“LOVERS OF PLEASURE MORE THAN LOVERS OF GOD.” 2 Tim. 3:4
THE Theater is an institution whose character may fairly be judged from its history. This history stretches over a period of about 2500 years, during which time its excellencies and defects, its capacities for good or evil, have had ample opportunity to be developed and observed.
The friends of the Theater have always represented that it could be made a powerful ally of true education, of morality and religion; a place where the young would have the taste refined, and would see the beauty of virtue and the hideousness of vice,—these possibilities I intend to examine, but it is not a Theater which might or ought to be, that you will attend, if you patronize the institution; and the main practical topic to which I shall ask attention is the Theater as it now is, and the character that it has made for itself, through these ages of its history.
The primary characteristic of the institution is best set forth in a motto, which may be read across the curtain of a New York Theater;
“WE STUDY TO PLEASE.”
It is preeminently the place where men go simply to be pleased—the House of Pleasure.
As an institution it is sustained, not to educate, to draw out the powers of body or mind; not to train the muscles like the gymnasium, or the mental faculties like the school, or the moral faculties like the church; not to blend instruction and refinement with pleasure like the fine arts; its sole object, its simple aim is to please, to amuse. It is not intended to educate any faculties of the soul, to make them healthier and stronger for the real duties of life, and so to add something to the permanent stock of human happiness; it professes no such design; Theater-goers would ridicule the very suggestion, but it is to set all these faculties, for a few hours, in a state of pleasurable excitement.
The Theater is a house of pleasure, or amusement, and not of recreation.
The distinction is a vital one.
Recreation, as the word imports, re-creates, renews the man, while amusement (amuser) simply kills his time. Recreation restores the wasted energies by some innocent pleasure, or change of employment; relieves the taxed powers, and allows them time to regain their wonted spring and vigor. Athletic games are thus a recreation for the body, poetry and music for the mind.
A recreation may be abused so as to become a mere amusement, but this is no abuse of the Theater; it is its use, its primary and special design. This is what the public demand of it, and when it fails to amuse, it declines and falls.
When the church ceases to be a place of religious culture, and becomes a place of amusement, we feel that it ceases to be a church. Throngs may crowd thither, but it is not the church-going and church-loving public.
It is an abuse to make the church a place of amusement, but it is no abuse of the Theater.
Let the Theater cease to make pleasure its sole aim, and endeavor to refine and instruct, and we all know that the class of the community on which it depends for patronage would forsake it. Pleasure is all its capital. We see this in the character of its patrons, of the plays, the actors, scenery, music, decorations, and in fact in all the machinery and appurtenances of the institution. All converge to this one point; that play is best as a play, which pleases the most, the actor is most popular, and fills out most truly the ideal of an actor, who pleases most completely his audience.
I have been somewhat diffuse in unfolding this, the central idea of the Theater, that it may be clearly seen that this discourse is not directed against any abuse of the institution, but against the institution itself, when it most completely carries out the plans of its founders, and the expectations of its patrons. Against this, its central idea, we protest in the name of all that is good and true. A man or an institution may lawfully aim to please, but if this be the sole aim, if every thing else be bent to this, that man becomes a very contemptible specimen of human nature, and that institution tramples on the dearest interests of human life.
Aiming to give pleasure, at the hazard of every thing else, taste, truth, virtue, religion; this, the central idea of the Theater, is destructive to man, and dishonoring to God; it curses all who touch it, proprietors, patrons and actors.
The Theater is no place for the invigoration and renewal of the mind, but for exhaustion. It is not designed to restore wasted powers, but to excite, to stimulate, to arouse the passions and stir the blood; and, if it does not do this, it fails to fulfil expectation.
Successful plays[movies] and players[actors] stir their audiences into tumults of riotous passion, and are applauded in proportion as they produce this effect. True, a man may become as excited at a political or religious meeting, as at the Theater, but at such a place the pleasure of the excitement is not the object of the meeting; there is some practical end in view, for which the excitement is a means, and that political or religious meeting is a success in proportion as it achieves this end.
But in the Theater, the excitement itself is the sole end; it is stimulus for the sake of stimulus, a mental intoxication. And, like strong drink, Theater-going operates on the most delicate machinery of human nature, and sets it in a whirl of activity; it exhausts and enervates the most precious faculties of our nature. The play[movie]-goer, like the inebriate, craves excitement; life is tame without them. Play[movie]-going is preeminently dissipation; instead of renewing and refreshing, it dissipates, scatters the energies of the man.
I. As the inevitable result of this, its fundamental idea, the Theater, notwithstanding all the hopes and dreams of its friends, never can become a reformatory institution. Men go there, not to have their tastes reformed, but gratified; and this the play-writer and play-actor ever keep in view. The grand question with manager, writer and actor is, “What will please?” These men do not present themselves before the public as reformers of taste or morals, but as speculators, who agree to furnish a given amount of pleasure for a given pecuniary consideration.
1. The very constitution of the Theater precludes the possibility of its ever becoming an institution of moral reform. Men never would go to the House of Pleasure to hear their faults and crimes rebuked and reproved. Are the twinges of a guilty conscience pleasing? But no man can ever be reformed of any sin, till his conscience is made to feel moral delinquency; and the stage can never be allowed to trouble the conscience. The play[movie]-going public would desert it at the moment it assumed this character. Men may theorize about making the Stage[movie] display the beauty of virtue, and the hideousness of vice, for public reform, but it is a mere chimera; in the nature of things it is utterly impossible. Plays[movies] would cease to be acted the moment that they began to touch the conscience, that is, the moment that they began to do any good.
To the superficial observer many plays[movies] have the appearance of being eminently reformatory in character, because they portray the frightful enormities of some vice or crime. For example, Macbeth displays the dreadful consequences of unbridled ambition, and Othello of unreasoning jealousy. Now in plays like these, which stand at the very head of dramatic literature, in an intellectual and moral point of view, infinitely above the vast mass of matter which is to-day acted on the stage, here, I say, the case could be made out, if at all. Yet, we venture the assertion, that no man was ever made less ambitious by hearing Macbeth, or less jealous by listening to Othello. Shakespeare understood his art too well to level a drama at the conscience. These great plays are written not to the conscience, but to the imagination. Now the imagination may be roused and stimulated to the most feverish activity, by representations of the consequences of vice, without producing the least desire for reform in the heart.
Nothing is easier than for a man to think, when his imagination is thus enkindled, that his heart is glowing with the love of virtue, and hatred of sin; but no greater mistake can be made. The pleasure of the Theater is the pleasure of sense and imagination; to these all its machinery is directed; and the imagination may be in a state of highest excitement, when the moral sense is cold and sluggish, or dead.
During the bloody tyranny of Robespierre, according to Burke, twenty-eight Theaters were in full operation in Paris, and the very men and women, who, night after night, were thrilled with sympathy for imaginary heroes and heroines, jeered and ridiculed the poor wretches daily dragged to execution, and mocked, as heads were carried away by the basketful from the guillotine, while the gutters of Paris ran with its noblest blood. See them at the Theater and you think them tender and compassionate, meet them in the street and you find their hearts like the nether millstone.
2. The same may be said of reforms in taste to be effected by the stage. Plays must be written and acted to please the taste of the mass of pleasure-seekers. Does any body believe that their tastes are pure? Let them be composed in the highest style of art and how would the audiences dwindle! People do not go to the Theater to have their tastes refined, made more correct, or delicate, but to be pleased. An actor who should undertake to dictate to the tastes of his audience, would be greeted with brickbats rather than roses.
But I shall be asked what I have to say to the masterpieces of the drama, which spread such a glory over literature, ancient and modern.
(1.) My subject is not the Drama, but the Theater; and I call special attention to the distinction. I am not speaking against dramatic compositions in literature, but against dramatic representations on the stage, as they are to-day, and have, on the average, ever been. Let no one imagine this a trifling distinction, for some of the very choicest gems of dramatic composition were never acted, and never meant to be. The book of Job is a drama; Plato threw all his philosophy into the dramatic form; but Elihu and Eliphaz, Gorgias and Protagoras would look odd enough on the stage! Comus and Samson Agonistes were never acted, and never intended for the stage, and Paradise Lost was originally projected as a drama.
(2.) And as to the masterpieces of the drama which were composed for the stage, when we compare them with the mass of stage-literature, (if it be worthy of such a name,) they are grains of wheat among bushels, yes, cargoes of chaff. It is as unfair to present these productions as fair specimens of what is brought upon the stage, as it would be to present their authors, Sophocles, Goethe, Moliere, Shakespeare, to the inhabitants of another planet, as fair average specimens of the human race.
(3.) These are not the plays[movies] which the masses of Theater-goers want to see and hear; no Theater in the land could live by giving the public such entertainments, for they would be no entertainments to the average Theater-going public.
(4.) When these first class dramas are performed for the gratification of the best class of auditors, farces must be added to catch the mass who have dozed through the Shakespeare. Besides, it is extremely rare to hear these great plays spoken as they are written; the characters are cut down to fit into a prompt book. This has ever been the lament of all men of taste who have patronized the Theater.
I have thus, I trust, made good my first proposition, that the Theater can never be made an institution for the reformation of morals or taste. From the very nature of the institution this has been shown to be impossible, and history confirms the deduction. Great hopes have been entertained, in almost every age, by some sanguine friends of the Theater, that moral and intellectual productions might displace the rubbish that has occupied the stage, and thus make it a powerful ally of true education. But these hopes have never been realized. There was a time when the dignitaries of the Christian Church used all their influence and power to make the stage an ally of the Christian religion. But they utterly and disgracefully failed. In fact the Theater is never defended by moral and intelligent men for what it is, but for what they imagine it might be, and no one ever pretends to point out any time in its history when this ideal was realized. In fact the history of the modern Theater is, as a whole, a history of its moral and aesthetic decline and fall.
II. I now proceed farther to say that the Theater, as an institution, has been and is degrading to man, intellectually and morally. I am acquainted with the Theater only as I have examined the productions that are popular upon the stage, and much of this stuff I have waded through, as I have the works of blasphemers and infidels, not for any pleasure to be experienced in the perusal, but as a professional duty, as a physician would examine a patient sick with some loathsome disease.
And I say, without the least fear of successful contradiction, that the great mass of productions, which are brought on the stage to-day, are both in taste and morals beneath contempt. No young man or woman can more effectually secure a false taste, than by attending the Theater, and loving to do so. The artificial is mistaken for the natural, mere show, glitter and tinsel for genuine beauty, rant for eloquence, and sentimentalism for sentiment. To please the mass of the patrons of the Theater, the grosser part of our nature must be excited and stimulated, for that play[movie] is a weak, tame failure that does not stir, arouse. A Theatrical audience want to be kept in transports; and what the average of the audience crave, the stage must furnish. Where every thing is sacrificed to effect, this must always be, more or less, true. To produce a sensation, to give a play[movie] a great run, every thing is bent to this; taste, morals, sense, all are brushed aside, like cobwebs, before this idea. Any thing is, in the theatrical sense, successful, whether good or bad, true or false, foul or fair, which will best please the public whim or caprice of the day. In comedy any thing is successful which will keep up a general hilarity. The vulgar mass of pleasure-seekers cannot appreciate genial and genuine humor, their gross nature cannot feel the thrust of a refined and delicate wit, and it must ever be borne in mind that the play[movie] must please them. Hence popular comedy becomes farcical, profane, and sensual. Popular comic performances are largely vulgar and indecent, in expression or sentiment, openly or by innuendo. True religion is ridiculed and held up to contempt in the characters of hypocrites and Pharisees. Reckless boldness and prodigality are all the materials needful to compose a popular hero. Beauty will make a heroine, though she may not have a single trait which renders woman lovely. Virtue is travestied, Christian meekness, patience, humility, are made the butt of ridicule; and, on the other hand, crime is glossed over, thefts, murders and adulteries are mere weaknesses or eccentricities, when perpetrated by these popular characters. Love is the master passion; but it is not the ennobling passion which elevates and refines humanity. The purest stream that bubbles from the bosom of this sorrowing earth, is befouled by the sewers of a loathsome sensuality. The love which generally is represented is simply licentiousness. In fact the lowest passions of poor humanity are fed and fostered at the Theater. Profanity, profligacy, drunkenness, licentiousness will there find themselves apologized for, washed from their filthiness and admitted into decent society; yea, petted, praised and glorified. The confession of Sir Walter Scott is significant and noteworthy, where, in the course of an article which apologizes for the Theater, he remarks as to the contrast between the ancient and modern stage, that the “modern drama, . . . so far from possessing a religious character, [like the Greek,] has, with difficulty, escaped condemnation, as a profane, dissolute and unchristian pastime.”
But the indictment, which I bring against the moral character of average popular plays[movies], will be better understood from a specific illustration. Take, then, the play, which has for some time been drawing vast audiences in all the principal theatres of our land, every where applauded and admired. “Camille” is, in plain language, an elegant and fascinating prostitute. With this woman the auditor is made to sympathize, through all her sin; yes, thousands through all this land have been led to pity, love and adore her. She appears as the victim of circumstances, and of an absurdly virtuous public opinion, compelled to live a life of shame. The crime is thus palliated and extenuated, and eventually, by an absurd and diabolical sophistry, this very crime is used to display the depth and fervor of a lawful love! She is made to plunge to the very depths of infamy, by reason of the purity and sincerity of her devotion to one who is a worthy object of her affection! A woman, demonstrating the purity and heroic self-devotion of her love, by trailing her soul through the foulest corruption that a woman can know, consuming away with the fires of slow disease, fires which are fed by ceaseless profligacy and licentiousness, yet uttering the noblest sentiments and cherishing the purest purposes; the queenly flower growing more and more beautiful as it fades away, till, like an immortal aroma, the happy spirit exhales to heaven! Selfish, foul, adulterous;—pure, heroic, heavenly! Did God ever make such a monster as this? Yet this is the idol which thousands on thousands of our youth are adoring to-day.
Sin is not dangerous when we see its rottenness, when its noisome stench rises to the nostrils; but here we see it wrapt in voluptuous draperies, wreathed in fascinating smiles, charming to the ear, bewitching to the eye, and, most diabolical of all, enjoying the smile of heaven.
Will you patronize an institution which perfumes sin with roses, and crowns it with garlands? All this will sound prudish and puritanic to men and women whose tastes are modeled by the modern Theater.
As to theatrical shows and amusements in other places than the Theater, they may be regarded as preparatory schools for the larger and more expensive institution. Here a taste is formed for this corrupting amusement, which will eventually seek gratification in that great Temple of Sinful Pleasure. I know that it may sometimes be hard to draw the line, for it is often among things apparently innocent that the snares of sin are set. Let our moral nature never be hazarded for the gratification of an hour, though it appear harmless and innocent. Be not anxious to see how near the precipice you can drive.
The general conclusion is unimpeachable. The business is degrading. And as the same general principles have always been at work, the business has had this historic reputation. Plato and Aristotle denounce it as infamous. Pagan Rome deprived actors of all the rights of citizenship. The early Christians would never admit players[actors] to baptism. Even the infidel Rosseau, a man of pleasure, states “that in all nations the profession is dishonorable, those who practise it are despised, and the contempt is strongest where the manners are most pure.” If there be any of you here who have made this the business of your life, I pray you listen to me, as I solemnly and affectionately warn you, that your business is ruinous, destructive to soul and body. I have spoken not in scorn, but in sorrow. Fly from it, I pray you, as from the smoke of the pit.
I need hardly remind you that in these conclusions I am sustained by the sages and moralists of all ages. The ancient philosophers protested against a Theater purer than ours, both in taste and morals. The language of Solon, (contemporary with Thespis himself,) is well known: “If we applaud falsehood in our public exhibitions, we shall soon find it in our contracts and agreements.” The stern lawgiver exiled the founder of the stage from Athens. Socrates and his illustrious disciple, Plato, both vehemently opposed theatrical performances as hostile to morality. Plato’s grand objection is the leading thought of this discourse, that plays are written merely to produce pleasure, and that average men are trained by them to become lovers of pleasure.
In the first ages of the Christian church, theatrical spectacles were well nigh universal throughout the Roman Empire, and the Christians with one voice, protest against them; and traces of that earnest protest are now to be seen in the baptismal vow which every Christian takes to-day. The phrase, “I renounce the vain pomp of the world,” was, as its original phraseology shows, framed expressly to prohibit attendance upon the prevalent theatrical exhibitions. And the fathers of our republic, assembled in Congress in 1778, recorded their reprobation of the Theater, as did the fathers and lawgivers of the republics of old. They earnestly recommended to the several States to take effectual measures to suppress gambling, horse-racing and theatrical entertainments. In October, 1778, they enacted that any person holding office under the authority of the United States, “who shall act, promote, encourage, or attend such plays[movies] , shall be dismissed.” Some seven years ago the following statement concerning Mr. Macready went the rounds of the press, and I have never seen it challenged. Among the rules for the government of his family [in his present retirement.] he has declared, “none of my children shall ever, with my consent, enter the Theater, or have any visiting connexion with actors or actresses.”
Shall I be told that I have no right to make the Theater responsible for these things? I reply, take out the intemperate and licentious from the patrons of the Theater, in our land, and it could not live one season. The modern Theater has always drawn after it this train of abominations.
Some declare that they attend to learn men and manners,—to see special phases of human nature. But pleasure-seekers, who are the main patrons of the Theater, never attend on such philosophical principles as this. Besides, there are other places where a man could see human nature far more truthfully displayed, and, doubtless, could learn much that is valuable, such as gambling saloons, grog shops, jails and penitentiaries. A man who commits some great crime, and gets incarcerated in prison for a term of years, may, doubtless, if he improve his privileges, learn much that is new and valuable, by watching the effect of crime and punishment upon himself and his fellow-prisoners. Yet this information would hardly compensate for certain inconveniences which he would experience while a scholar in this school.
Many, again, go to see for themselves if these pleasures are as intoxicating as they are represented; not willing to be guided by sound general principles, they want to experience the folly of it for themselves. The human soul is a delicate organism to risk in dangerous experiments. The physician tries the effect of newly invented drugs upon dogs and rabbits before he ventures to administer them to the human subject; the chemist does not experiment with newly discovered poisons in his own lungs or stomach, and it is hardly profitable for a man to experiment on fatal errors and mortal sins in the infinitely more delicate and sensitive soul.
I have thus endeavored, faithfully and honestly, to set forth what the Institution is which you must patronize, if you attend the Theater. I could have confirmed my positions by quotations, indefinitely extended, from divines and moralists; but you will observe that the severest things I have said are quoted from the friends and patrons of the stage. Men whom we all respect will tell you that these evils can be remedied, that the Theater can be elevated; I think that I have shown, inductively and deductively, that these hopes are chimerical; but whether I have succeeded in this or not, no one can dispute that the Institution is now such as I have described; and if you attend the Theater it will not be the one that may, can or might be, but the one that is. And this, I honestly believe, is in all our great cities, the one grand “snare of the devil.” The uninitiated are revolted at an abrupt introduction to the grog shop, the gambling den, or the house of the strange woman; the unsophisticated child is disgusted at the coarse vices of the old debauchee; but carry him where the rottenness is covered with silk and crimson, and dazzling with jewels, where the wail of a guilty conscience and the cry of despairing misery are drowned in bewitching melodies; where beauty, poetry and eloquence shall on every side lure him into the snares of the devil, and you may succeed in securing for him a harmonious development of depravity.
Be not deceived; if you are lost, the sin which shall ruin you is not one that looks hateful and loathsome, but alluring and enchanting. Satan’s snare for you is baited with a pleasure that has a charm for you. The way to ruin is not strewn with hideous sights, and echoing with jarring discords—there is no temptation in such a path. Men dance to hell over gardens of flowers, they march thither to delicious music. Oh, love not pleasure more than God. And if, in spite of every warning, you are ensnared at last, do not reproach me that I have failed to do my duty.
Pastor Newhall, ca.1860