the magic lantern, the Jesuit savant, Athanasius Kircher, having been one of the first to draw attention to this possibility. With the help of such projection apparatus, they made visions and dreams especially appear on the stage. Many other Jesuit inventions surprise us by their similarity to quite modern stage tricks. Actors mingled with the audience, suddenly taking part in the action of the play and joining in the dialogue with the actors on the stage. (Fülöp-Miller, 1930, pp. 416- 418)

The real, creative contributions of the Jesuits were made within the theatrum sacrum, in the decorations for the quarantore performances designed to counterbalance and compete with the carnival celebrations. The quarantore performances were a kind of spectacular Biblical pageant in which the church served as both auditorium and scenic setting, and this type of theatrum sacrum soon seems to have centered on the Gesu. Here is shown a quarantore presented in 1650.

Stage scenery for the Jesuit drama Bellerofonte (left) and a scene from the production of Andromède (right) Brother Richard Curry, S.J. has intensively studied productions and stage management. Based on his experience he comments on the successes of the masters in the early Jesuit schools in their efforts at inventive manipulation of scenery as well as other innovations.

Left: Quarantore At the Gesu in Rome in 1650
Right The harbor in the play Pietas Victrix (Vienna 1657)
The set for the play Bellerofonte (Vienna, 1642)

Stage scenery of the camp and the harbor for the
Jesuit production of Pietas Victrix in seventeenth century Vienna
(McCabe notes the liberal use of demons in the sky in the set designs
by the Jesuit author of Pietas Victrix. Nikolaus Avancinus, S.J

Left: Cave in the set for the play Pietas Victrix (Vienna 1657)
The set for the play Andromede (Paris, 1650)
Right: The set for the camp in the play Pietas Victrix (Vienna 1657)
The inferno in the play Pietas Victrix (Vienna 1657)

The Jesuits responded by producing plays that were more pleasing to the eye than to the ear. The German Jesuits distinguished themselves through their inventiveness in stage properties to support all the glamour of a spectacle. They introduced stage effects and machinery that presented flying animals, lightning, thunder, riding scenes, processions and elaborate tableaux. Crowd scenes were particularly popular in the 17th century and the audiences expected the Jesuits to offer them, and so they did. Jesuit drama in the 17th century was monopolized by high tragedy of the baroque style. All the elements of Jesuit drama came together during the baroque period to form a uniquely recognizable Jesuit theater style. Jesuit drama was still robed in a spiritual atmosphere but added to that were lavish sets, full orchestras, ornate costumes, choral groups, ballet and the vernacular. (Curry, 1978, p. 48)

Another Jesuit Brother Andrea Pozzo, S.J. proved himself a profound mathematician as well as a very talented artist. He had a great interest in theatrical staging and used his genius to introduce some important innovations. He published a proposal for remodeling the choir of the Jesuit church of the Gesù by adding some space behind the altar thereby permitting the light to penetrate from above and make the area over the altar available for variable scenery. Bjurström relates another of his stage innovations.

There is no mistaking the Jesuits' feeling for and interest in rich visual depiction in the theater. A constant problem in Baroque theater was the scale of the stage sets. Most theaters had small stages, possibly with some kind of annex at the back which made it technically feasible to arrange a heavily emphasized central perspective. Pozzo alone had the opportunity to raise the whole structure in full scale; he did not hide the focus of the perspective at either side, out of view for the beholder . . . which in turn is the most original and probably the most progressive aspect of the Jesuits' contribution to Baroque stage design. (Bjurström, 1972, p. 103)

Another visual aspect included the costumes; one of the Jesuit theaters produced a play requiring 203 costumes. Costumes were not only important for the production but also for the young actors, as W.H. McCabe demonstrates taking as an example the famous playwright, Joseph Simons (1593 - 1671) who taught at the Jesuit English College of St. Omers.

Great variety of costume was plainly required for plays such as those of Joseph Simons, though there is nothing to show that much money was spent on dress at this date. Yet the 1685 report also shows another portion of the buildings allotted to "The Wardrobe for the Stage," and in the extracts taken from Sabran we see that early in the eighteenth century "acting suits" were to the St. Omers boy as preoccupying as are cricket or baseball outfits to his modern counterpart. (McCabe, 1983, p. 127)

Some Familiar Dramatists Who Wrote
Plays while they were students in the Jesuit Schools

It was inevitable that many talented actors and writers would graduate from the Jesuit schools because there were many Jesuit schools and because drama was a serious part of the curriculum. Since there were not many plays available, the drama teachers wrote them and also had their students write them and then put them on in their own schools. So Lope de Vega, Molière, Racine, the Corneille brothers and many others started writing at a young age while still in the Jesuit schools.

In the Oxford Companion to the Theater, Phyllis Hartnoll lists some familiar dramatists who were trained by the masters of theater in the Jesuit schools. She also describes how the spread of theater innovations were facilitated by the Jesuit network of schools throughout Europe.

Jesuit alumnus Jean Racine

With equal and characteristic skill, the Jesuit theater accommodated itself to the mentality of the masses or to the customs of a Court, while consistently pursuing its own purposes. Influences of many kinds thus bore upon its development, and its practitioners sprang from many lands. The works of the Spaniard Pedro de Acevedo (I560), the Italian Stefano Tuccio (I540-97), the German Jakob Bidermann (I578-I639), the Frenchman Nicolas Caussin (I580-I65I), the Englishman Joseph Simon (Simeon) writing in Rome (I594-I67I), the Austrian Nicolas Avancinus (I6I2-1686) - to name only a few representative authors of plays - all bear witness to an early expansion and elaboration of the theatrical aspects of drama; the rapid development of the means for change of scene and transformation was matched by the increased variety of visual and musical adornments.

(Hartnoll, 1951, p. 419-420)

Fülöp-Miller mentions other well-known dramatists, some of their accomplishments, the lessons they carried away with them and their loyalty to the Jesuits.

The Jesuit theater was not without influence on the development of the dramatic art; several of the most famous European dramatists received their education in the colleges of the Jesuits, and obtained their first artistic stimulus in the Jesuit theaters. This is true of Molière and of Corneille, both of whom were Jesuit pupils. Father Poree again was Voltaire's tutor and in later years his friend; similarly, Diderot made his first acquaintance with dramatic art in one of the Jesuit colleges. In Spain, Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molino and Calderon grew up under the direct influence of the Jesuit theater, and, later on, Calderon, in his autos sacramentales, worked up to powerful poetic purpose all those elements of the allegory, religious passion and scenic effects which are so characteristic of the Jesuit

drama. Personally, too, this greatest of Spanish dramatists was, during his lifetime, an enthusiastic supporter of the Society of Jesus and particularly of the founder of the order. In one of his later pieces, The Great Prince of Fez, he makes his hero enter the order with a hymn to Ignatius. (Fülöp-Miller, 1930, p. 420)

Jesuit alumnus Pierre Corneille

Molière (1622 - 1673)

Molière (Jean Baptiste Poquelin) was born January 15, 1622 of a good bourgeois family. His father was a merchant and upholsterer. Between 1632 and 1639, Molière attended the Jesuit College de Clermont, studied law in Orléans, and became a lawyer. Molière was not interested in the law and so his practice was less than successful. He was not anxious to follow in his father's footsteps as an upholsterer, but he was fond of drama and had written and acted in plays while at the Jesuit college at Clermont. Molière chose the life of the theater and gave up the security and respectability offered him by the other profession.

It was the practice at the Jesuit schools for not only the teachers but also the students to write and present their own plays. Brother Curry, S.J. relates that Molière not only did this at College de Clermont but also years after he graduated. While at the college he developed strong opinions about the Hierarchy and indeed was reinforced in his anti-clerical opinions and ridicule of

the hierarchy by his drama teachers who were also critical of prevalent hierarchical abuses. Later in his life when Molière was forbidden to produce public plays and was banned from the French theaters by Richelieu, Molière was allowed by Jesuits to use their theaters for his productions since the Jesuit schools were exempt from Richelieu's edicts. (Curry, 1995)

Jesuit alumnus Molière

Matthews relates Molière's experiences with the teachers of drama, ballet, music and opera at Clermont.

The College de Clermont was managed by the Jesuits; and Molière like Calderon and Tasso, like Corneille and Goldoni, like Descartes and Montesquieu, Buffon and Voltaire, owed his training to those devoted instructors of youth. Their rigid program of studies, the famous Ratio Studiorum, had been finally promulgated in 1599, less than a quarter of a century before Molière was born; and it was in I622, the year of Molière's birth, that Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier had been canonized.

The College de Clermont had a teaching staff of nearly three hundred; and it received some four hundred boarders, including many boys of the best blood in France. [The curriculum] called for not a little formal dancing, and the Jesuits paid great attention to this part of their educational scheme. After the opera had been established by Louis XIV, the authorities of the College de Clermont engaged its ballet masters to instruct their pupils and to take charge of the ballets given in the school. (Matthews, 1910, pp. 8 -14)

Opera and Oratorios

As the Jesuit theater spread across Europe, music became increasingly important in their plays, illustrating a strong connection between the development of opera and drama in the Jesuit schools. The faculty of the Jesuit schools were aware of the value of drama because they realized that the plays delighted the audience and so bound both students and parents more closely to the school and its faculty. As a result there was a willingness to try new musical forms in the plays.

Scenery for the Jesuit play Ludi Caesarii ;(Berthold)

In I655 a theater, seating 3,000, built by Ferdinand III for the performance of Jesuit dramas, opened at the University of Vienna. The lavishly decorated hall included a gallery at the rear for the musicians and the elaborate stage machinery offered many staging possibilities, including quick changes of twelve different scenes. By the late seventeenth century the musical and spoken portions of the Jesuit dramas were of approximately equal length and importance, and the dramas included the same types of music that were found in operas of the time. In the Oxford Companion to the Theater, Phyllis Hartnoll relates the growth of the development of opera in the Jesuit schools.

In Paris the [Jesuit] college of Louis-le-Grand provided spectacles which rivaled those of the Academie de danse founded by its royal patron [King Louis]. In Vienna during the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth centuries the stage of the Jesuit college was the scene of ludi caesarii [Caesar's games] whose only counterparts in splendor of production were the operas given at the Court theater. And in the smaller Court cities of the German-speaking lands a similar parallel could be drawn. The music-dramas, cantatas, and oratorios of the Jesuits dating from the first half of the seventeenth century were the forerunners of the cult of opera which developed at the German Courts; opera in its turn suggested some of the more potent scenic and auditory effects of later Jesuit dramas. (Hartnoll, 1951, p. 422)

The least that can be said is that drama in the Jesuit colleges constituted in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries a link between opera and drama, and also it introduced technical advances in the production of both.


Bangert, William, S.J. A History of the Society of Jesus. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1986

Berthold, Margot The History of World Theater. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1991

Bjurström, Per "Baroque theater and the Jesuits" in Wittkower & Jaffe (Ed.), Baroque Art. Fordham Press, 1972

Curry, Richard, S.J. "A Practical Philosophy of Theater Education for the Disabled." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, New York University, 1978

Curry, Richard, S.J. Personal Communication, 1995

Farrell, Allan, S.J. The Jesuit Code of Liberal Education. Milwaukee: Bruce, 1938

Fülöp-Miller, René The Power and the Secret of the Jesuits. New York: Viking, 1930

Hartnoll, Phyllis The Oxford Companion to the Theater. London: Oxford University Press, 1951

Mantzius, Karl A History of Theatrical Art. New York: Peter Smith, 1937

Matthews, Brander Molière. New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1910

McCabe, William H., S.J. An Introduction to Jesuit Theater. Ed. Louis Olani, S.J., St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1983

Smither, Howard, E. A History of the Oratorio. Chapel Hill: University North Carolina, 1987

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