religious drama


religious drama
   Resistance to theatrical activity by the Christian church in early America had the effect of keeping overt religious drama to a minimum. However, through the 19th century, Christian values were the unquestioned foundation of most plays, as exemplified by temperance dramas. Plays drawn from biblical sources and other aspects of Judeo-Christian religious history did not appear with any regularity until the turn of the century, although ministers, and the occasional rabbi, appeared as peripheral characters. Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Richelieu (1839), for example, a popular play with American audiences, portrayed the title character, but did not explore religious issues. Other British plays such as Henry Arthur Jones's Saints and Sinners (1895) and Jerome K. Jerome's The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1909) won some acceptance for religious drama, but when playwright Salmi Morse offered The Passion Play (1879), a retelling of Christ's final hours, some Christian clergy fought to suppress it because Morse was a Jew.
   The 19th century concluded with William Young's stage adaptation of General Lew Wallace's novel Ben-Hur (1899), which became one of the most popular plays of the time, perhaps more for its melodramatic components and onstage chariot race than for its religious story. A few other plays with religious themes appeared in the three decades following Ben-Hur, including Hall Caine's The Christian (1898) and Charles Rann Kennedy's The Servant in the House (1908). Religious stories were sometimes presented in pageants, a grassroots form of drama popular in the first two decades of the 20th century.
   The rising Yiddish theatre explored Jewish religious themes in many plays, particularly regarding the tensions emerging between the beliefs of the Old World set against modern American life. After World War I, these concerns filtered into popular theatre, most successfully in Anne Nichols's Abie's Irish Rose (1922), in which the interfaith marriage of a Catholic girl and a Jewish boy tests traditional values, and in Sampson Raphaelson's The Jazz Singer (1925), in which the son of a rabbi chooses a life on the vaudeville stage over the faith of his father. However, these plays, and others like them, did not probe beneath the surface of religious difference. A few notable religious dramas from Europe attracted audiences on Broadway, particularly George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan (1923) and Max Reinhardt's lavishly presented pageant The Miracle (1924), as well as J. Frank Davis's reincarnation drama, The Ladder (1926), which, despite critical dismissal, became one of the longest-running plays of its era. The outstanding American dramatist of the 1920s, Eugene O'Neill, probed Catholic doctrine in several of his plays, most overtly in Lazarus Laughed (1927) and Days Without End* (1934). Religious dramas appeared on Broadway infrequently until the 1960s, after which the profound social changes of the era led playwrights to offer works depicting human striving for spiritual fulfillment and works critical of aspects of traditional religious doctrines.

The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. .

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