'Some ran away, others jumped from the windows or hid in dark places.' This is how an Elizabethan audience reacted to devils on the stage, but Fr J. H. CREHAN, SJ, asks 'Were they devils or a group of Jesuits intending to out-devil the actor-devils?'
The popularity of William Blatty's film "The Exorcist" makes one wonder if the modern audience is more sophisticated than the Elizabethan. One remarkable event of that age was the appearance of real devils among the Lord Admiral's players when they were putting on a comedy involving a stage-devil.
This was in 1586, some years before Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," and the comedy was staged only once. The story is told in an Italian newsletter, preserved at Mantua, and it certainly gives rise to wonderment. It is told thus: "One of the principal gentlemen of London decided to have performed in a great hall of his palace a comedy in splendid style. Many of the nobility were invited to the performance on April 24 of a comedy that mocked at the Catholic faith.
"In it a priest dressed as a Magnifico and a cleric dressed in the part of a buffoon were to celebrate Mass at an altar, and when they came to the elevation of the host, an actor dressed as a devil was to come and snatch the host from the hand of the priest.
"All took place as it had been rehearsed, and when the actordevil appeared with much fury on the stage, he was just about to snatch the host, but was anticipated by a crowd of real devils which came through the murky air and carried off the Magnifico, the cleric. the actordevil and other actors in the comedy.
"This caused great alarm and terror in the spectators, what with flames, smoke, stench and
noise, so that everyone was beside himself. Some ran away, others jumped from the windows, or 'hid in dark places, while some started fighting among themselves. The Queen issued a strict prohibition that no one in the whole realm was to talk about the affair . . ."
This event of April 24, 1586, cannot have been a performance of "Dr Faustus", as Marlowe was probably still a student at Cambridge then and the English version of the Faustus story was not printed until 1592. Some memory of the incident survived and found its way into the attacks on the stage by Puritans.
In 1633 Prynne spoke or "the visible apparition of the devil on the stage at the Belsavage playhouse in Queen Elizabeth's days, to the great amazement of both actors and spectators, when they were profanely play
ing the 'History of Faustus'." Prynne had this story by hearsay and it is clear that his informants were not too accurate about the play.
What is more to the point is the nature of the event itself. Were real devils involved? One might be tempted to think that some of Campion's young men, organised by Fr Robert Persons and Thomas Pounde, had heard of what was intended and had burst into the theatre to out devil the actor-devils, and with great success.
The ficrce Elizabethan statute against Jesuits and seminarypriests was just about a year old at the time, and a parody of the Mass might have been thought good propaganda for the Government, which it was worthwhile for Catholics to over-trump by a sudden attack on the play at the critical moment.
The year 1586 was also the year of the exorcisms carried out by Fr William Weston, S.J. He was arrested on August 3 of that year and had been active for the space of two years, taking part in a number of exorcisms.
Weston was a holy man of sound judgment. By his own account he cured one man of delusions about possession by more or less forcing him to make his confession, but at other times he did exorcise.
Some of his feats were reported to the Privy Council, especially the fact that once a devil had asked Weston's permission to take possession of the Queen when he left the present sufferer. Weston refused. Then the devil threatened to enter Weston, who replied: "Yes, if God gives you leave." But the devil thought better of it.
Fr Weston was more prudent here than Blatty's Fr Karras, who said to the devil: "Take me." If he had said the devil could attack Queen Elizabeth, he would have been on a charge for witchcraft. If he said, as Karras did, "Take me," he would have handed over control of his mind to the devil.
With all this rumour of possession about in England of 1586, it was an obvious propaganda device to have a stage-devil attack a priest. But what the counter-stroke was, human or diabolical, at this distance in time we cannot know, even though it was promptly reported by an Italian, writing from Calais, who met some of the fugitives from the theatre.
In the first restoration of Catholicism under Mary Tudor there had been attacks on a priest saying Mass, carried out by Protestant fanatics, including one at St Paul's at the moment of the elevation. Thirty years later some memory of it may have inspired the play about devils, for in the decay of religion which had taken place in those 30 years, it cannot be denied that much superstition had crept in.
The practice of exorcism was not confined to Fr Weston, and while one cannot be sure that real possession was involved (for it is impossibleao judge the signs of possession, such as abnormal strength, strange languages or communication of secrets, at this distance), it is clear that contemporaries were very much affected by the outbreak and there were obviously some cases of hysterical pseudopossession.
Qnc would dearly like to know what young Shakespeare made of it all (he was then 22). The devils in his own "King Lear" are reminiscent of it all.