Drama and School (3 of 5) - Rev. G. Van Rongen

Third in a series of five articles on dramatizing biblical stories by Rev.G.van Rongen, taken with permission from Clarion Vol.24, No.22, Year End, Vol.25. No's 1-6 (1975-1976).

Introduction and Biography 2. Drama and Church 4. Drama and these Modern Days
1. Drama and Preaching 3. Drama and School 5. Drama and Holy Scripture


At the mediaeval schools and earlier, materials and methods from classical times were used together with the Holy Scriptures and the Creeds. This happened in particular at the monastic schools. Even the well-known Augustine recommended the "Septem Artes Liberales" of Terentius Vallo (116 - 27 B.C.) and wanted to "sanctify" them. Among these seven "liberal arts" rhetoric took a prominent place. It was deemed to be important for people who would take up a position in the preaching ministry or in a public office. Via the classics they came in contact with classical drama.


But what about biblical drama? Most likely the students participated in roles to be played by youngsters in e.g. a play such as "The Young Men in the Fiery Furnace", which was performed in Constantinople during the 6th century. However, the moral standard of classical drama was generally low. Therefore, in the 10th century, the nun Hrotsuitha of Gandersheim wrote a series of comedies of a Christian moral-pedagogic character. These were intended as a counterpart to the six comedies of Terence. Among them was a play on "Abraham", who was introduced as an example of high morality. But most likely these comedies were never performed and served during the reading lessons only.

From the 13th century on there is an obvious participating in the performance of spiritual plays. In the monastery of Himmelgarten near Nordhausen "The Life of Jesus" was performed for an audience consisting of parents and the general public. Since the 15th century we are given more information about the performing of biblical plays, in which the pupils of the Latin schools, monastic schools, but also University students participated.


Renaissance and Humanism - which rejected man's total depravity and glorified his virtues - resulted in a revival of classical drama. People were taught to take a positive stand towards life and really enjoy it. It was very unfortunate that even the "biblical plays" came under the influence of Humanism. More and more they became man-centered. It is no wonder that many plays were written and performed on the subject of "the Prodigal Son". The background exegesis was purely "exemplary". We will notice this even among the adherents of the Reformation.


During the 16th century there was a strong increase in the number of schools and a similar improvement of their quality. A revival of school drama ran parallel with that. This was also the result of the efforts of "the Brethren of Common Life", or Gregorians, or Hieronymians. They taught their pupils the classics. The ancient Roman dramas were performed - in Latin of course. The Brethren, cleverly making use of the "modern" means of printery, published many Greek and Latin dramas. John Sturm of Strasbourg was strongly influenced by them: he attended a school of the Brethren at Liege. Gnapheus, or William de Voider, another Reformed man, also attended their schools at Cologne and Louvain. He wrote a play on the story of the Prodigal Son, "Acolastus", and was consequently called "Terentius Christianus", the Christian Terence.


The followers of the Great Reformation, as a matter of course, chose the Holy Scriptures as a source for their material. They used schooldrama as another means of bringing the Gospel to the people. Therefore these plays were usually written and performed in the native language. They considered these performances as good opportunities to put the Scriptural Gospel over against the false doctrines and practices of the Church of Rome. A clear example is the way in which the story of Luke 15 was dramatized. The elder son in the parable was introduced as a symbol of the Church of Rome with its good works, while the younger son represented the Church of the Reformation with its adages of "sola fide" and "sola gratia". Martin Luther strongly promoted the performance of classical comedies as well as biblical schooldramas. One of his arguments was: It is true that many sins are performed in the ancient comedies, yet we should not take a negative stand towards them, for then we could no longer read the Bible either! The well-known fellow workers of Luther, Melanchton and Bugenhagen, were also very much in favour of schooldrama.


But the Calvinists were more hesitant and careful, or even offered opposition against it. John Calvin's successor at the Genevan University, Theodore Beza, wrote a schooldrama under the title "Tragedie française du Sacrifice d'Abraham" (1550), known in brief as "Abraham Sacrificiant". He stayed very close to the biblical text. Among the arguments used by those who were in favour of the use of schooldrama were the following:

1. This way God's Word is taught and made known to the people.

2. The use of the people's native language is very important. It certainly will promote the Reformation.

3. The religious education of the youngsters is promoted in the polemics against the Church of Rome.

4. Full attention is drawn to the Bible.

5. Moral education is promoted straight from the Bible.

However, others strongly opposed the use of schooldrama. Their arguments were, among others:

1. As a result of the entertainment-character of these plays all sorts of foreign elements have crept in.

2. Is it possible to play the role of the Lord Jesus?


1. Indeed, how to play the Lord Jesus? Sapidus solved this problem in his play "Jesus Scholasticus" by limiting the performance of the Saviour's role to the story of His discourse with the Scribes when He was twelve years old. In his preface the author expressed as his opinion that it is impossible to play Jesus as an adult.

2. It may be clear that the exemplary interpretation of Scripture was dominant. This is really obvious and striking in all sorts of plays on the story of "the Prodigal Son": apart from the above mentioned application, the younger son was also presented as a deterrent example of low morality, and the authors made the most of his wicked life. Joseph in his conflict with Potiphar's wife was made a good example of offering effectual resistance against temptation. Samson was the weakling, while Delilah was an example of a wicked woman. Daniel was introduced as a hero of faith. In Theodore Beza's play, Abraham was made an illustration of abolishing everything for the sake of God.

3. The Pope was considered - and played - as the antichrist. "Antichrist-plays" was the name given to this particular group. So the writers tried to make their products relevant to the situation of those days. They intended to teach their pupils to see the differences between true and false religion, true church and false church.


There is no doubt that the motives of the supporters of biblical drama among the Calvinists were pure. Theodore Beza was of the opinion that with the help of drama he could teach young people. His aim was not to provide entertainment. He intended to make the doctrine of justification by faith alone well known to many. Another Reformed man, Louis Desmasures, wrote a David-trilogy, "David combattant, David triomphant, David fugitif". This way he intended to issue a cry of distress because of the persecutions under which the Reformed had to suffer and make an appeal to the persecutors.


However, soon afterwards "biblical drama" began to decline. The authors of plays took all sorts of liberties.

An example is John Sturm of Strasbourg, who first introduced classical as well as biblical plays, but later on the latter received more and more a theatrical character, while at the same time the biblical contents suffered. In his play on Lazarus he let him first lead a very wicked life. Besides, he introduced Nicodemus, who in the biblical story is not mentioned at all, and even unbiblical characters such as a spy. After Sturm had left Strasbourg in the year 1581, the plays became even more theatrical.

Another example is that the well-known theme of the Prodigal Son became an illustration of the spirit of synthesis between Humanism and Reformation. At a certain stage a host was introduced who complained that his earnings began to decline as soon as Martin Luther started to preach! Much fantasy and allegorical interpretation was introduced: the swine were the roman-catholic doctrine of the meritorious character of good works; the act of clothing the younger son could indicate the enriching of one's soul with spiritual gifts; the ring meant everlasting communion; the sandals were symbols of protection against sin; the fatted calf was an image of Christ's atoning sacrifice.

Later on a reconciliation between the two sons was inserted. And even a difficult mother-in-law and the popular fool were introduced.

It is no wonder that Dr. Rittersma in his thesis comes to the conclusion (our translation):

This was a tragic development: the biblical story is more and more replaced by one of humanistic-moral character. [1]


All this was accompanied by a growing opposition among the Calvinists. A conflict occurred in Geneva. John Calvin and some of his colleagues decided to give permission to the performing of "Acts des Apôtres", in the year 1546. However, Nicolas Cop, another minister at Geneva, was very strongly against this and even threatened to administer Church discipline. The result was a request made by the ministers to the City Council to give no permission for similar performances any more but to use the money involved for the relief of the poor. The Synod of Poitiers (1560) and the National Synod of Nimes (1572) declared that the Consistories had to warn against these performances. The reasoning of the latter was that they were corrupting good morals and profaning Holy Scripture. [2]

As for today's "biblical drama", we would say: One man's fault is another man's lesson!


[1] Z. Rittersma, op. cit., page 62.

[2] Most of the above given information has been derived from Dr. Rittersma's dissertation.