The History of the Theatre and the Catholic Church

By Solana Oliver

Theatre, from its origins, has always been a religious experience. The ancient Greeks had a theatre festival, City Dionysia, to praise Dionysus, the god of arts and wine. The Greeks would write stories about humanity and how they are influenced by gods and forces beyond their control for this festival. They believed that theatre was a way to get in touch with their gods and give alms to them. Over time, the theatre has transitioned away from being directly tied to the gods, but the sense of spirituality has remained.

Around the 16th century, the clergy in Europe sought to teach their illiterate communities about the stories of the Bible. They began to construct what we would consider sets on the altars of churches, and they would reenact the gospel readings (always in Latin) so the common people could understand their own faith.

As this practice popularized, it began to happen outside churches rather than inside them. Priests, monks, and other clergymen would act out Biblical stories so the townspeople could learn about Christ and the Good News. At this time, guilds also began to form because those same townspeople sought to contribute to these reenactments. Fishermen would donate real fish, and bakers would bake bread to be used in the telling of the story of the “Feeding of the Five Thousand,” for example.

This became so popular that priests and monks began to translate these Biblical stories into the vernacular for the townspeople to understand them even more. Townspeople began to take ownership of their faith and spread these stories from town to town on bandwagons, traveling sets pulled from town to town on wagons by horses or mules. With the spread of this art form, each town began to specialize in specific stories they wanted to tell. One popular series was the Wakefield Mysteries, a series of thirty-two bible stories that were told on Corpus Christi, a Catholic version of City Dionysia, coming from the city of Wakefield, England.

One of these stories we still see today is “The Second Shepherd’s Play,” a comedic approach to the Nativity told from the perspective of the shepherds in the field. This play characterizes the shepherds as buffoonish as they seek out the newborn king.  

I would like to now explore the connection between Spanish theatre and the Catholic Church. The Spanish theatre experienced a resurgence of faith and religion during the 17th century, and it was unique because of its inherent focus on Catholic values.

One of the most influential (and most forgotten) shows from this era is El Burlador de Sevilla, or The Trickster of Seville, who is lovingly known as Don Juan. In this story, Don Juan is a man from Seville who tricks his way into the beds of many women for his own personal pleasure. Throughout the story, he is warned that God will punish him if he does not repent of his sins. He never does, and he continues to refuse to do so even as he is dragged to Hell at the end of the play. Tirso de Molina, the author, was a brother in a Catholic order who wrote plays like this to teach the public about Christian morality: that we are always called to place God first in our lives, and Don Juan’s fate is what we risk if we refuse to do so.

There are many other examples of how Catholicism has influenced the formation of the theatre, so I encourage you to explore this connection and its history. You’ll find the information fascinating!