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W.H. McCabe, S.J., Introduction to Jesuit Theater

Factlet first posted on February 8, 2009

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

This posthumously-published D. Phil. dissertation, defended at Cambridge University (UK) back in 1929, provides abundant information and rich insights for scholars of French baroque theater and opera. True, it focuses on the English college at Saint-Omers; but like most things jesuit, the evidence about the theatrical productions given at Saint-Omers applies to the Society as a whole. Thus McCabe's Introduction provides a solid base from which to explore Marc-Antoine Charpentier's David et Jonathas. Especially useful is Part III, on Jesuit tragedy.

A brief summary of the book follows:

This is a posthumous edition (by Louis J. Oldani, S.J.) of the doctoral dissertation that William McCabe completed at Cambridge University, UK, in 1929. Owing to his subsequent responsibilities in the Society of Jesus, Father McCabe never finished final revisions, and the manuscript lay nearly forgotten until two decades after his death, when the Institute of Jesuit Sources decided to make the study available to the public.

Eight decades after the thesis was written, the materials are as fresh and meaningful as they were back in the 1920s.

Part I deals with "The Jesuit Theater" and discusses Jesuit collèges, the rise of Jesuit theater in the late sixteenth century, the purpose of the theater, the people involved both actively and passively, the plays themselves, and the place that Jesuit theater occupies in the history of drama. (All of this sounds pretty routine ­ just the sort of thing one finds in Boysse or Lowe on Louis-le-Grand, for example. But it is far from routine, because Father McCabe relies on a variety of Latin sources.

Part II focuses on the Society's English collège at St. Omers and the plays performed there. Part III presents Father Joseph Simons, St. Omers' early-seventeenth-century playwright-teacher, and scrutinizes his five surviving tragedies. Particularly meaningful ― especially for musicologists who want to understand the implications of the texts that Marc-Antoine Carpenter set to music for the Jesuits from the mid-1670s on ― is the chapter entitled "The Jesuit Tragic Principle," where the tragedies are placed in the broader context of Jesuit theology. Other chapters provide specific evidence about how the Jesuits represented the hero of a play, how (if at all) they portrayed females, the messages conveyed by the chorus (and the ballets!), the use of dumb shows and plays-within-plays, the role of miracles and marvels in Jesuit theology, and the influence of Seneca upon Jesuit theater.

In writings about Marc-Antoine Charpentier's David et Jonathas ― or about his work for the Jesuits in general ― have I overlooked citations to McCabe's book? Or have musicologists overlooked McCabe? As I worked my way through this book, I kept saying, "Yes, that is in David et Jonathas! Ah, that's what it means!"

True, on the surface, the book seems to be restricted to St. Omers college, in the Artois; but to ignore McCabe's work on those grounds is to misunderstand the Society of Jesus and how homogenous and deeply rooted it was, across Europe as a whole. For example, McCabe points out that, within a scant few years, a specific Latin play might be performed in a college in Spain, in France, or in Eastern Europe. To emphasize this point, he begins Part III of his book as follows:

"From our study of the theater of the English College of St. Omers, one of the smaller Jesuit schools in a minor town, we have been enabled to gather an idea of what was happening during the seventeenth century in the whole system of the Jesuit theater [my italics], nearly all of whose centers were greater, many of them situated in much larger towns. (p. 133)

In short, a very important study exists that ― in our discussions of the music woven into theatrical productions at Louis-le-Grand during the 1680s and 1690s ― will permit us to go beyond continually regurgitated citations from books about the Parisian college: Emond, Boysse, Lowe, Dainville, and so forth. Indeed, the libretto of David et Jonathas only takes on meaning when viewed through the theological glasses that Father McCabe provides for his readers in part III.

There is, of course, much new work on the Jesuits, and I have not kept abreast of it all. But it seems to me that this book should be an essential tool for any musicologist working on Jesuit rhetoric and music, be the work secular or be it devotional. It is devoutly to be wished that this tool be taken out of the closet and that it henceforth occupy a prominent place among our basic reference books. It can be purchased at: