The Theater

William Walters
March 21, 1878
 

(William Walters was the pastor of New Park Street Chapel, London, from 1851 to 1853)

The following sermon was preached to my own congregation, in the ordinary course of my ministry, without any thought of publication. At the earnest solicitation, however, of numerous friends who heard it, and who believe it will prove useful in a printed form, I have consented to commit it to the press.

"Some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, also sent a message to him, begging him not to risk his life by entering the theater!" Acts 19:31

As a great public institution, exercising a wide and powerful influence over general society, the theater fairly comes within the scope of observation and criticism. In the past, as well as at the present day, widely different opinions have been formed as to its character and tendency.

It has been upheld by some, not only as a source of amusement to society but also as a great moral teacher worthy of support for its usefulness in the cause of truth and goodness. By others, it has been regarded as one of the chief agencies in the spread of immorality and crime! It has recently been presented to the inhabitants of this district, by one of its ablest and wisest friends, as deserving the endorsement and patronage of even the most pious part of the community. But, like every other public institution, it may be regarded from more standpoints than one. The view I take of it, and in which I shall endeavor to present it to you, is the view in which it has been regarded, in all ages, by a very large proportion of the best and wisest of mankind. What that view is, you will see as I proceed. I beg to offer, at the outset, a few explanatory observations.

First, in anything I may say hereafter, I must not be understood as passing judgment on mere dramatic composition. With that I can have no quarrel. Truth may be taught by that mode, as well as by any other and sometimes more effectively than by any other. The dramatic faculty is implanted in man by his Maker; and some of the noblest efforts of the human intellect some of the most precious treasures of genius and goodness have been presented to the world in dramatic dress. We find prophets and other inspired men employing this style in the Old Testament Scriptures; and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself clothed some of His most touching and impressive instructions in this garb.

There can be no just reason, as it seems to me, for disapproving of the public reading of dramatic compositions; neither do I see anything wrong in the recital, or acting of them if the moral tone is not evil and the influence is elevating and pure. I am not going to deal with an imaginary institution but with one in actual existence one that has existed with the same character and influence for long ages past. It will be time enough to discuss the merits of a purified theater when such an institution becomes established in society; for the present, we will look at the theater of the nineteenth century of the Christian era.

What have the friends of the theater to say in its favor? It is said, that it is necessary as a pleasing entertainment a national amusement. I am not here to condemn all amusement; it is one of the needs and demands of our nature; and if men will not yield to the claim human nature, in some form or another, will be avenged. Neither body nor mind can work on forever, without relaxation. A bow always bent will lose its spring. It is for the interest of individuals and communities, that proper time and attention be given to recreation. But the character and influence of the recreation, are to be taken into account. Food is good but the quality of it is essential to health. Water is a blessing but it is not safe to drink at poisoned streams. Air is necessary to life but if you inhale fatal gases, you will die.

Our amusements should be of a nature to relieve the body of weariness, or the mind of care; to purify our affections, and to send us back to our lawful duties with a buoyancy of soul, that shall better fit us to fulfill our calling, and honor our God. If this is the true end of amusement, I do not see how we can seek it in the theater!

The theater has come down to us from a remote antiquity bearing the reputation of a evil character. This is a simple matter of history. I enter not now into the philosophy of the fact; but, on the strength of overwhelming and ever-accumulating evidence I assert it, without fear of contradiction.

It has been said that the theater has claims upon our support as a friend of genius; as an upholder of a correct standard of language; as a great intellectual teacher. If I felt constrained to admit that these representations in their fullest extent were true, I would still maintain that the benefits were not a sufficient compensation for the moral injury and loss sustained! But I cannot accept these representations, without deducting from them a large drawback.

In the case of exceptional plays and exceptional actors they may be correct; generally speaking, they are not. Our great prose writers and poets are not dependent on the stage for their fame. Judging from the analysis of plays and the critiques on actors which appear in the press, it is evident that, to a large extent, the higher efforts of genius are disregarded; and that those who seek their mental nourishment at the theater are fed very much on trash. If you wish to familiarize yourself with genius, to improve your mind, to polish your style then read our best authors. Let a man acquaint himself with the descriptive powers of old Chaucer; the ten thousand creations of Shakespear; the sublime conceptions of Milton; the delicacy and grace of Mrs. Hemans; the sympathy with nature which pervades the poetry of Wordsworth; the quaint wit of Thomas Fuller; the skillful word-painting of John Ruskin; the fervid imagination of Mrs. Browning; the wealth of metaphor to be found in Jeremy Taylor and Edmund Burke; the classic purity of Robert Hall; the profound thought of John Foster; the grand rhetoric of Lord Macaulay; the lofty appreciation of all that is noble and manly and true which is everywhere apparent in Tennyson. Let a man acquaint himself with these, and he will never be under the necessity of resorting to the theater to stimulate thought, or to cultivate taste and style.

Then, we are urged to accept the stage as a great moral teacher. We are told that the foibles of society are corrected by its comedy, and that its tragedy softens and purifies the heart. It is commended by some of its friends to the Christian Church, as a preacher of righteousness as a great auxiliary in the work of spiritual reformation to which the Church is called by God. As a speculation or theory, this may sound well; but, as a serious and practical measure, it cannot for a moment be entertained. There may be solitary instances of a purified and, therefore, somewhat pure stage; but one flower does not make a summer. The exception only proves the rule. I do not know what the theater may be in some future age. In the millenium it may be one of the institutions for the maintenance of the moral health of society; but this I know, that at present it is associated with all that is corrupt and corrupting in the community! Within the walls of the play-house decency is too often violated, and the worst passions are fed and fostered! By the majority of good men, in past ages and in our own time the stage has been considered an adversary, rather than an auxiliary to truth and goodness.

Look at the principle on which pieces are too often selected for representation. Are they chosen with a view to improve the moral character and refine the taste of the audience? Or, with a view of becoming popular and drawing large crowds? Undoubtedly, with the latter view. A writer on this subject in the Eclectic Review, who knew what he was writing about, for although he was a minister of the gospel at the time he wrote yet he had been for years on the stage, and knew all the ins and outs of theatrical life, said, some years ago, "It does not matter what the subject, how gross the language, or pernicious the moral just so that brings money to the coffers. Whatever else its merit, if a piece does not prove popular it is shelved at once! Talk of the theater leading the public morals! The reverse is the truth. Whatever the patrons choose to pay for managers are always willing to provide."

Hence, frequently the plays that are acted on the stage are embodiments of unsound and pernicious sentiments. Among the least objectionable of modern plays, are those of Sheridan Knowles. Mr. Knowles gave up writing for the stage, and abandoned all connection with it, some years before his death; spending the latter part of his life in preaching the gospel. Some of his plays however are, I believe, still performed. Even these exhibit ungovernable affection, gross hypocrisy, and duplicity towards parents without condemnation.

Until very recently, the great plays of Shakespeare have been seldom performed. An effort has been made, it is true, to revive them in the present day; and it has been attended with a measure of success. But, on the whole, it is sensational tragedies, full of fraud and lust and jealousy and intrigue and revenge and murder it is these, and comedies and farces of the lowest description which draw crowded houses, and bring down thunders of applause!

It is pleaded that the public and not the stage is answerable for the character of the drama. It is said that those who live to please must please to live; that the purification of the stage rests with society; and that therefore religious people should come to the rescue. It is no doubt, that the stage panders to the popular taste. Mr. Francis Place, who was examined several years ago before a Select Committee of the House of Commons appointed to consider the state of the drama, said, "In respect to immorality and indecency writers, managers, and players will go to the verge of toleration. They have always done so." Mr. Charles Kemble said, before the same Committee, that he had frequently known immoral expressions allowed to pass by the licenser, and employed by the performer, at the use of which the audience had expressed their displeasure. I contend that an institution, which is thus a mere tool in the hands of the public, which panders to a depraved taste already in existence, and which has a tendency increasingly to corrupt society is, by its own admissions, unfit to be a public teacher, and unworthy of support!

Whatever may be said for the stage, by way of apology, its influence on public society has in all ages been demoralizing! In consequence of its corruptions, and its evil power it was shut down by law in pagan Greece. In Rome, where it afterwards appeared, it was made illegal when the Emperor Constantine professed Christianity. Its character has continued unchanged through all the centuries. I am not ignorant of the attempts which have been made to improve it; of the praiseworthy efforts put forth in this direction in the present day. But, on the whole, the theater is now just what it has always been.

When I am told that the Christian Church is to be blamed for its corruptions, I can only say that the statement seems to me inconclusive, and to the last degree, absurd. And when I am told that the Christian Church should take it by the hand, and seek to elevate and cleanse it, I can only say, that to me that seems no part of the Church's mission.

It is urged that the presence of good men in the theater would elevate its tone. Mrs. Mowatt says, in her "Recollections of the Stage," that she has known the sudden discovery, by the management, of the presence of a person of known virtue in the audience, to purify the whole performance. That may he so. But the purification of the stage, as an institution, in spite of all efforts, remains unaccomplished. Previous attempts have failed; and I believe that present attempts will fail also. "When you can make an oak out of a mushroom," says an American divine, "then, and not until then, you may hope to make a living tree out of that poisonous toadstool, the theater!"

When we rightly consider the character of the stage, it cannot be a matter of surprise that Christianity has frowned upon it in every age. In primitive times, baptism was forbidden to anyone connected with it. Cyril, one of the fathers of the Church, declares that when in our baptism we say, "I renounce you, Satan, and all your works and pomps the pomps are stage-plays and similar vanities." Tertullian affirms that they who renounce the devil and his pomps in their baptism, cannot go to a stage-play without turning apostates. Cyprian, Basil, Clement of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Augustine, all bear the same testimony.

I may be pointed to the plays and mysteries of the Romish church in subsequent centuries, and asked, if in these we have not Christianity sanctioning the drama, and turning it to its own account; I answer, "No!" The Romish Church is as much akin to Paganism as as it is to Christianity. The Puritans and the earlier Nonconformists witnessed against the stage in the most plain and emphatic manner. Godly men of later days have renewed the protest.

From the great cloud of witnesses, I select only two. Hearken to the testimony of a layman of the Church of England a statesman and a philanthropist, whose name the world will not willingly let die William Wilberforce. "There has been much argument," he says, "concerning the lawfulness of theatrical amusement. Let it be sufficient to remark, that the controversy would be short indeed, if the question were to be tried by the criterion of love to God. If there were anything of that sensibility for the honor of God, and of that zeal in His service which we show in behalf of our earthly friends, or political connections, should we seek our pleasure in that place which the debauchee, inflamed with wine or bent on the gratification of other immoral appetites finds most congenial to his state and temper of mind; in that place, from the neighborhood of which decorum and modesty and piety retire while riot and lewdness are invited to the spot, and invariably select it for their chosen residence; where the sacred name of God is often profaned; where sentiments are often heard with delight, and motions and gestures often applauded, which would not be tolerated in private company, and which far exceed the license allowed in the social circle, without at all trespassing on the large bounds of theatrical decorum; where, when immoral principles are inculcated, they are not such as a Christian ought to cherish in his bosom, but such as it must be his daily endeavor to extirpate; not those which Scripture warrants, but those which it condemns as false and spurious, being founded in pride and ambition, and over-valuation of human favor."

Hearken to one more testimony. It is that of one of the most eminent ministers of our time, who for many years exercised his ministry in this town, and whose name will ever be one of its brightest ornaments; whose fame may be said to be world-wide; and the blessed influence of whose preaching and writings will last forever. I refer to John Angel James. "I do not hesitate," says Mr. James, "for a moment to pronounce the theater to be one of the broadest avenues which lead to destruction! Fascinating, no doubt it is but on that account the more delusive and the more dangerous! Let a young man once acquire a taste for this species of entertainment, and yield himself up to its gratification, and he is in imminent danger of becoming a lost character rushing upon his ruin! All the evils that can . . .
waste his property,
corrupt his morals,
blast his reputation,
impair his health,
embitter his life,
and destroy his soul
  lurk in the confines of the theater! Vice, in every form, lives, and moves, and has its being there! Myriads have cursed the hour when they first exposed themselves to the contamination of the theater. From that fatal evening, they date their destruction! Take warning then, and have nothing to do with the theater. Avoid it as one of the avenues to the broad road that leads to destruction. The danger is greater than I describe. The doors of the theater are as the jaws of the devouring lion!" "Do not follow the crowd in doing evil." Exodus 23:2

In quoting these testimonies, I do not put them before you as authoritative, or binding upon anyone; but I quote them as showing the well-founded opinion of some of the wisest and best men. For myself, I have no hesitation whatever in saying that the stage, as it actually exists today, ought not to receive the sanction and support of Christian men. What it may be in the future I cannot tell. What the duty of the Christian Church may be in relation to it in the future I do not pretend to say. Our business is with the present and the actual that which lies round about us, and which is affecting for good or evil the present generation.

So long as the theater is what it is, I regard it as my duty, personally to avoid it; and for the good of others, to hold it up to rebuke and censure! I do not feel called upon to lend it the least support, with a view to purification. It is for its friends, if they desire it to be supported by good men to elevate and cleanse it, and make it worthy of such patronage. For the present, I must urge all who care for their own highest interests, and the general welfare of the community not to hazard themselves into the theater.

One of the strongest testimonies, unfavorable to the moral character and influence of the stage, has always seemed to me to be this: that when people in the theatrical profession have been converted to God, they have generally felt it their duty to abandon their profession, that they might follow some other line of life. Take three or four illustrations of this statement.

When Mr. Montague Stanley, who was connected with the stage about fifteen years, and who rose in the estimation of the theatrical public to occupy a respectable position when he, in the height of his popularity, became a Christian he abandoned the stage. For nearly two years he endeavored to reconcile his convictions and experience as a Christian with his profession as an actor; but he found the effort hopeless. At length, he severed the connection, and henceforth devoted himself to painting. On the last night of his appearance on the stage, he wrote these words in his journal: "The last night of my dramatic career; and now, thanks be to the Lord who has called me from darkness to light I am emancipated from a most ungodly profession! May the Lord bless and prosper me in my new one!"

When Mr. Sheridan Knowles was converted by the grace of God he abandoned both the stage and dramatic writing, and devoted himself to the preaching of the gospel. I myself knew a congregational minister of some eminence, who had been an actor in the earlier part of his life; but who, on his conversion, forsook the stage.

One of the most striking instances of a person renouncing the stage, under the influence of Christian conviction and feeling, happened a few years ago. An actress, belonging to one of our provincial theaters, was passing through one of the streets of the town where it was situated, when she was attracted by a sound of voices issuing from an open door. Curiosity led her to stop for a moment and listen. One of the company gave out a hymn, in the singing of which all joined. The first verse ran thus:

"Depth of mercy! can there be
 Mercy still reserved for me?
 Can my God His wrath forbear?
 Me, the chief of sinners, spare?"

She entered, and remained while one of the number offered prayer. She left the house; but the words of the hymn followed her. She procured the book which contained the hymn; and the reading of it deepened her religious convictions. She began to read the Bible, and attend the preaching of the gospel. With her sense of sinfulness and ruin she was led to trust in Jesus Christ, the sinner's Friend. One of her first resolutions was a determination at once and forever to renounce her acting profession. Once, and only once, after this she made her appearance on the stage. The manager requested her to take the principal character in a play which was to be performed for his benefit. The character was one which she had often represented with great success. She pleaded her religious scruples; told him of her resolution; begged him to excuse her. At length, yielding to his urgent solicitations, she promised to appear. The character she was to assume required her, on her first entrance, to sing a song; and when the curtain drew up, the orchestra immediately began the accompaniment. She stood as if lost in thought, forgetting all around her. The music began, but she did not sing; and, supposing that she was overcome by fright, the band again commenced. A second time the music stopped, and still there was silence. A third time the tune was played; when, with her hands clasped, and her eyes weeping, she sang, not the words of the song, but the hymn

"Depth of mercy! can there be
 Mercy still reserved for me?
 Can my God His wrath forbear?
 Me, the chief of sinners, spare?"

The performance immediately came to a close. Her conduct was ridiculed by many; but, in the case of others, it became the power of God unto their salvation.

I must now close. By the voice of history; by the testimony of the Christian Church; by the experience of those who, having entered on the theatrical profession, have felt constrained to renounce it as unfavorable to their spiritual welfare and peace the stage stands condemned! It is injurious to private character, destructive to public morality, and opposed to the everlasting interests of mankind. My advice, therefore, to all of you especially to the more youthful portion of you, is the advice on which I act myself not to adventure into the theater!