Jesuits who brought life to our theater arts | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Fr. Henry Lee Irwin, SJ

Years ago, Father Irwin was about to give his talk to Assumptionistas having their retreat. White-haired, lean with sharply defined profile and penetrating eyes, Father Irwin stood motionless on the aisle of the chapel.

Suddenly he wobbled, his face became ashen and he clutched his chest, writhing in pain and falling flat on the floor face down.

The girls panicked, horrified.

“Father is having a heart attack!” one girl gasped.

After a short commotion, Father Irwin quickly stood up, looked at the audience and said with a twinkle in his eyes, “My talk for this morning is about death and how it comes like a thief in the night.”

A flair for drama is second nature to Father Irwin. I was lucky to see him perform snippets from a Shakespeare play when I was a sophomore at the Ateneo de Manila in the 1950s. Father Irwin taught us rhetoric and English drama.
His credentials as an actor, stage director, priest and teacher left me in awe.

A young man before his ordination as a Jesuit, he was part of a stock theater group in the US. Among his coactors was John Barrymore who became the most famous Shakespearean actor in theater and film in America. The Barrymores—John, Lionel and Ethel—were considered the first family of thespians in America in the roaring ’20s.

In 1933, as a young scholastic assigned in the Philippines, Father Irwin quickly rose to fame when he directed “Julius Caesar” and “Damon and Pythias” for the Ateneo Dramatic Guild.

After the liberation in 1945, Father Irwin resumed producing and directing Shakespeare’s plays amid the Ateneo ruins. In this setting, Shakespeare came to life: “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Othello,” “Merchant of Venice” and “Julius Caesar,” all staged with Ateneo students playing male and female roles.

Father Irwin brought dramatics down to the student level when he initiated “Dramatic Evenings” in the Padre Faura gymnasium where all the plays were produced by students themselves.

The most exciting assignment I got was when he asked me to memorize Mark Anthony’s speech after the assassination of Julius Caesar. It began with, “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” I had to deliver it in front of the class.

Father Irwin coached me all along to bring out my attempts at Shakespearean flair. It was, I remember, exhilarating especially after your nervousness had vanished.

Years later, when I was in London with my family, I visited the Globe Theater where Shakespeare staged most of his plays in the 15th century. Globe Theater was circular, made of hardwood with balconies all around. The seating arrangement was designed to make the audience feel intimate with the players.

Shakespeare wanted closeness and the connivance of audience with the plot.

We sat mesmerized. The cast played parts from Shakespeare’s play as if we were actual witnesses to the drama. The exaggerated acting style was meant to communicate every facial expression, eye contact and body language, with the audience, from the front all the way to the last rows of the Globe Theater. The stage actors and actresses were acting just like Father Irwin. It was the same Shakespearean acting style he taught us.

In his old age, Father Irwin created and tended a rock garden beside the Jesuit faculty house.

In his honor, Ateneo built the Irwin Theater near the grade school compound.

Fr. James B. Reuter, SJ

Father Reuter is probably the most admired and loved by a huge youth segment, past and present, which has the talent and potential for the arts—be it theater, music and rhetoric, including athleticism.

When he died a couple of years ago, many felt he was irreplaceable.

As a freshman, I caught a first glimpse of Father Reuter rehearsing for his plays in the auditorium. He usually wore a white cotton shirt that fit his well-defined upper body. He looked like Marlon Brando in the movie “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

I joined the famous Ateneo Glee Club and was exposed to Father Reuter’s type of discipline: practice, practice, practice.

But the fun began when the curtains opened before an audience, with Father Reuter conducting, eloquently drawing from all of us the sweetest voices to render our songs.

There was more fun when we were called to do a road show, traveling to any town in Luzon, where schools and parishes needed the Glee Club to raise funds.

In his more than 70 years of living in the Philippines, Father Reuter set a high record of prodigious work on stage, TV and in radio productions. He pioneered TV telecast with “Cyrano de Bergerac” in the early ’50s. He staged many of his original plays, one-act plays of Ateneo students, and many works of famous playwrights, musical operettas—from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Cole Porter and Gilbert and Sullivan.

In his many productions, he taught talented boys and girls how to act and produce all kinds of stage, TV and radio productions. Through the arts, Father Reuter touched the lives of many who worked with him in the field of entertainment.

In spite of his fame and flair for dramatic arts, what I admired most from Father Reuter was his excellent dedication to his priesthood. As a retreat master, he gave a talk that was always attention-getting, going straight to the heart with clarity and conviction. As a father confessor, he was gentle and full of forgiveness.

He celebrated the Mass in the most fervent and respectful manner. His homilies were classic.

Most of all, Father Reuter was a doctrinal priest. Obedient to his vow as a Jesuit. Obedient to the teachings of the Catholic Church Magisterium.

Father Reuter officiated in my marriage and I could feel the fecundity of his sacerdotal magic as sanctifying grace was showered on me and my bride. He kept in touch with us while we worked on our careers. As always he was friendly, caring and very Christlike—the good shepherd.

Years before he died I told him, “Father I think you are a saint.” He blushed and begged off: “Oh no, Minyong, I’m only a sinner.”
Well said, just like his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis, who when asked why he was chosen Pope, said, “I am a sinner.”

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