Church and Theatre in South Africa

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Theatre by its very nature has its very roots in religious practice, and as many have shown, the Christian Church as well as other religious orders, have always had a close - though not always amicable - relationship with theatre and performance. Besides the fact that a church service is in fact a theatrical event in and of itself, the church has on occasion over the ages made use of the stage to promote its message.

For more on this, see:

The same is true of South Africa, since the Christian church has played a major role in education, cultural activities and even politics over the years. In this entry we consider some prominent moments in history when church and theatre publically supported or opposed each other.

The Anti-theatrical Campaign, Cape Town 1824-1838

The Anti-theatrical Campaign or Anti-theatrical movement which arose in this period apparently had its roots in the Methodist movement in England, but soon linked with other religious communities in Cape Town and other towns.

During the 1820s there were already protests in the press against improprieties in theatre, the first apparently appearing in May 1824, protesting about the uncouth expressions and dialogue in a performance of Schiller's Kabaal en Liefde, followed by an English letter from "A True Friend" in the Cape Chronicle of 27 October, warning about the "very thoughtless unguarded and tremendous imprecations" of one of the actors. (F.C.L. Bosman, 1928: p. 343). In 1826 the first real attack on theatre came in the form of a substantial letter by one "Serieus", which appeared in a well respected journal and commented on the bad influence of the dances and plays being put on by Dutch companies, especially the work of children's companies, and notably that of J. Suasso de Lima, who responded with a pamphlet Iets over het Dansen en Toneelspelen on 1 May 1826, pointing out the long history of drama and theatre and its positive influence.

Thus a series of disputes were set off, and over the next few years various attacks on public indecency, bad education, alcohol abuse and the like became the subject of debate and letters to the press. Other issues raised by the writers and protesters were the abuse of alcohol at performances, inspired by the international Temperance Movement.

The anti-theatrical efforts against all kind of entertainments, Dutch and English, seem to increase from 1830 onwards, fanned by zeal of the Methodist movement[1] active at the time and the founding of The Cape of Good Hope Temperance Society[2] on 28 January, 1832. The latter was a key event which led Charles Etienne Boniface to write his hilarious satire De Nieuwe Ridderorde of De Temperantisten (lit. "The New Knighthood/New Chivalric Order, or the 'Temperantists'/People of the Temperance Movement"), in 1832.

However, the foregoing debate about the merits of theatre was mostly run through public correspondence between 1830 and 1834, with theatres still active and thriving, but in 1835 it turned into a more active and concentrated attack on all entertainments, including balls, card playing, drinking, the desecration of the Sabbath, theatrical performances, and other "obscenities". Among the many plays which were attacked in the process were Othello and She Stoops to Conquer. In turn Bosman also lists numerous serious and satirical retorts to such attacks in this period , in prose, verse and theatrical form.

These attacks and counter attacks reached their most fervent pitch in 1836, inter alia inspired by the anti-theatrical sermons of a certain reverend C. Best in Sheffield, England, reviewed in The Christian Observer and re-published in the South African Christian Recorder of August 1836. The religious attacks had now developed into such a wave of puritanism that it actually led to the closing of The African Theatre and an advertisement of its sale in March 1838. The theatre building and its warehouses were finally sold in 1839, and then advertised as for rent as a venue for lectures courses and so on. Ironically the venue was rented to the Presbyterian church, who converted it into a church for freed slaves, the St Stephen's congregation, with the support of the Dutch Reformed Church. This happened to the disgust of the citizenry, who stoned the building. Hence perhaps the current name: St Stephen's Church, a name first noted from 1847 onwards and is still in use today.

(See also the entry on: St Stephen's Church)

By contrast the Garrison Theatre probably remained open, though inactive, and began advertising productions again two years later, by which time the Anti-theatrical movement appears to have run its course.



F.C.L. Bosman, 1928. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel I: 1652-1855. Pretoria: J.H. de Bussy. [3]: pp. 343-358,

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