Dramatic Arts

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The 1959 and 1989 articles reflect very different views; read them in the context of their times.

1959 Article

The Mennonites of Europe and America originally rejected the theater completely as "a worldly amusement," and most of the Mennonites outside of Europe still did in the 1950s. The Waterlander group of Dutch Mennonites gave up their opposition to the theater quite early, and Joost van den Vondel, the noted Dutch poet and dramatist, was a deacon of the Waterlander Church in Amsterdam 1616-1620. Jan Theunis, a member of the same congregation, kept a kind of amusement place, a combination of theater, museum, and wineshop, which was frequented by many Mennonites. By the end of the 18th century the Lamist Mennonites of Holland took full part in the Amsterdam amusements including the theater. In Northwest Germany the opposition to the theater faded out in the 19th century as was the case to some extent in West Prussia and the Palatinate, though not in the congregations in the Badischer Verband. In Baden, France, Switzerland, and Russia, opposition to the theater was maintained in the 1950s.

In North America the ban on the public theater was maintained in most groups in the mid-20th century. In the General Conference Mennonite group there was no ban in the strict sense although attendance was not widespread and was frowned upon. Exceptions were made in some groups regarding attendance at the opera, Shakespearean plays, etc. The ban on the theater was usually extended to the commercial motion picture theater when it arose. Although the ban was not always strictly maintained, attendance at commercial movies was generally frowned upon at that time.

No known case of a Mennonite entering the profession of acting had come to public notice by the 1950s. The Anabaptists who had formerly been participants in the drama guilds in Holland known as the Rederijkers dropped out of such groups when they were converted to Anabaptism (e.g., David Joris).

The performance of dramatics in Mennonite schools and colleges, once banned or frowned upon, had come to be common in most Mennonite colleges by the 1950s, though not in some of the schools of the Mennonite Church (MC). Youth groups in some congregations in some Mennonite bodies, e.g., General Conference, frequently put on plays with religious or ethical content. It has been quite common to include dialogues and playlets in Christmas programs given by Sunday-school children.

A number of Low German folk plays were written by Jacob H. Janzen and Arnold Dyck which were frequently performed in Mennonite schools and communities.

The literary materials written by American Mennonites giving the grounds for the Christian's opposition to the theater, as well as sermons and addresses on the subject, have generally stressed the following points: the low ethical quality of many plays, the association of the commercial theater and its actors with low standards of morality in many places, the insincerity of "acting a part," the temptations to worldliness connected with either the drama or the players, a general opposition to commercialized entertainment and amusements. Very little has actually been published by Mennonites. Among the brief tracts or booklets in this field should be mentioned: Paul Erb, The Theater (1928), and C. F. Derstine, Hell's Playground, Theaters and Movies (1921). -- Harold S. Bender

For a report on the Anabaptist and Mennonite theme in dramatic literature, See: Literature, Mennonites in -- Netherlands, Literature, Mennonites in -- United States and Canada (English)

1990 Article

After three centuries of near silence, dramatic works and theatrical enterprises among Mennonites have flourished in the 20th century. Mennonite playwrights have written on a diversity of subjects in a variety of dramatic styles. Commercially successful plays have been written about the Anabaptist and Mennonite experience, and Mennonites have ventured into theater education and theatrical professions. Prior to this century, Mennonites with an interest in drama would participate in folk dramas (recitations and games at weddings and holidays) or they might affiliate with and become advocates for other religious traditions (Joost van den Vondel).

The biblical play has been of recurring interest to Mennonite playwrights. In general, these scripts have offered reflections on the ethical questions presented in the biblical account. Some explore the biblical "commandment" motif vis-a-vis morals and discipleship, while others investigate the ambiguities contained in the narratives and parables.

Peter N. Hiebert, One and two-act plays for Christmas (1944), includes "Salvation is at Calvary" and "The Wise Men seeking the Christ." Warren Kliewer has written "In the Beginning Was Eve" in Azazel (May 1966), "The Prodigal Son" in Moralities and miracles, "Seventy times seven" in Religion theatre (1977), and "The wrestler." Urie Bender's To walk in the way (Scottdale, 1978) is a series of episodes based on the Gospel of Mark. Lauren Friesen has written "Abraham and Isaac" in Faith and art magazine (1972); King David (Pinchpenny Press, 1984, MA thesis); and "The eagle and the dove," a Ph.D. dissertation on the writing of the fourth Gospel. Earl Reimer also focuses on Old Testament themes with Ten miles to Jericho (Samuel French, 1978) and Joseph (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987). John W. Miller authored God's search for man and Judgment and hope (Newton, 1972) which contain short plays based on the Old Testament. The Bible speaks (1974) is a one-act drama by William Gering that articulates a salvation history hermeneutic.

The earliest reference to an Anabaptist and Mennonite in drama is in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist (1610). The Anabaptist preacher in this play is a fiery orator with a strong moralistic and anti-intellectual flavor.

Urie Bender, 1980s
Source: Mennonite Reporter photo

Mennonite history and other historical subjects have captured the attention of Mennonite playwrights. Plays have frequently been commissioned to celebrate historical events. Ruth Unrau wrote Large idea for a small college (1952) for Bethel College's 75th anniversary and for the 100th festival, Lauren Friesen penned House of God (1987). Urie Bender's Tomorrow has roots (1974) was produced by Bethel College for the centennial of the coming of Mennonites to Kansas from Russia. Bender has also written historical dramas for the anniversary of Zürich Anabaptism (1525/1975), an untitled play about Conrad Grebel, and This land is ours, for the 150th anniversary of Amish immigration to Ontario. Chasing the wind (1974), a musical by Lyle Preheim and Lauren Friesen was produced for General Conference Mennonite Church sessions. Goshen College produced Caesar van Arx's play about the Swiss Anabaptist, Brothers in Christ (1962). The Mennonite World Conference commissioned Merle Good to write These people mine (1972) and Robert Hostetter to write Cheyenne Jesus buffalo dream (1978). We are pilgrims (1960) by Maynard Shelly reviewed Anabaptist history for the General Conference Mennonite Church sessions.

Scene from Mennonite Bicentennial outdoor pageant, 1986

Historical plays have been written for purposes other than institutional festivals or anniversaries. Many of these plays are "thesis" plays in that they address an ecclesiastical, ethical, or theological problem and present a solution. Jack Braun's The Anne Barkman story (1974) focuses on the Russian Mennonite migration in the 20th century. James Juhnke and J. Harold Moyer of Bethel College collaborated on Blowing and bending (1975), a historical play on the crises of conscience among Mennonites in Kansas. John Ruth's Twilight auction (1966) examines the issues which ensue when a Mennonite Harvard student brings home a friend who is uninformed about Mennonite practices. Lucille Kreider's The friendly way (1961) explores the theme of peace. William Gering's I must go (1961) examines a young man's response to the draft. Cornelia Lehn's The bridge (n.d.) also explores peace themes. Di Brandt and Esther Wiebe's The Bridge (1974) portrayed a Mennonite community's response to a German Mennonite's decision to marry an Englishman. Confessions of an Anabaptist ringleader (1975) by Leland Harder is a one-character play on Conrad Grebel. Esther Wiens has written Sanctuary (1986) about the plight of Latin American refugees.

Playwrights with little immediate experience with Mennonite heritage have written commercially successful plays, musicals, and an opera on Mennonite themes. Giacomo Meyerbeer composed Le Prophete, an opera in five acts (1880). The Swiss playwright, Frederich Dürrenmatt, wrote Es Steht Geschrieben (1943), then revised and re-titled it as Die Wiedertäufer (1968). The play explores the Münster Anabaptists' rebellion of the 1530s, and hints at that episode as a "foreshadowing analogy" to Germany of the Third Reich, namely, that which was anathema to German culture in the 1530s (Münster) became its national identity in the 1930s. Georges Rousseau's Le Drama Anabaptists, also about the Münsterites, was produced in the 1950s.

From "Collected Works: Arnold Dyck"
(Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society)

Comedies and farces by Mennonite playwrights have been produced with some regularity. Yet, the comedy form has been explored by very few Mennonite writers. Arnold Dyck's farces, Dee Fria: Plattdeutsches Lustspeil, Onse Lied en ola Tiet, and De Opnaom (1940s), continue to entertain Low German communities. Marie Regier's one-act But mother (1940) was the first English-language comedy by a Mennonite. Other comedies include Warren Kliewer's A bird in the bush (1962), Round the cherry tree (1962), A trial can be fun if you're the judge (1967), Half horse, half cockeyed alligator, how can you tell the good guys from the bad guys (1975), and Madame Cleo here, at your service (1970). I. Merle Good pursued the comic form with some of his plays: Isaac gets a wife, A lot of love, Sons like their fathers, and Today Pop comes home were produced by Good Enterprises.

Commercially successful comedies about Mennonites and Amish include: Patterson Green's Papa is all (1942) and John Rengier's, By hex (1953), which makes the "hex" into a social ritual which determines the fate of many community members. Joseph Stein and William Glickman collaborated on the Broadway musical, Plain and fancy (1954), which is a revelry in song and dance.

The tragic form has received even less attention. Warren Kliewer's The Berserkers (1975) and Anne Chislett's Quiet in the land (1983) are the best examples of this form. The latter work, by a Canadian dramatist, portrays the personal and community pain in shunning a member for choosing military service and thereby threatening to compromise the nonresistance principle. It received the Governor General's Literary Award in 1983 and was produced by the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Blythe Festival (Ontario).

The form of dramatic realism--theater as reflection of life--is also nearly absent from Mennonite writing. This genre requires a trust in the ability of the story to contain meaning. Frequently, the attempts to write in this form have resulted in an emphasis on the rhetorical and didactic. The examples which overcome this tendency and stand as valid realistic dramas include: Warren Kliewer's Sacrifice to virtue (1970) and This stubborn soil (1973); I. Merle Good's Strangers at the mill (1969) and Who burned the barn down? (1970); and Rudy Wiebe's As far as the eye can see (1977). The last line of Wiebe's play illustrates the "slice of life" intent of realism plays, "We have listened to you, and we have understood you. Thank you."

Theatrical expression began on Mennonite college campuses shortly after their doors opened. At Bethel College (Kansas) there were recitations, skits, and pantomimes performed at the weekly literary society meetings in the 1890s. Theatrical productions began in the 1940s. At Goshen College, the literary societies sponsored play readings and performances shortly after the founding of the college, and full productions of plays, under the direction of Roy Umble, began in 1954 upon the completion of an auditorium in the Union Building. Fresno Pacific College has a unique outdoor amphitheater. All Mennonite colleges in North America now offer theater seasons.

The General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Central Committee have both sponsored playwriting and producing "teams." A drama project in the 1970s produced nine one-act plays and skits for worship: Thanksgiving; Twelve becoming; Changing faces, Say it, Amos, Peter's denial; At desert's edge; Zacchaeus; The Prodigal Son; and Job. A touring drama project in the 1980s, sponsored by MCC, developed skits which focused on Christian service and global awareness themes. They were published in one volume as Learning as we go.

Professional theater artists with Mennonite roots emerged in the 1960s. Karl Eigsti, a set designer in New York, acknowledges his Mennonite heritage and its influence on his life (cf. Arnold Aronson, American set design. (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985, p. 39). The 1987 Stratford Theatre Festival season (Ontario) included the production of Intimate admiration by Rick Epp. In Secaucus, N.J., Warren Kliewer has been director and playwright for the East Lynne Company, a residential and touring troupe. His recent productions include: The politician outwitted and The yellow wallpaper.

Professional theater companies have been founded in four geographical locations. In the early 1970s, I. Merle Good was the manager of Good Enterprises, Inc., which produced plays in summer stock near Lancaster, Pa. During the 1980s three companies emerged: The Mennonite Repertory Theatre in Winnipeg, Man.; a theater troupe in Brussels, Belgium, organized by Stephen Shenk, which produced, among other works, Savonarola; and in Goshen, Ind., Bridgework Theater, Inc. began to produce plays about sexual abuse, drug abuse, and spouse abuse.

Two master theses on Mennonites and drama have been written: William Gering, "Mennonite attitudes toward theatrical enterprises" (Indiana U., 1961); and Jack Braun, "Mennonite plays and playwrights and the Mennonite theme in dramatic literature in the United States" (U. of Kansas, 1968). -- Lauren Friesen

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Lauren Friesen
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and Lauren Friesen. "Dramatic Arts." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 9 Aug 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dramatic_Arts&oldid=156630.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and Lauren Friesen. (1989). Dramatic Arts. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 9 August 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dramatic_Arts&oldid=156630.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 1129; vol. 5, pp. 245-246. All rights reserved.

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