Lucy Lethbridge looks at an upturn in the fortunes of the Catholic Stage Guild
OFTEN people comment that there is something theatrical about the traditional practices of Catholicism.
It comes as no surprise to them to learn that John Paul II was once an actor. It might however be more of a surprise to !earn that Catholic priests were not permitted to attend the theatre. Even amateur productions (some of which they had themselves produced) were forbidden by Canon Law. It was not until 1967 that this law was repealed. largely due to the intervention of Cardinal John Heenan. Attitudes like this perpetuated the notion that the stage and drama, as an art form, however erudite the performance, was in some way tainted and disreputable.
Despite such strictures, a guild of Catholic actors had flourished since the nineteenth century. Catholic actors felt it important to be a witness to their Church even where the Church was not legally permitted.
The Catholic Stage Guild itself was founded in in 1911, and its first secretary was possessed of the magnificently theatrical name of Etheldreda St Barbe. By 1920 its membership numbered 2,242.
Membership is now substantially less, but the Guild still thrives, with an annual Mass in Corpus Christi, an annual retreat and a gala concert. The gala has, in the past, involved such Catholic luminaries as the Beverley Sisters, Terry Wogan and Cyril Cusack.
In 1934, however, there was disappointment in store for the Guild's fund-raising play at the Savoy Theatre. The attention of the Lord Chamberlain, not a noted Catholic supporter, was drawn to a technical illegality in the wording of one of the bills and he felt compelled to ban the Sunday night performance.
Membership is not restricted to actors: the brief (and with the emergence of an increasingly expansive media it has enlarged considerably) includes authors. composers, directors, variety artists, musicians, singers, technicians, stage staff and radio and TV personalities.
Fr Columba Ryan, the chaplain of the Guild, sees its rule as one of "bringing together" people who are involved in the business of performance in whatever capacity, and who are also Catholic. He goes on: "When you think of the influence of performers on society's general ethos. then the Church should be shown to be there."
The importance of what Fr Ryan calls "witness of presence" is an aim shared by the actress Patricia Hayes, currently the president of the Guild: "The reason I joined the Guild was because I want everyone to know that I am a staunch Catholic and a firm supporter of the Church."
The Guild remains neutral about the ethical dilemmas that marrying Catholicism and show business must occasionally present. Fr Ryan stresses that: "We don't take a terribly moral line it's a matter of giving them your support and feeling that they belong to the Church."
Patricia Hayes is robustly clearsighted about both her artistic and religious integrity: "If they asked me to be in a play which is one-sided, making Catholics out to be hypocrites, then 1 wouldn't appear in it; hut nudity doesn't worry me in the least, nudity has nothing to do with Catholicism."
There have been many wellknown members of the Guild. such as Sir Alec Guiness, Eamonn Andrews, Michael Williams and Lionel Jeffries. But there are many others who are not such public figures but remain staunch and important contributors to the Guild.
One of the difficulties of the acting profession, as Fr Ryan points out, is that schedules and tours often make it difficult for members to come to meetings. The sense of belonging to such a group can be a great help in relieving the stress of finding employment in a profession that is overflowing with theatrical aspirants.
Patricia Hayes thinks that the guild is having an upturn. There are more members and several of them are converts, like Lionel Jeffries.
She is adamant that for her, as for the others in the Guild, there is ' an eternal Truth. In a profession that is dedicated to acting, the truth must occasionally feel under threat, but she insists: "What you portray has nothing whatever to do with your reality. It seems a pity when people are sidetracked by ideas that are seemingly going to make them more important or happier. Yoga is not the way to Heaven."