The New York Times
24 August 1879


  It is the opinion of many people that the theatre is totally depraved. They admit that such a thing as a moral and innocuous theatrical performance is conceivable, but insist that no such performance has ever taken place. Such people are, however, now in a way to have their conception of a moral theatre realized, and it is certainly to be hoped that the result will prove satisfactory to them.

   A few months since the Rev. GEORGE MACDONALD, a combined novelist and minister, of the Scotch Presbyterian variety, undertook the mission of providing the British public with a pure theatre. With the aid of his wife, his numerous children, and a few personal friends—presumably deacons or Sunday-school Superintendents—he is now exhibiting in the principal cities of England a grand spectacular entertainment in the shape of a dramatized version of "Pilgrim’s Progress." The dramatis personae are all persons of the utmost orthodoxy; and the cast is chiefly as follows: Christian—with real pack—Mr. MACDONALD; Christiana—with song—Mrs. MACDONALD; Apollyon—with songs—by an eminent and pious member of the Scottish Bar; Great Heart—with clog-dance—Deacon MCPHAIL; and Giant Despair, seven feet three inches, by a converted giant from a well-known profane circus. The piece is mounted with great attention to realism. The "Slough of Despond" is a careful reproduction of a New-York street as seen by Mr. MACDONALD in his recent visit to this country; "Vanity Fair" is a lifelike picture of a London charity fair; and Giant Despair’s castle, with real dungeons, where the jailers torture the wretched prisoners by reading to them Mr. MACDONALD’S novels, is as picturesque and effective as anything in the "Black Crook." Perhaps, the most popular scene in the whole play is that in which Christiana’s two boys—Master’s DONALD and FEARGUS MACDONALD—undergo a visitation of genuine colic in consequence of over-indulgence in real grapes. The grapes are from a vine in Mr. MACDONALD’S own back yard, and the agonies they inflict on the youthful stomach nightly bring down the house. With the exception of on occasion, when the stage carpenter mixed the "Slough of Despond" too stiff, so that Christian stuck in it and had to be pulled out, with the loss of his boots, by Apollyon and Greatheart, the play has run with great smoothness. Such a play, presented by such actors, is as moral as an old-fashioned New-England fast-day proclamation, and the dramatic critics of the weekly religious press speak of it in the highest terms. Mr. MACDONALD’S patrons regard his enterprise as containing the promise and potency of a "purified stage," and there is beyond questions a wide different between the dramatized "Pilgrim’s Progress" and such loathsome pictures of vice and immorality as the worldly theatre presents to us in "Hamlet" and "Macbeth."

   Stimulated doubtless by the example of Mr. MACDONALD, an enterprising minister of Chicago has organized an evangelical theatrical company, called the "Church Circle," with the aid of which he proposed to play "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" and other moral dramas in the meeting houses of the great West. Mrs. STOWE has written a letter expressing her warm approval of the enterprise, and this endorsement of Lady BYRON’S alleged opinion of Lord BYRON and his sister. The advertisement of the "Church Circle" speaks confidently of the religious character of its members. The stage director is a man who has had large experience in directing Sunday-school festivals, and we are assured that "the personator of Uncle Tom is a conscientious Christian." Moreover, a great number of "eminent ministers of the North-west" are asserted to have given a hearty approval of the purpose and methods of the "Church Circle," so that even the most skeptical person must concede that the enterprise is a purely moral one. To what particular denominated the reverend manager belongs we are not told. We can merely assume, from the fact that his entertainments are to be given only in "churches," that he is not an Episcopalian, inasmuch as that Church has a perverse belief that its consecrated church buildings in some way different from circus tents, and hence will not permit them to be used except for ecclesiastical offices.

   As will be noticed, the organizer of the "Church Circle" has advanced a step beyond Mr. MACDONALD. The latter limits himself to the production of one strictly religious play, and does not care in what kind of building he produces it. The former intends to reproduce a variety of popular dramas, and to depend for the religious reputation of his enterprise upon the piety of his actors and the fact that he produces his plays only in "churches." Of the two methods, the latter is evidently the most promising, since it has a wider range, and will probably become the more popular.

   There is, of course, no reason why the "Church Circle" should confine itself wholly to the legitimate drama. An evangelical circus would probably draw extremely well. If Mr. TALMAGE were to engage in the double capacity of clown and trapeze performer, the worldly circuses would be compelled to strike their tents for lack of patronage. There is also the field of opera bouffe. Mr. BEECHER is still very popular in the West, and were he to be engaged to play Barbe Bleue he would be a powerful attraction, and even those who have a prejudice against him as a minister would feel that he was at last the right man in the right place. The "Church Circle" might even produce a sanctified "Black Crook," with devout demons and none but strictly evangelical legs among the ladies of the ballot. A clerical minstrel troupe, with Mr. FULTON as "middle man," MESSRS. TALMAGE and BEECHER as "end men," and Mr. MURRAY as clog-dancer would be a mine of fortune to its manager, and even that savory play, the "Assommoir," which failed when produced here by worldly actors, might prove successful with a Sunday-school teacher as Gervaise, a deacon as Coupeau, and a theological student as Lantier.

   In one respect the "Church Circle" has greatly improved upon Mr. MACDONALD’s plan. Its entertainments are to be opened and closed with prayer. There is only one improvement that could be suggested, and that is that during the first entr’acte a brief sermon from the text which speak of the people who strain at gnats and swallow camels might be preached with excellent effect.