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Jesuit dramalocked

  • M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet
  •  and Thomas Bauman

Both universalist and emphatically humanist in outlook since its founding in 1540, the Society of Jesus has always functioned as one of the principal educational arms of the Catholic Church and the papacy. This role developed most fully in the colleges and seminaries established by the Jesuits in Catholic lands. Here instruction stressed not only theology and philosophy but also literature. As early as the 16th century, dramatic representations were staged at these institutions, drawing together elements from the humanist theatre, medieval mystery plays and Shrovetide entertainments. The Bible served as the basic source material, but secular and often local subjects were used too, invariably with a strong emphasis on the allegorical and symbolic, and music often had an important role.

Early examples of Jesuit drama with music are recorded from the Low Countries (Josephus by Georg Maropedius, given in 1544 in Antwerp and published in Utrecht, 1552–3), Spain (1558, Orcaña), Portugal (a drama by João Arias, given at the college of S Antão, Lisbon, in 1562; further examples at Coimbra and Evora), and Switzerland. In Italy, the tradition at the German College in Rome dates back at least to 1573. A surviving early work performed by the pupils of the Roman Seminary in 1606 is Agostino Agazzari’s Eumelio, a three-act dramma pastorale. This is a moralizing tale, set mainly in recitatives and arias (with choruses at the ends of the acts), about a boy who is enticed away from the simple pastoral life but is ultimately restored. Also at the seminary, a version by Leone Santi of the story of David and Goliath was given in 1622 ‘con bellissimi intermedi’; in 1654 the seminarians gave a tragedy, Ciro, and Cardinal Pallavicino’s Ermengildo was also given at the seminary. The seminarians of S Pietro gave S Eustachio in 1643. A five-act musical drama on the story of the Cyclops was acted at the German and Hungarian College in 1628 for the young Grand Duke of Tuscany and in 1653 the German College was the site of a tragedia sacra musicale. These Jesuit musical dramas in Italy represent a somewhat different tradition from the more moralistic and educational type of the German-speaking countries.

The most important institution for Jesuit theatre in France was the Collège de Clermont (from 1682 called Collège Louis-le-Grand in gratitude for the king’s declaring it a royal foundation and endowing it handsomely). Other important colleges were the Collège d’Harcourt and those at Lyons, Avignon and Lille. Members of the order wrote the texts, students acted them, professional musicians and choreographers were hired, and no expense was spared on the scenery and costumes. Intermèdes in French were often used between acts of Latin tragedies with biblical, other sacred, mythological or historical plots, and they shared characters or themes with the play, though each act was independent from the rest. French tragedies with choruses and other incidental music were rarer.

Dance was part of the instruction, and a ballet de cour was traditionally given at the distribution of prizes in August, when the king was sometimes present. The ties with the monarchy were also sometimes reflected in the choice of subject; for example, in 1660 the Ballet du lys et de l’impériale accompanied Dozenne’s Clementia christiana and celebrated Louis XIV’s marriage. Collasse and M.-A. Charpentier were among the composers of Jesuit stage works. Occasionally from 1684 onwards, true operas (with coherent plots) were performed, still following the intermède pattern of intercalation. Thus, Charpentier’s David et Jonathas (1688) was given with Chamillart’s Latin tragedy Saül. Later, Campra contributed to numerous Jesuit works, but all the music appears to be lost. Indeed the French tradition was lost with the suppression of Jesuit colleges and their expulsion from the kingdom (1761–2).

In German-speaking lands, Jesuit dramas were most assiduously cultivated in Bavaria and Austria, where the order controlled most Gymnasia. Professional actors were very seldom involved, since a major purpose of the dramas was to train students in Latin in particular and in rhetoric and deportment in general. Normally responsibility for producing the text fell to a senior professor of rhetoric, who, like librettists of the day, also supervised its staging. Performances, given at the end of the school year (usually September), could be held out of doors for a large audience or ‘in aula’ for a smaller group. Some lasted up to eight hours. Synopses, called Periochen, were distributed for those who did not understand Latin.

No means of enhancing the visual and emotional impact on the faithful was overlooked. After 1600, dramas began borrowing techniques from opera, including stunning stage effects where practicable, for example in the 27 dramas written by Nikolaus Avancini (1612–86) for Vienna. Authors did not shrink from presenting grisly scenes; in a play performed at Graz in 1640, for instance, an image of Jezebel composed of blood, bones and pieces of meat was torn to pieces on stage by dogs. Crowd scenes, processions, ballet, pantomime, intermedi and choruses also made their way into the Jesuit drama in the early 17th century. Solo numbers ranged from simple folksongs and aria-like laments to hymns, frequently sung during representations of acts of martyrdom.

In 1655, a large theatre built by Ferdinand III for the Jesuits, with elaborate stage machinery, was opened at the University of Vienna, with a lavish hall accommodating 3000 and a musicians’ gallery. Initially the dramas were in Latin; from 1665 German was used in comic interludes. Musical and spoken portions were, by the end of the century, of approximately equal length and importance. The dramas used the same types of form and idiom as contemporary opera, including recitatives, arias and ensembles. Notable composers of Jesuit dramas were J. C. Keril, whose five-act Pia et fortis mulier was given for Leopold I in 1677, and F. T. Richter.

Jesuit involvement with school drama ceased with the suppression of the order by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. When the Society was restored in 1814 it continued its central commitment to education, but without its former degree of emphasis on dramatic presentations.


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