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Blackfriars Guild Collection

Historical note

The Blackfriars Guild collection details the American Catholic theatre movement from the 1940s into the early 1970s. The Catholic Church in the United States traditionally discouraged its clergy and laity from attending or participating in theatre during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Believed to have corrupting influences, theatre was seen to be irreconcilable with religion. However, with a growing concern for the spiritual welfare of those involved in this art, coupled with a public demand for plays of virtue, the Catholic Actors Guild (1914) and the Catholic Dramatic Movement (1922) were established to repair the rift between faith and theatre. These movements were the forerunners of the Blackfriars Guild.

In 1931, two Dominicans, Father Urban Nagle, O.P., and Brother Fabian Carey, O.P, decided to found their own Catholic theatre, reviving the name of the sixteenth century private theatres in London. The group was based at Catholic University where the two men were studying, but the organization would eventually extend to twenty-two chapters across the country. However, it was the New York City branch, under the direction of Nagle and Carey that was the most widely acclaimed and celebrated theatre of the guild. As a viable off-Broadway theatre, it provided actors, playwrights, and directors both valuable experience and publicity. Moreover, Blackfriars produced original works which were spiritually and intellectually challenging. Although Blackfriars Theatre closed in 1972, the experiment showed that theatre and religion were not mutually exclusive.

The desire for a nation-wide Catholic theatre movement was not limited to Nagle and Carey. In 1936, Fr. Nagle attended the National Catholic Theatre Conference, which was formed for the purpose of bridging the divide between religion, philosophy, and theatre. The Conference operated for thirty years from a permanent office at Catholic University, but in 1941, its official headquarters became the Blackfriars Theatre in New York City.

The Blackfriars Theatre in New York City was founded in 1940 by Fr. Nagle and Fr. Carey. Earlier that year, Nagle had been commissioned to edit Holy Name Journal, which was based in New York. Under the guise that he needed help editing the journal, Nagle convinced his superiors to transfer Carey there as well. At the time, there was a growing concern from the Catholic laity that current theatrical productions were immoral, and they began to express a desire for more wholesome forms of entertainment. Due to this favorable atmosphere, the two friends seized the opportunity to establish the Catholic theatre that they had been dreaming about for over a decade. Nagle and Carey were able to rent the auditorium of a former YMCA located on 320 West 57th Street. The space could seat up to three-hundred and eighty-three people, but because of licensing restrictions, the theatre would eventually reduce the number of seats to two-hundred and ninety-nine.

Fr. Nagle and Fr. Carey wanted plays rich in artistic, intellectual, and spiritual substance, rather than works intentionally trying to avoid censorship. They turned to the Dramatists’ Guild of New York to recruit playwrights and used the Actors Equity Association to provide performers. Since Blackfriars was unable to pay any of their staff, the actors were mostly artists in between work who were willing to act in return for experience and publicity. They also acquired the talents of director Dennis Gurney, who would head the majority of Blackfriars’ plays over the next eighteen years.

The first play that Blackfriars produced was from fellow Dominican, Fr. Brendan Larnen, O.P. The work, “Up the Rebels,” was about the Irish Civil War with historical relevance to the current debate over Ireland’s involvement in the Second World War. The play received rave reviews, commencing a successful first year. Unfortunately, the plays produced the following season that were not as well received, and the theatre had to deal with union strikes that were irresolvable. The conflict led to the blacklisting of Blackfriars by the Actors Equity Association, although the group, unofficially, continued to provide the theatre with actors.

The 1943-1944 seasons added greatly to the prestige of Blackfriars Theatre with the release of critically acclaimed shows such as “Career Angels” and “Caukey”. “Career Angels” became the first play to be picked up by Broadway, although that version did not do as well as the original, and “Caukey” was a socially progressive production which employed the talents of the American Negro Theatre.

Blackfriars Theatre grew considerably from 1945-1952, ultimately conducting shows seven nights a week for four week runs. In 1950, the theatre lost its lease and was forced to look for other accommodations. Franklin Hauser of the School of Radio Technique approached Nagle and offered the school’s auditorium for rent. Nagle agreed, but the move contributed to widening a chasm that had formed between Nagle and Carey.

Beginning in 1950, conflicts over financial matters and management of the theatre arose between Carey and Nagle. By 1952, their partnership had eroded to the point where their superior, Fr. McDermott, was forced to mediate. McDermott ultimately ordered Nagle to become the chaplain at the Dominican Sisters’ Motherhouse of St. Mary of the Spring in Columbus, Ohio, leaving Carey in charge of Blackfriars Theatre.

During the Nagle-Cary conflict, there were no fall productions at Blackfriars. However, upon reopening, it continued to produce at least two shows a year. The Guild began to make a profit for the first time, and Fr. Robert Alan Morris and Fr. Dominic Rover, who had been assigned to help Carey with productions, suggested that they begin to pay their actors and stage hands. Carey was against this idea though because he wanted to save money and eventually build a permanent theatre for Blackfriars. Disagreements between the men also arose over the lack of substantial, and original, scripts. Carey wanted innovative works that were didactic in nature; but, Morris and Rover reasoned that it was more practical to revive old scripts until quality works could be produced. Although, Carey agreed to a trial run of paying actors and using revivals, he ultimately ended both practices. Morris and Rover decided to resign in the face of artistic differences and were sent to teach at Providence College. Despite these problems, the 1950s saw a flourishing of Catholic theatre and Catholic involvement in the arts.

The 1960s witnessed a notable shift in the nature of plays produced by Blackfriars Theatre. Under the sole direction of Carey, the plays were explicitly religious dramas, focusing on the lives of saints or issues of Catholic doctrine. Fr. Larnen continued to write for Blackfriars but was mainly commissioned to generate works based on Carey’s ideas. Other playwrights from this era included Fr. Edward A. Molloy, C.SS.R, Mary Dahos, and Rose Crieco. Unfortunately, these plays never received the commendation that the theatre’s earlier works had, and Blackfriars began to decline in prominence.

Besides the lack of original plays, many other factors led to the demise of Blackfriars Theatre. First, the number of off-Broadway theatres increased considerably during the 1960s, diminishing the image of Blackfriars as a leading experimental theater. Also, in 1968, Vatican II espoused a new role for the Catholic Church in the larger community, effectively removing the need for a separate Catholic Theatre. The National Catholic Theatre Conference subsequently was dissolved after this change. Finally, in 1971, Blackfriars was notified that the auditorium was to be torn down, the same year Fr. Carey was diagnosed with cancer. Long time supporter of Carey, Maureen Martin, formed “Friends of Fr. Carey” with the aim to revive Blackfriars. However, by that time, the need for a Catholic theatre was obsolete, and the attempt failed.

Blackfriars Guild provided valuable experience to producers, directors, and actors; created original works that were theatrically and spiritually stimulating; and showed that theatre and the Church could be reconciled. Moreover, Blackfriars Guild was viewed by the Dominican Order as a source for financing their religious endeavors, and the corporation made substantial endowments to the Province of St. Joseph. The corporation was an instrumental tool in bridging the divide between theatre and faith.

Chronology

DateEvent
1904Thomas Carey born
1905Edward John Nagle born
1929Fr. Nagle writes "Barter," wins first prize in playwriting contest
1930Fr. Nagle and Fr. Carey work together to produce "Barter"
1931Nagle and Carey found Blackfriars Guild
1934Nagle assigned to teach psychology at Providence College
1936Carey establishes the Blackfriars Institute of Dramatic Arts at Catholic University National Catholic Theatre Conference is established
1940Blackfriars Theatre established by Nagle and Carey
1941"Up the Rebels" debuts as first play for Blackfriars Theatre, "Song Out of Sorrow,"
1942"The Years Between," "Savonarola," "Inside Story"
1943"Tinker's Day," "A Man's House," "Moment Musical," "Career Angel," Blackfriars Theatre blacklisted by Actors Equity Association
1944"Caukey," "Earth Journey," "Don't George"
1945"Home is the Hero," "Simon's Wife," "Slice it Thin" (musical), "Seven Mirrors"
1946"A Young American," "Mary of Magdala," "Come Marching Home," "Derryowen"
1947Nagle writes book, Uncle George and Uncle Malachy, "If in the Greenwood," "On the Seventh Day," "Respectfully Yours," "Hoboes in Heaven," "Trial by Fire"
1948 "Lady of Fatima," "Minstrel Boy"
1949"City of Kings," "Shake Hands with the Devil"
1950"Armor of Light," "Angel with Red Hair," Blackfriars Theatre loses lease to 320 W.57th Street auditorium Blackfriars Theatre rents auditorium from School of Radio Technique
1951"Open the Gates"
1952 JanNagle assigned as chaplain to Dominican Sister's Motherhouse of St. Mary Of the Springs
1952"The Restless Flame," "Faith and Prudence,"
1953"Angelic Doctor," "Late Arrival"
1954"Praise of Folly," "Slightly Delinquent"
1955"Bamboo Cross," "Song out of Sorrow"
1956"Age of Grace," "The Comedian"
1957"Two Tales of the Devil: Doctor Faustus and Parade at the Devil's Bridge," "Truce of the Bear,"
1958"The King's Standards," "Child of Morning," "Listen to the Quiet"
1959"La Madre," "The Egotists"
1960"Madame Lafayette," "Shepherds of the Shelf"
1961"Connelly vs. Connelly," "Anthony on Overtime"
1962"My Beginning," "Lady of Mexico"
1963"Decision at Tongo," "Daddy Comes Home," "Eternal Sabbath"
1964"Finis for Oscar Wilde," "The Comforter"
1965"Patrick the First," "Mackey of Appalachia"
1965 Mar 12Fr. Nagle dies from a heart ailment
1966"Consider the Lillies," "Go,Go,Go, God is Dead"
1967"The Man Who Washed His Hands," "The Happy Faculty," "Guimpes and Saddles"
1968"Babes Don't Cry Anymore," "The Ballad of John Ogilvie"
1969 "The Priest in the Cellar," "Reunion of Sorts"
1970"Five Star Saint," "Transfiguration", Fr. Carey diagnosed with cancer
1971"And the Devil Makes Five," "Lib Comes High"
1972"The Red Hat"
1972 May 8Fr. Carey passes away
1975Blackfriars Corporation officially dissolved