D. R. Thomason, 1831
"Is there no stage-play,
Whoever has engaged in the investigation of this subject, under the influence of enlightened judgment and liberal feeling, will have found that it is attended by circumstances which perplex the inquirer, and demand of him patience, caution, and candor. If the present object were merely to strengthen either of the opposite prejudices which already exist in reference to the stage, the task would be sufficiently easy; but to produce conviction in the minds, both of the advocates and opponents of theatrical amusements, and thus to destroy their differences, is an arduous enterprise, in which partial success, at most, can be anticipated.
The difficulty is occasioned by the wide diversity of the general sentiments, maxims, and feelings, which exist between the contending parties; so that it is not easy to select any common ground in the argument, where the point in debate may, with mutual satisfaction, be fairly adjusted. With a view to this difficulty, the present discussion will be pursued. The position will, of course, on all sides, be admitted—that an essential property of virtue is benevolence. In every rightly constituted mind, a desire for the well-being of our fellow-creatures inherently resides. To promote the growth of this principle, and suitably direct its operations, forms an important part of moral culture. The benevolent man will feel it his duty, according to opportunities, to employ himself in the amelioration of human suffering, and in the advancement of general happiness. Every measure which he sees adopted, which has obviously this design and tendency, will meet his approbation, and, if possible, his support; and whatever has plainly an opposite tendency will receive his discountenance and opposition. In cases where both good and evil are the result of any measure—he will carefully balance them, and sanction, or discountenance, according to the preponderance of one or other of these qualities.
Some valuable assistance, it is presumed, will be derived from these remarks in the present difficult inquiry. Both the advocates and opponents of the stage will, perhaps, be willing to submit theatrical amusements to this suitable test. If after close and impartial inquiry, a greater amount of good than of evil is apparent—there is no reason, why a verdict in favor of the stage should not be pronounced. But if the process supplies an opposite result, the contrary opinion cannot be withheld. That both good and evil are the result of theatrical amusements, will not be denied.
Its professed benefits may be divided into intellectual and moral. To withhold from the pleasures of theatrical performances their claim to intellectual character, would betray either a total destitution of taste for the pleasures of intellect in general, or a most unwarrantable prejudice against theatrical pleasures in particular. It must, however, be conceded to the opponent of stage amusements, that this advantage has been often considerably overrated. The representation of a play, it is maintained, combines many advantages, which are not common in private reading of a book of drama. The aid of the senses is secured; the dramatic performance is in living characters; appropriate and impressive scenery is supplied; the powerful effect of the living voice is added; the representation of the actor, who is supposed best to understand the play, affords a comment on the book; the spectator has correct conceptions sanctioned, new ones supplied, and erroneous ones corrected.
In its application to a certain class of people, the truth of this statement is altogether unquestionable. It is easily conceived that people who are unaccustomed to efforts of thought, would derive considerable assistance from a stage representation, in their attempts to embrace the mental pleasures of a drama. With relation to minds of an opposite character, the benefit is less obvious. The acknowledgment has not unfrequently been made by people of thought and imagination, that the purest intellectual pleasure is found in reading a play—and not in witnessing its performance. The fact admits satisfactory explanation. In reading the play, the characters and scenery presented are ideal. and consequently perfect; in the representation both are sensible imitations, and are therefore defective. The reader of a play is allowed the free exercise of the creative faculty, and he can give the people and scenes introduced, a form best adapted to his taste and feelings. The spectator, on the other hand, is entirely dependent on the actors. The former enjoys the cultivation of his own mind, the latter suffers from the imperfections of the representation given.
In reading a drama, the spirit of the text is sometimes mistaken or lost—but this evil oftener happens in the representation. The best actors frequently fail, and the inferior performers are perpetually subjecting the spectator to this cause of vexation.
Conceive an individual introduced, for the first time—as the spectator of one of our most celebrated dramas. Suppose him to be familiar with the play; that it is his favorite one; that his imagination, at once powerful and correct, has furnished the scenes with its best creations; that he has studied the beauties of the production, and that both his imagination and heart have drunk deeply into its spirit. He gains admission to the theater, and takes his seat among the spectators. The magnificence and splendor of the building, the display of beauty and fashion, the gaiety and bustle of the scene, give their corresponding emotions to his mind. At length the tumult ceases, and the whole spectacle is one of silence, order, beauty, and grandeur. The first scene of the play opens to his anxious gaze; his first impressions are all that he could wish, and he yields to the illusion, which is almost complete. As the piece advances, however—he suffers disappointment. The imperfect, though well attempted representations of the scenery of the drama; the defective acting of the subordinate performers; the frequent indistinctness of the speakers, so often interrupted by the clamors of senseless admirers and personal critics. The violence which, in a thousand ways, is done to the exquisite and perfect conceptions of his imagination, every moment force themselves upon his mind, in opposition to his favorable prepossessions, and his honest conviction at last will probably be, that whatever may be the sensible gratification derived from the representation of a drama, the higher order of intellectual pleasure is to be found in its private perusal.
The purely mental pleasure supplied by the representation of a drama, after all these reductions, is still considerable. In witnessing the imitative powers of a good actor, an intellectual mind must receive gratification of no inferior description. The genius displayed is certainly of a high order, and, as a triumph of human skill, his exhibitions cannot be contemplated without admiration and delight. Good acting, like a good painting, must be studied by the lovers of art with a high degree of interest. The inferiority of the imitation to the original is, in both cases, admitted; but the success of the copy affords gratification. Beside, an actor is an instructor; he assists to read the productions of the dramatist, discovers new beauties, and increases the interest afforded. Add to this, the exercise of the critical knowledge of the histrionic art, canvassing the merits of different actors, the interest felt in the success of a favorite performer, the pleasurable excitement of mind which is hereby supplied—and the stage will be already invested with innocent attractions sufficiently powerful to obtain, from many, approbation and support.
The moral benefits of the stage next demand discussion. The theater has often been styled "the School of Morals." This lofty designation, however, meets with strong opposition from the objectors to the amusement. They reply, if good morals are taught at the theater, how can it be accounted for, that it is so much the resort of the notoriously immoral? How is it, that while numbers have dated their first entrance upon the paths of vice—from the time they commenced attendance at the theater, so few have by it been reclaimed from moral error, and restored to virtue and happiness? If the object for which theatrical amusements are instituted, is to advance the interests of virtue and morality—then why are there any exhibitions allowed, directly subversive of the end? What is the meaning the immoral sentiments, the doubles entendres, the profane expressions, and the unchaste images—with which many of our most popular dramas abound? Would either virtue or vice be ever invested with the garb in which they are frequently presented on the stage—if the honest design was to exhibit the loveliness of the one—and the deformity of the other? Can anyone sincerely believe, that to raise the standard of virtue, and to form the public character on that sacred model—is the end which it either accomplishes or contemplates.
It is scarcely sufficient to reply to these pointed and pertinent inquiries, that many dramatic compositions introduced on the stage, embody in them much moral and instructive sentiment. The question is still urged—why are they not exclusively of this character? The mixed nature of stage representations furnishes for the opponent a powerful argument. He contends, that thoroughly to purify the drama, and to render it the channel of perfect moral sentiment, would be injurious to the interests of the stage, and, threaten indeed, its total destruction. The fact, he maintains, has been clearly ascertained, and is generally acknowledged, that the class of people by which the theater is principally supported, is too low in its morals and vitiated in its taste—to relish, or even to tolerate the amusements of the stage, under those restrictions which the friends of virtue would wish to impose.
To deny that many who frequent the theater are virtuous, both in their taste and habits, would at least be uncharitable. On the other hand, truth would be endangered by the assertion, that the mass of a stage auditory is composed of such characters. The theater, in every age of its history, has been the haunt of the licentious and profane. Some may attend this place of amusement for the purpose of intellectual gratification, to pronounce on the merits of the performers, or to dispose fashionably of an idle hour; but the majority, it is to be feared, is attracted by other and more harmful motives.
As one evidence of the correctness of this statement, reference has been made to a committee report of one of the royal theaters, from which it appears, that when a proposition was made to exclude certain immoral females from the play, in compliance with the wishes of many people, who on account of such admissions were compelled to withdraw their sanction, the measure was overruled, under the conviction that, if adopted, the institution could not be supported. If this statement is correct, the inference is legitimate and unavoidable, that the class of people on whom stage-managers depend for support, is principally that whose morals are corrupt; and consequently that a virtuous taste does not generally pervade a theatrical assembly. How, then, could the stage undergo such a modification as would render it subservient to pure morality? It must of necessity adapt its exhibitions, to the prevailing taste of its supporters; as they "who live to please—must please to live."
The discussion of the question, whether the stage is susceptible of such a modification as would render it an instrument of public good, is a needless task, inasmuch as the object of the present inquiry is simply this—What is the moral tendency of theatrical amusements, as they are now conducted? The question, however, is neither difficult nor uninteresting. A remark or two, therefore, may with propriety be offered.
In its present state, it has already been affirmed, the theater is the creature of popular taste, and must ever remain so, while it depends for its support on public favor. Were its object strictly to communicate intellectual and moral instruction, blended with harmless recreation, would it then receive requisite approbation and support? Admitting that the theater were under such regulations, as that "a man might go to —as he goes to church, to learn his duty," would it be sufficiently frequented? The question, it is presumed, can hardly create hesitation. The leisure of the Sunday, together with the force of habit and a sense of religious duty, are sufficient to secure general attention to the public duties of religious devotion. But could a theater secure adequate support from people disposed to go to it "to learn their pious duty?" Amid the present taste for speculation, one wonders that the experiment has never been made; or is the project too chimerical and ridiculous for the wildest mercenary adventurer to embrace?
In proportion to his ignorance, man is the creature of his senses, and is dependent on them for the conveyance to his mind both of ideas and impressions. What he sees and hears—he will best understand and feel. The stage, therefore, properly conducted, would possess considerable advantages for the instruction and improvement of many. By interesting their attention and moving their passions—it would open avenues, both to their minds and hearts, which remain closed against the more sober and direct modes of instruction. It would have a power peculiarly its own, to lessen their ignorance, to polish their crudeness, to soften their barbarity, and refine their sensuality; as well as to elevate their taste, to warm their affections, and to raise them in the scale both of intellect and morals.
The establishment of a national theater, of free admission to the lower classes of society, and expressly adapted to their moral improvement, is a project not unworthy of the attention of our legislators. A distinguished senator has said, "Give me the making of the stage-plays of my country, and I leave anyone to make its laws." Will not this remark, in some measure, apply to theatrical amusements? The advocate of the stage will probably suggest, that of late years the drama has made considerable moral advances. Without questioning the fact, his opponent demands, whether the circumstance is to be traced to a disposition on the part of those who conduct stage performances, to lessen the moral evils attending their exhibitions, or to motives of another and inferior character? In the face of facts already stated, he pleads the liberty to inquire, whether financial policy, rather than principle, may not have suggested the favorable modification.
On comparing the public morals of the present day with those of some preceding periods, an opinion, in some respects favorable to the former, must doubtless be pronounced. The general diffusion of education, combined with other causes, has given to the public mind a comparative refinement of feeling, which, if it does not bring popular moral taste into positive alliance with virtue, yet places it at a distance from the grosser qualities of vice. The channels of impure passion, if still broad and deep, are less exposed; the public mind, if not less sensual, is more imaginative; gross desires are modified, if not destroyed; and vice, therefore, most successfully creates excitement, not in its native form—but under a specious disguise.
Such a modification in public taste, demands a corresponding change in stage exhibitions; they would otherwise fail of their end. Qualities which were once in unison with public taste, would now be uncongenial; they would repel sooner than attract, and disgust rather than fascinate. Whether these observations correctly mark the points of dissimilarity between the present and past moral character of the stage, and assign the true origin of the change it has undergone, must be determined by the judgment of the candid reader. If the opinion is correct, it will be evident that, in its relation to public morals, the stage is precisely the same—that instead of reforming the world, it has been reformed by it; that it is a mere creature of the public, implicitly submitting to its control, and forming a sort of moral barometer, by which the atmospheric state of public taste is duly ascertained.
Another circumstance in the present history of the stage demands attention. Within the last few seasons, the most distinguished, and least exceptionable productions of our great Dramatist have obtained the highest degree of popularity. The friends of theatrical amusements regard this fact as indicative of a progression, both moral and intellectual, in public taste. The legitimacy of the reasoning is questioned by their opponents. It falls, they argue, to the lot of the present conductors of the stage, to command, in the department of tragedy, talent of distinguished pre-eminence. Some of the tragedies of Shakespeare are unquestionably masterpieces in this class of dramatic compositions, and must, therefore, invariably invite the attention of actors who command, in so high a degree, the genius necessary to the successful performance of these admirable and difficult dramas. While this elevated order of talent exists, the present taste for the best specimens of tragedy may remain; with its decline their popularity will probably cease.
The benefits, both intellectual and moral, which are usually ascribed to theatrical amusements, have, it is presumed, been fully and fairly canvassed; it is time that attention should be directed to the evils of which they are productive. Indirectly this object has, in part, been already accomplished. It has appeared, that although many people may frequent the theater with an innocent object, yet that more are led there by opposite feelings. If virtuous people find gratification in the play-house, wicked people find it also, and the amusement must partake of some qualities corresponding with their inclinations. The theater, as a place of resort for characters congenial with his taste, becomes attractive to the individual immorally disposed. His wicked propensities are there supplied at once with excitement, and with facilities for gratification. But these circumstances, it may be said, are concomitants merely, and ought not to be confounded with the system of stage amusements itself. Such a distinction, however, can be of no importance in the present discussion; for it must be admitted, that they are inseparable concomitants, and they ought, therefore, to be included in the list of objections. If these evils are common to every popular amusement, then they are all liable to objection, and unless they appear to supply a counterbalancing weight of good, they must be pronounced indefensible.
The evil circumstances of theatrical amusements cannot, with justice, be denied. Their number and their weight—it will be impossible to estimate. How many, within the ensnaring precincts of a play-house, have met with occasions of sin, having entered with the express purpose of finding them; while others have been unexpectedly surprised by their temptation! How many workings of unhallowed passion have been felt, which would never have operated—but for the excitement which this scene of guilty fascination has supplied! How many deadly acts of sin would never have been perpetrated—but for the facilities which have here been afforded! How are evil practices here multiplied, and formed into inveterate habits! What momentum is given to the evil bias of the heart! What impetus to sinful desires! What acceleration to the advances of impiety! What aggravation of guilt, and accumulation of misery are occasioned! What havoc of happiness has here been made! How many a flower of virtue, once fresh and fair, has been plucked by the hand of the destroyer, robbed of its charms, and thrown away like a worthless weed! How many a youthful foot has here been drawn aside from "wisdom's ways of pleasantness and peace," and conducted to those regions of infamy and woe—where "entering her house leads to death; it is the road to hell. The man who visits her is doomed. He will never reach the paths of life!"
That the picture thus presented is the production of sober reason—and not of rash imagining, will be readily admitted by all whose knowledge of facts renders them competent to form a judgment. Perhaps there will be scarcely a reader of these pages, whose recollection cannot furnish him with, at least, a solitary illustration of its truth. Could every such instance be recorded, and collectively exhibited—who doubts that the report would appall the heart of the most strenuous advocate of the amusement, and supply to him an overwhelming proof of its incalculable mischief? Would not the catalogue present many, who once were industrious, frugal, and honest—until, by developing a taste for theatrical pleasures—they became idle, dissipated, and worthless? Many who once were industrious, frugal, and moral—until, by developing a taste for theatrical pleasures—they became idle, dissipated, and worthless! Many, whose wanderings from virtue's paths have been wide and irrecoverable, are compelled to identify the first step which led them astray—with this scene of temptation! Many are forced to confess, that here they first pressed to their lips that fatal chalice—to which enchantment had given at once—both fascination and destruction! Many a virtuous person, a gallant bark on life's wide ocean, whose moral course was faultless—until the bewitching melody of the syrens, which inhabit this moral vortex, allured them to shipwreck and death!
If, then, the labor of collecting materials to supply the balance against the advantages of stage amusements were here suspended, the point in debate would by no means be left undecided. A vast preponderance is already discoverable. The theater may afford a degree of innocent pleasure and useful instruction—but these benefits are more than counterbalanced by the great moral evils which it produces. It would be difficult to adduce one instance, in which some unfortunate wanderer from virtue's paths has, in the theater—this "school of morals," received a beneficial lesson, which has won him back to the path of wisdom and piety. But this concession avails nothing, while so many instances of an opposite character are presented to notice.
But another evil of considerable magnitude yet remains. Theatrical amusements have hitherto been viewed in relation to the spectators; it is necessary, further, to consider them in their relation to the performers. At what expense to others his pleasures are procured, is an inquiry which every benevolent man will deem necessary. If he is convinced, that those who undertake to supply him with gratification, are unable to perform their task without injury to themselves, obviously greater than his enjoyment—he cannot, with any pretensions to benevolent character, engage their services. This position requires no proof.
That man, for instance, who can take delight in the barbarous pastime of bull-fighting, or cock-fighting, is destitute of the common morality of a human mind, and is placed on a level with the brutes, whose ferocious passions he studies to provoke! That person, moreover, who can be the voluntary and gratified spectator of those barbarous combats, which have lately so disgraced our country—sinks himself, if possible, yet lower in the scale of being! He is capable of deriving amusement from a spectacle, which exhibits his nature in its most degraded and disgusting form—its noble powers, both physical and mental, shamefully prostituted, and, in short, an immortal being forming and maturing, with frightful rapidity—a character for perdition!
In their relation to the well-being of those who are employed to supply the gratification, theatrical amusements demand examination. It cannot be denied, that stage performers are in many respects, an unfortunate class of the community. Some of them, it is true, have been raised into popularity and wealth; but amid all the attempts which are made to invest the profession with attributes commanding respect—it still appears, in the eyes of the sober part of mankind, pitiable and contemptible. So inseparable, indeed, is this feeling from the profession—that very few people, who occupy stations in society even of ordinary respectability, would wish that an intimate relative should devote himself to a theatrical life—whatever success or advantage might be anticipated. Whence originates the unfavorable association, which is invariably connected with this mode of life, it may not be easy to state—but the fact is indisputable.
Nor must this injury, which stage performers invariably suffer—be lightly estimated. A desire for the esteem of others is a powerful and valuable instinct of the human mind—and it cannot be destroyed without immense injury, both to happiness and virtue. A godly reputation is a blessing of inestimable worth. It is not bestowed by the capricious hand of fortune; it is least of all, subject to her control. It stands aloof from the circumstances of birth, education, and wealth. It is the gift of that gracious Being, who "is no respecter of people," and is placed equally within the reach of the rich and the poor, the learned and the illiterate, the elevated and lowly. It dignifies the humble, consoles the destitute, and soothes the sorrowful. To lower an individual in the scale of social worth, to sink him in the esteem of others, or in his own esteem—is to inflict on him an irreparable injury.
To the female performers, these remarks apply with peculiar force. In the introduction of this gender upon the stage—a practice peculiar to the modern drama—what violence is done to female character! The phenomena which the nature of the gender exhibits, plainly prove—that woman is intended to occupy the secluded walks of life. Her disposition, habits, and talents, unite to designate her the object of private regard—not of public attraction. To force her into the public is to injure the delicacy of her character, and brush away the hue of its beauty. The delicate respect which she is accustomed to inspire is, by this means, destroyed; and even while the display of the charms of her person, or powers of her genius—may secure her the raptures of applause—she suffers humiliation, rendering her the object alike of pity to others, and of reproach to herself.
But this is not the greatest injury to which stage performers are subject. The profession, from its very nature, exposes the moral character to imminent peril. The habit of assuming a fictitious character is injurious. The character personated is often a wicked one; harmful effects, therefore, necessarily follow. So close a contact with vice, and indeed identity with it, cannot be safe. Familiarity with vice, it is universally admitted, weakens its power to repel and disgust!
"Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
The actor, in personating bad characters, must direct his thoughts into an objectionable channel, nourish evil dispositions, and become, in fact, for the time—the wicked being he describes. Nor is there any countervailing advantage supplied by occasional personifications of virtuous character. Of this he is deprived, in considerable measure, by the native bias of the human mind to moral evil—rather than good; and the greater facility with which vice communicates its properties.
In real life, the imitation of an evil example is easier than that of a good one, and so it must be in the fictitious world. The habit, moreover, of impersonating other characters, has a necessary tendency to destroy what is native and genuine. The moral evils of a theatrical life are abundantly exhibited by fact. Stage-performers are notoriously immoral. In most instances, perhaps, virtuous character has been destroyed previously to their introduction to this mode of life; but to the nature of their profession, the associations they form, their facilities for wicked indulgence, the powerful temptations to which they are exposed, and above all to the loss of self-respect, which forms so firm a support for virtue, must be undoubtedly ascribed their fixedness in evil principle, their difficulties of restoration, their excesses in dissipation, and their almost inevitable ruin.
The baneful influence of theatrical amusements on the moral character of the performers, supplies a powerful additional argument against this species of gratification. Christian benevolence not only forbids us to become the instrument of others' ruin—but it requires us to use exertion, as occasion may serve, for the prevention of self- inflicted injury. He would be guilty of his brother's blood, who willingly supplied the suicide with the instrument of self-destruction, or who neglected the occasion of preventing the rash design.
Without further, therefore, protracting discussion, a decision as to the lawfulness of stage amusements may be safely pronounced. If the instituted test of their character is legitimate, if the reasoning adopted is not totally defective—the conclusion must inevitably involve a negative. The evils of which it is productive, decidedly outbalance its advantages; and for the same reasons that any system, obviously injurious to society, requires to be discountenanced, theatrical amusements cannot be sanctioned. Ingenuity may doubtless invent many plausible arguments in support of an opposite verdict, as well as entangle the reasoning by which the present conclusion is obtained; inveterate prejudice may oppose, and voluntary skepticism doubt; but we mistake, if the candid and conscientious inquirer has not obtained satisfactory evidence and perfect conviction.
The argument has been constructed on a basis, to which none, who embrace the first principles of ethical truth, can possibly object. The question is not—whether the amusement may be indulged in by any individual without immediate moral injury to himself; whether he may not be in such a degree armored against the attacks of temptation, as to stand in no peril from its advances; whether his virtue may not be so much confirmed, as to render harmless an occasional encounter with vice; whether he may not possess in such perfection the faculty of moral discrimination, as to be able accurately to separate the evil from the good, and have his virtuous principles so fully in exercise, as promptly to choose the latter, and reject the former.
These inquiries are rendered both impertinent and useless. The position has been made secure, that on the whole, the stage is injurious to society; that it is a moral engine of mischief. He, therefore, who acknowledges the obligations of benevolence, and who feels himself bound to consult, in his pursuits, the interests of mankind, is reduced to the alternative; unless he opposes his principles to his practice, of either denying the preponderance of evil attending the stage—or withdrawing from it entirely his approbation and support.