There is extant a letter of Bishop Cyprian to Euchratius in about AD 250, and it is all about a master actor who has been converted to Christ and who is asking whether it is alright to stop acting but still teach at a theatre school, as it is his only means of earning a livelihood. Cyprian is clear that the man should also stop teaching theatre, but that the church there should supply his needs until he can find another job, or if this is not possible because of lack of funds, then the man will be financially helped by the church at Carthage. I have transcribed this letter below:
THE EPISTLES OF CYPRIAN: EPISTLE LX.– TO EUCHRATIUS, ABOUT AN ACTOR
TO EUCHRATIUS, ABOUT AN ACTOR.
ARGUMENT.–HE FORBIDS AN ACTOR, IF HE CONTINUE IN HIS DISGRACEFUL CALLING, FROM COMMUNICATING IN THE CHURCH. NEITHER DOES HE ALLOW IT TO BE AN EXCUSE FOR HIM, THAT HE HIMSELF DOES NOT PRACTICE THE HISTRIONIC ART, SO LONG AS HE TEACHES IT TO OTHERS; NEITHER DOES HE EXCUSE IT BECAUSE OF THE WANT OF MEANS, SINCE NECESSARIES MAY BE SUPPLIED TO HIM FROM THE RESOURCES OF THE CHURCH; AND THEREFORE, IF THE MEANS OF THE CHURCH THERE ARE NOT SUFFICIENT, HE RECOMMENDS HIM TO COME TO CARTHAGE.
- Cyprian to Euchratius his brother, greeting. From our mutual love and your reverence for me you have thought that I should be consulted, dearest brother, as to my opinion concerning a certain actor, who, being settled among you, still persists in the discredit of the same art of his; and as a master and teacher, not for the instruction, but for the destruction of boys, that which he has unfortunately learnt he also imparts to others: you ask whether such a one ought to communicate with us. This, I think, neither befits the divine majesty nor the discipline of the Gospel, that the modesty and credit of the Church should be polluted by so disgraceful and infamous a contagion. For since, in the law, men are forbidden to put on a woman’s garment, and those that offend in this manner are judged accursed, how much greater is the crime, not only to take women’s garments, but also to express base and effeminate and luxurious gestures, by the teaching of an immodest art.
- Nor let any one excuse himself that he himself has given up the theatre, while he is still teaching the art to others. For he cannot appear to have given it up who substitutes others in his place, and who, instead of himself alone, supplies many in his stead; against God’s appointment, instructing and teaching in what way a man may be broken down into a woman, and his sex changed by art
- and how the devil who pollutes the divine image may be gratified by the sins of a corrupted and enervated body. But if such a one alleges poverty and the necessity of small means, his necessity also can be assisted among the rest who are maintained by the support of the Church; if he be content, that is, with very frugal but innocent food. And let him not think that he is redeemed by an allowance to cease from sinning, since this is an advantage not to us, but to himself. What more he may wish he must seek thence, from such gain as takes men away from the banquet of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and leads them down, sadly and perniciously fattened in this world, to the eternal torments of hunger and thirst; and therefore, as far as you can, recall him from this depravity and disgrace to the way of innocence, and to the hope of eternal life, that he may be content with the maintenance of the Church, sparing indeed, but wholesome. But if the Church with you is not sufficient for this, to afford support for those in need, he may transfer himself to us, and here receive what may be necessary to him for food and clothing, and not teach deadly things to others without the Church, but himself learn wholesome things in the Church.I bid you, dearest brother, ever heartily farewell.
Some Early Christians thought that Theatre-going was not against the Bible
Although the Church leaders castigated the theatre there were some Christians who argued that if theatre-going was not listed as a sin in the Bible, then what was the harm in going to the theatre with their friends? Tertullian (c. AD 200), a Roman Christian lawyer, answered this problem:
There are certain people, of a faith somewhat simple or somewhat precise, who when faced with this renunciation of public shows, ask for the authority of Scripture and take their ground in uncertainty, because abstinence in this matter is not specifically and in so many words enjoined upon the servants of God. No, we certainly nowhere find it enjoined with the same clearness as; “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not worship an idol,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery” or “fraud”; – we nowhere find it expressly laid down, “Thou shalt not go to the circus, thou shalt not go to the theatre, thou shalt not look on the contest or spectacle.” But we find relevant to this type of thing that first word of David; “Happy is the man,” he says, “who has not gone to the gatherings of the impious, who has not stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilences.”
(Tertullian, The Spectacles, 3)