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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : V. THEATER-GOING.

Questionable Amusements And Worthy Substitutes by J. M. Judy

V. THEATER-GOING.

WITH drunkenness, gambling, and dancing, theater-going dates from the beginning of history, and with these it is not only questionable in morals, but it is positively bad. Every one who knows any thing about the institution of the theater, as such, knows that it always has been corrupting in its influence. Not only those who attend the theater pronounce it bad, as a whole, but it is frowned upon by play-writers, and by actors and actresses themselves. Five hundred years before Christ, Jew, Pagan, and Christian spoke against the theater. It is stated on good authority that the dissipations of the theater were the chief cause of the decadence of ancient Greece. At one time, Augustus, the emperor of Rome, was asked as a means of public safety, to suppress the theater. The early Christians held the theater in such bad repute as to rank it with the heathen temple. And to these two places they would not go, even to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. Nor has the moral tone and character of the theater improved, even in our day. Dr. Theodore Cuyler, for many years an experienced pastor in Brooklyn, Says: |The American theater is a concrete institution, to be judged as a totality. It is responsible for what it tolerates and shelters. We, therefore, hold it responsible for whatever of sensual impurity and whatever of irreligion, as well as for whatever of occasional and sporadic benefit there may be bound up in its organic life. Instead of helping Christ's kingdom, it hinders; instead of saving souls, it corrupts and destroys.| Dr. Buckley gives this testimony: |Being aware of the fact that the drama, like every thing else which caters to the taste, has its fashions -- rising and falling and undergoing various changes -- now improving, and then degenerating, I have thought it desirable to institute a careful inquiry into the plays which have been performed in the principal theaters of New York during the past three years. Accordingly, I procured the copies used by the performers in preparing for their parts, and took pains to ascertain wherein, in actual use, the actors diverged from the printed copies. They number over sixty, and, with the exception of a few unprinted plays, include all that have been produced in the prominent theaters of New York during the three years now about closing..It is a singular fact, that, with three or four exceptions, those dramatic compositions, among the sixty or more under discussion, which are morally objectionable, are of a comparatively low order of literary execution. But if language and sentiments, which would not be tolerated among respectable people, and would excite indignation if addressed to the most uncultivated and coarse servant girl, not openly vicious, by an ordinary young man, and profaneness which would brand him who uttered it as irreligious, are improper amusements for the young and for Christians of every age, then at least fifty of these plays are to be condemned.|

In the first place the theater leads one into bad company. As a class, the performers are licentious. How can one be in their company, be moved to laughter and to tears and not be contaminated by them? One who has studied the theater tells us that the |fruits of the Spirit and the fruits of the stage exhibit as pointed a contrast as the human imagination can conceive.| The famous Macready, as he retired from the stage, wrote: |None of my children, with my consent under any pretense, shall ever enter the theater, nor shall they have any visiting connection with play actors or actresses.| Dr. Johnson asks the question: |How can they mingle together as they do, men and women, and make public exhibitions of themselves as they do, in such circumstances, with such surroundings, with such speech as much often be on their lips to play the plays that are written, in such positions as they must sometimes take, affecting such sentiment and passions -- how can they do this without moral contamination?| And we would ask, how can persons live enrapt with this sort of thing for hours and hours each week, the year around, and not become equally contaminated, for to the onlooker all this comes as a reality, while to those who are performing, it is hired shamming? Therefore, as the pupil becomes the teacher, so the attendant at the theater becomes like the one who performs. So that to go to the theater is to |sit in the seat of the scornful or to stand in the way of sinners.| |There you find the man,| says one, |who has lost all love for his home, the careless, the profane, the spendthrift, the drunkard, and the lowest prostitute of the street. They are found in all parts of the house; they crowd the gallery, and together should aloud the applause, greeting that which caricatures religion, sneers at virtue, or hints at indecency.| Not only the actors and the onlookers of the average theater are vile, but all of the immediate associations of the playhouse must correspond with it. If not in the same building with the theater, in adjoining ones, at least, are found the wine-parlor and the brothel. It is generally conceded that no theater can be prosperous if it is wholly separated from these adjuncts of evil.

The theater, therefore, kills spiritually and degrades the moral life of the one who attends it. The theater deals with the spectacular. This appeals to the eye, to the ear, and to all of the outer senses. Spirituality depends upon a cultivation of the spiritual senses that Grace has opened up within the soul. Hence, the spectacular is directly opposed to the spiritual. The deep, contemplative, spiritual soul could find little or no food in the false, clap-trap representations of the modern stage. And to find an increased interest here is evidence that one lacks spiritual life, at least deep-seated spiritual life. This is why so many professing Christians are so eager to go to the card-party, to the dancing-party, and to the theater. The inner-sense life of the soul is dead, and one must have something upon which to feed, hence he feeds upon the husks of |imprudent and un-Christian amusements.| And let one who has a measure of spiritual life, instead of increasing it, seek to satisfy his soul-longing by means of the spectacular, of false representations in any form, soon he will lose the spiritual life that he has. And this loss will be marked by an increased demand for the spectacular. The surest proof to-day that the spiritual life of the Church is waning in certain sections, is not so much that her membership-roll is not on the increase, but that professing Christian people are running wild after cards and dancing and the theater. Evangelist Sayles declares: |The people of our so-called best society, and Christian people, many that have been looked upon as active workers, sit now and gaze upon scenes in our theaters, without a blush, that twenty-five years ago would not have been countenanced..The moral and spiritual life of many a Christian has been weakened by the eyes gazing upon the scenes of the theater.| Says he, |The Christian, through attendance upon the playhouse, creates a relish for worldly things, and so spiritual things become distasteful.|

Then, to go to one theater, sanctions all. To have heard and to have seen Joe Jefferson in |Rip Van Winkle,| Richard Mansfield in |The Merchant of Venice,| or Edwin Booth or Sir Henry Irving, or Maude Adams, or Julia Marlowe in their best plays, is to have received a deeper insight into human nature, and a stronger purpose to become sympathetic and true, but who can afford to sanction all that is base and villainous is the institution of the modern theater for the sake of learning sympathy and truth and human nature from a few worthy actors, when he may find all of this as truthfully, if not as artistically, set forth by the orator, by the musician, by the painter, and by the author? It is not cant, it is not pharisaism, it is not a weak claim of Christianity, but it is common honesty, mighty truth, a cardinal and beautiful teaching of Jesus Christ to deny one's self for the welfare of the weaker brother. Let one go to hear Mansfield in Shakespeare, and his neighbor boy will take his friend and go to the vaudeville, and his only excuse to his parents and to his half-taught mind and heart will be, |Well, Mr. So-and-So goes to the theater, he is a member of the Church and superintendent of the Sunday-school; surely there is no harm for me to go.| To the immature mind what seems right for one person seems lawful for another. This is because such a person has not learned to discriminate between what is bad and what is good. Therefore, if the theater as an institution has more in it that is bad than It has in it that is good, rather if the general tendency of the theater, as an institution, is bad, the safe thing for one's self and for those who read one's life as an example, is to discard it entirely.

In view of these facts, no person can attend the theater at all without hurting his influence. The ideal life is that one which gives offense of stumbling to no one. A successful preacher who had an aversion toward speaking on the subject of questionable amusements, when asked what he believed concerning a certain form of amusement, replied: |See what I do, and know what I believe.| It is a glorious life whose actions are an open epistle of righteousness and peace, read and believed and honored by all men.

|Some time ago a gentleman teaching a large class of young men in a Chicago Sunday-school, desired to attend a theater for the purpose of seeing a celebrated actor. He was not a theater-goer, and thought that no harm could come from it. He had no sooner taken his seat, however, than he saw in the opposite gallery some of the members of his class. They also saw him and began commenting on the fact that their teacher was at the theater. They thought it inconsistent in him, lost their interest in the class, and he lost his influence over the young men. That teacher tied his hands by this one act, so that he could not speak out against the gross sins of the theater.|

Those who defend theater-going say that if Christian people would patronize the theater that it would be made more respectable. But over a thousand years of history proves that this principle fails here as it does elsewhere. A Christian woman marries an unchristian man with the hope that he will become a Christian; a steady, sensible woman in all other matters marries a man who drinks, with the thought of reforming him; one associates with worldly and sensual companions, expecting to make them better; but, alas, what blasted hopes, what wretched failures in all of these instances, at least in the most of them! You can not reform vice; you may whitewash a sin, but it will be sin, still. To purify a character or an institution one must not become a part of it by sympathy, nor by association. This is what the psalmist meant when he said, |Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsels of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.| And so it is, that every effort at reforming the theater, thus far has failed. The Rev. C.W. Winchester says concerning the reforming of the theater: |The facts are, (1) that the theater in this city and country never had the support and encouragement of moral and religious people it has now; (2) that the theater here was never so bad. Clearly, if Christian patronage is going to reform the theater, the reform ought to begin. But the grade is downward. The theater is growing worse and worse.| Dr. Wilkinson makes this statement on the question of reforming the theater: |Now the Protestant Christians of New York number, by recent computation, less than seventy-five thousand souls, in a population of a million. Supposing a general agreement among them all that a regular attendance at the theater was at this juncture the most pressing and most promising method of evangelical effort, they would not then constitute even one-tenth of the numerical patronage which the management would study to please.| Dr. Herrick Johnson says: |The ideal stage is out of the question. It is out of the question just as pure, chaste, human nudity is out of the question..The nature of theatrical performances, the essential demands of the stage, the character of the plays, and the constitution of human nature, make it impossible that the theater should exist, save under a law of degeneracy. Its trend is downward; its centuries of history tell just this one story. The actual stage of to-day..is a moral abomination. In Chicago, at least, it is trampling on the Sabbath with defiant scoff. It is defiling our youth. It is making crowds familiar with the play of criminal passions. It is exhibiting women with such approaches to nakedness as can have no other design than to breed lust behind the onlooking eyes. It is furnishing candidates for the brothel. It is getting us used to scenes that rival the voluptuousness and licentious ages of the past.| As never before to-day, has the theater asked for the support of Church members. And the ideal stage, with virtuous performers, and with pure dramas, are held up as a sample of what Christian people are invited to attend. Dr. Cuyler says: |Every person of common sense knows that the actual average theater is no more an ideal playhouse than the average pope is like St. Peter, or the average politician is like Abraham Lincoln. A Puritanic theater would become bankrupt in a twelvemonth. The great mass of those who frequent the playhouse go there for strong, passionate excitements..I do not affirm,| says Dr. Cuyler, |that every popular play is immoral, and every attendant is on a scent for sensualities. But the theater is a concrete institution, it must be judged in the gross and to a tremendous extent it is only a gilded nastiness. It unsexes womanhood by putting her publicly in male attire -- too often in no attire at all.|

|So competent an authority as the famous actress, Olga Nethersole, recently declared that the only kind of play which may hope for success with English-speaking audiences at the present day is the play which is sufficiently indicated by calling it immoral. There is no doubt about it that the theater, as at present conducted, is pulling the stones from the foundations of public morality, and weakening, and in many quarters endangering, the whole structure of society. The atmosphere of the modern theater is lustful and irreverent. It is a good place for Christians to keep away from. It is a good opportunity for the strong man to deny himself for the sake of his younger or weaker brother.|

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