Amusements in the Light of Reason, History, and Revelation
By Samuel Milton Vernon, 1882
The substance of the following pages was first delivered in the form of sermons at a time when the amusements, here condemned, were seriously threatening the life of the Churches. It soon appeared that the divine blessing attended the Word in arresting many who were already in the way of folly, and in arousing the consciences of Christians on the subject. Ministers and members of different denominations expressed their appreciation of the service done the cause of Christ, and requested that a more permanent form be given to the spoken word.
The careful reader will detect both the excellencies and the defects of my work, and I need not therefore offer any explanation as apology for them. I have brought to it the fruits of careful thought, wide observation, and diligent reading, and I now send it forth as a warning voice beyond the walls within which I am accustomed to speak, in the earnest hope that God may make it a blessing in saving some souls from the pleasing devices of the great destroyer.
Amusements Are Designed by God
Man has been called "the laughing animal." This definition, if not exhaustive, is at least philosophical and suggestive. In the crown of superior faculties with which the Creator was pleased to endow man, he placed this sparkling gem as a peculiar divine gift. Laughter is the efflorescence or sportive action of the nobler powers — reason, judgment, imagination, taste, and even of conscience itself.
The sense of humor is a strong element in human nature, appearing in all grades of society, growing with advancing civilization and culture, adapting itself to all religions and philosophies, and running through all the experiences of life, like a golden thread, essential to the integrity of the whole fabric.
If God included the faculties for amusement in the nature with which he launched man upon the sea of time, it is clear that he intended him to use them . . .
in keeping upon a safe course,
in preserving him from despondency when the way seemed dangerous,
or in reinvigorating and fertilizing his nobler powers for renewed effort.
The Creator gave man an eye that he might see, an ear that he might hear, and faculties for amusement that they might be used. The faculty proves the intention of the Creator. If God made man with a propensity to laugh it is clear that he intended him to laugh, that in itself it is right, and that it ministers to the highest good.
This propensity, like all others, must, of course, be subject to law — or what was designed for a blessing may become a curse. The purest and most useful of all our faculties may be so used as to destroy themselves and corrupt the character — but the fact that they may be, and often are so used, is no argument against their proper and lawful use. The abuse of a good thing is an argument for its disuse — only to superficial thinkers and unreasoning fanatics. The fact that the fire in our dwellings sometimes consumes instead of warming them; that trains sometimes dash off instead of gliding along the tracks — does not lead us to abolish them, but rather to study the best methods of security against such accidents.
Every good involves a possible evil — and the problem of life is how to secure the good and avoid the evil. If you have an Eden, be sure there lurks somewhere amid its bowers a serpent! A war against the good, because possible evil is associated with it — is a war against human nature itself, and against the established order of divine Providence.
The reaction against licentiousness, avarice, ambition, and worldliness to the other extreme of forbidding all amusements, beginning in the first centuries of the Christian Church and still continuing in some of its branches, known in history under the name of "asceticism" — was one of the greatest blunders the human mind ever made in its search for truth. It was possible only in a state of partial illumination, when the eyes, not fully opened, "saw men as trees walking," and were unable to distinguish between the shadow and the substance.
A pall of darkness was thrown over the day God had made;
the joys he had instituted and sanctified, were excommunicated and outlawed;
the natural propensities ordained for man's good were cursed and forbidden;
the sweet relations and companionships of life were abandoned for solitude in caves and mountains;
pleasure was a sin, penance was a duty, suffering was a virtue, and man was made fit for Heaven by making himself unfit for earth;
while all the music, sweetness, beauty, and joy of the world were attributed to the Devil.
It is not strange that a religion so at war with the divine will, as recorded in human nature and the constitution of things — should have failed to win the hearts of men, causing a reaction that carried vast numbers into infidelity. When the Lord's goods are thus deliberately turned over and accredited to the Devil by those who ought to understand and defend their just title — it is not strange if many choose the arch traitor instead of the righteous Sovereign.
God is the author . . .
of the body, as well as of the soul,
of the social instincts, as well as of conscience,
of the sense of beauty and humor, as well as of the moral affections
— and he intends all the powers of the one to be used and governed according to his law as fully as the other. We "put asunder what God has joined together," and introduce disorder and confusion — when we forbid what God has allowed. To forbid amusements is to charge God with folly in giving us faculties for them, and so to mar and disorder his work in nature, as to pervert or render difficult his work of grace.
Amusements Are Necessary
If we look thoughtfully at the practical benefit of amusements, we shall find the law of the "highest good" justifying and demanding them. It is a law of our natures we dare not ignore — that hard toil must be followed by rest and recreation. The jaded faculties must have time and conditions favorable for regaining wasted energies. Our fast and feverish American living furnishes us examples enough of worn-out nerves and exhausted brains, assures us that recreation is necessary.
Rest is not found, however, in inaction, so much as in a change of activities from the laborious — to the agreeable, exhilarating, and joyous. A good evening laugh is one of nature's best antidotes for the weariness of a hard day's toil. Music sets the nerves tingling, and carries rest to the tired brain and muscle.
To lie down, like the tired ox as soon as the yoke is removed, is to carry the weariness of the day into the night, and to rise in the morning as a drudge, and go jaded to a task in which we should be fresh, buoyant, and vigorous.
The weary mind should drop its work when the day is done, and for a time . . .
wander amid scenes of beauty and delight,
drink in the harmonies of music,
join in the prattle and laughter of children and friends,
taste the sweets of literature,
wander on the swift wings of thought over the vast and multifaceted fields of knowledge,
or seek amid the charms of pure social fellowship to drown the memory of toil and care
— then will sleep be sweet, and the return of toil welcome.
Amusements are a preventive also of monotony in life, one of the greatest impediments to happiness and usefulness. To bow the head and bend the frame to an unchanging round of exacting daily toil; to shut out the sunlight, the songs of birds, the beauty and fragrance of flowers — and compel the soul to sit with folded wings within some dismal work-house, calculating cost and profit — is the worst and most destructive form of servitude.
The most solemn and important occupations lose their interest and profit and become dull, spiritless, and perfunctory — if the mind has not occasional release to wander amid other and very different scenes, from which it comes back with new zest and spirit to its more important tasks. Satiety begets loathing, and when the mind has feasted to the full at any table, it must be allowed to go abroad upon such rambles as are open to it, that it may come back with renewed appetite.
Man is a wondrously constructed instrument, with many keys, capable of producing the sweetest and sublimest melodies to the praise of God, when swept by a master hand. If the maker of the instrument and the operator are to receive the highest glory, it must be by the use of every key and capacity of the instrument, bringing out the greatest possible variations and the highest and tenderest bursts of melody, so as neither to mar the instrument nor to produce discord or monotony to the listener. A continual drumming upon one or two keys, even upon the key of religion itself, as sublime and soul-stirring as it is, will become monotonous and tedious. But if the fingers occasionally wander away to the lighter strains of imagination, when they drop back again to this, its solemn thunder will be as the voice of God to the soul.
Monotony disables for useful or happy. The sad, spiritless, unattractive lives, which many lead, might be transformed into gardens of beauty for themselves, with fountains of blessing for others — if enough of God's sunlight and sparkling dews could be distilled into them to break up the monotony which has fallen upon them like the blight of death.
Amusements minister also to the health of mind and body. Physicians know the influence of a cheerful spirit, of laughter, and of a wise use of amusements upon the bodily health. They are better, and certainly cheaper, than medicines. The intellect needs air, sunshine, and variety on the playground, in the fields, or in society for its proper health. Mental disease, and insanity itself, is often the effect of long continued thought upon one subject, without the relaxation and recreation by amusements or otherwise ordained by a wise Providence for our health.
As the birds rest and plume themselves for flight, so must the intellectual toiler, if, like the eagle, he is to soar above the clouds, and, like the lark, to sing while he soars.
Life would be longer,
the soul sweeter and happier,
and our moral power greater —
if, when jaded and worn, we would turn to the pleasant recreations within the reach of all.
Proper and Improper Amusements
That God intended man for joy and gladness, is as evident as that He made the sun to shine and the birds to sing. How is this design to be realized? Did God make man for religious joys only? To what extent may we seek joy and pleasure in the world?
It may be admissible in a high state of religious fervor as a kind of exaggerated sentimentalism to sing:
"Other knowledge I disdain,
Tis all but vanity,
Only Jesus sill I know,
And Jesus crucified."
He who literally knows and loves "only Jesus" is a monster unfit for this world as for that which is to come. The world is full of things which it is our duty to know, love, and enjoy. If we love Christ truly — then we must love whatever he has made; and what we love, we enjoy, and naturally wish to know and understand. We dishonor God when we neglect or refuse to use the powers he has given us, or the provisions he has made for our happiness and well-being. While in the world and in the body, we owe them a proper recognition, the neglect of which is nothing less than rebellion against the divine order.
Are these joys to be such as are derived from manly effort and honorable success in our chosen occupation? The joys of success in an honorable business life are sweet, far-reaching in their influence, and permanent in their character. But the tired nerves and the careworn brain insist upon the occasional play-day, for which God has made in nature such abundant provisions. The old adage, "All work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy," is true — as it is also true that, "all play and no work, makes Jack a worthless boy."
The joys of solitude, of literature, of art, and of meditation are of great value in enriching the life, and broadening and cultivating the intellect. But man is by nature intensely social, and has powerful impulses to other and more social forms of amusement and diversion. When a company of bright and happy children come together, how quickly and naturally they ask, "What shall we play?" This question runs through all grades of society and through all history, and we come now to its consideration.
There is, however, another question preparatory to this; that is, "Where shall we play? At home — or in the public hall? At the house of a friend — or with the public in the theater? In the fields — or in the street?"
"Where" will help us to determine "what," and is therefore first to be considered.
There is one fundamental institution which survives all revolutions. It dates from the earliest period and is co-extensive with the race. It comprehends in itself the essentials for the perpetuity and welfare of man, the shelter of helpless childhood and old age. It is the sanctuary, at the altar of which woman's beauty and man's strength find pure and happy union. It is the unit of civilization and the corner-stone of the state. It is the institution first in importance, as it is first in the order of time. Of course, I am talking about the FAMILY.
The HOME was designed by God to furnish most of these helps which are needed . . .
to cheer us in adversity,
to comfort us in sorrow, and
to rest and soothe us after toil.
The purest, best, most helpful and joyous amusements are those where parents and children join, after the tasks of the day are over. Can any better relief from care and weariness be found, or any surer means of keeping the heart young and fresh — than this contact with childhood in the sports and amusements of the home?
Shall the father come home at night jaded and worn, and sit down sullen and morose to brood over the day's mishaps, or seek unnatural society and amusements as an escape from care — instead of finding in the love and cheerfulness of his wife, and in the buoyant, sparkling, happy little natures God has given him — the brightest and best retreat from toil and care this world affords?
The great Dr. Lyman Beecher was accustomed, after his heaviest days of toil in preaching or speaking, to turn the home into a play-ground, himself the leader in all the fun and frolic. He used to say he never made such rapid progress in his work as when down on all fours with the baby on his back, playing horse. With such a home-life as this, it is not strange that he maintained such remarkable vigor, and that so many of his children have risen to eminence in carrying forward the same work that engaged his heart and brain.
Life would be longer and happier,
the influence of parents over their children immeasurably greater,
and home the sweetest place on earth —
if parents would thus keep themselves in sympathy and contact with the child-life of the home. To laugh and play with a child that never knew a care and is free as a bird — will shame a sordid, careworn soul into a better frame of feeling, and will magnetize a sluggish, stupid mind into a semblance at least of life and freshness.
Its influence upon childhood and youth cannot be computed. It rarely occurs that the father who descends to the plane of his children in games, plays, and amusements — fails in leading them to his plane in religious life and moral integrity. If the parent respects and enters into the child's life, he will himself be a great gainer, and he will find the child generously responsive in respecting and entering his life in its highest and noblest forms.
I therefore assume that the home, or a union of homes in the larger social circle, is to be the chief, though not the only, theater of those amusements which Providence has designed for our welfare. There are games, plays, and amusements of sufficient number and variety to suit every age, grade of intelligence and circumstance, if only there is genius enough to use them.
The history of public amusements, with paid performers, and prizes for contestants, with a manager back of the scenes inspired by love of money to make the strongest possible appeals to the taste of the multitude, as the means of increasing his gains — whether we consider it in Grecian, Roman, mediaeval, or modern times — is a history of demoralizing and corrupting influences.
The principle involved in hiring another to amuse and entertain you is false and pernicious. You corrupt him by your money, to become a clown or an actor; while you buy exemption for yourself from the obvious duty of actively engaging in such recreations and amusements as will answer the needs of your own nature and be helpful to others. The fields, forests, rivers, lakes, and oceans are open to all and afford opportunity for a variety of innocent and healthful amusements. But, after all, the home will be found to furnish the best staple of daily recreations.
The question as to what these amusements should be, seems very much like a request for rules by which to be happy, joyous, humorous, or witty. The spirit is always more than the form, must go before it, and will easily devise it if necessary. If one has the spirit of amusement, he will not need much instruction as to the form it shall take. And if he has the form without the spirit, as in all such cases, it is but a sepulcher, he may whiten and garnish it as he will and call it a playhouse — but it is still only a sepulcher.
"A merry heart is a perpetual feast," and the simplest trifles are wonderfully amusing and entertaining if a loving, humorous heart is behind them.
It is asked, however, "Is it wise to introduce games into the home?" The love of games seems universal in the race, must have been implanted by God, and under proper control may be indulged with advantage. By introducing fictitious rivalries, contests, and ambitions — they effectually call off the mind, for the time, from the duties of life, thus affording relief from anxiety and care — while they exercise, gratify, and amuse a variety of faculties without necessarily corrupting or injuring any.
The dangers to be carefully avoided are the waste of time; morbid excitement; and familiarity with, and fondness for, gambling. You may choose to walk on the brow of a precipice to enjoy the view and the bracing air — but it is with the distinct knowledge that one step to the right or left may be destruction, and that safety depends upon your power of self-control.
If we walk in the light of experience, which seems to be the only safe rule in such a case, we will be forced to the conclusion that games used for gambling cannot be safely introduced into the home, the school, or the Church. The world is wide, and there are games and amusements without number, free from these dangers, which leaves us without excuse for employing those that are even doubtful.
It will be difficult for those accustomed to the excitements of the theater, the dance, and the billiard room — to appreciate the pure and rational joys of legitimate and innocent amusements, until their tastes are reformed by wise discipline, and the intoxication under which they are living has passed away. To such . . .
home is a boring place,
books are dull,
society is stiff and formal,
music has nothing in it,
innocent games are childish —
and nothing that does not intoxicate by its excitement, is acceptable.
Let me remind these people, however, that the great mass of the human race has appreciated, and the wisest and best have greatly loved, these things — and it is no compliment to you that you esteem them so lightly. The world is full of beauty, loveliness, and joy; but your eyes are so blinded that you do not see it. You cry out as if about to be impoverished forever, when the Church raises its warning voice against the corrupt amusements of the time and say, "what then shall we do?" It is the cry of the ignorant and depraved in every vile pursuit.
The rum-seller says, "Would you have me give up my business? I can't live without it. What, then, would you have me do?"
The gambler says, "Give up my gambling? How can I live? What shall I do? Life would be a blank to me."
The licentious say, "Do you want me to give up all pleasure? Am I to have no amusement? Would you make life a prolonged funeral?"
The evil is in the cultivation of a false taste and of corrupt passions. Correct the taste and purify the affections, and then you will find greater joy in things that are pure.
One great error in treating this subject, has been in condemning what is wrong without pointing out what is right. The law that deals only in "shall nots" will fail. The first and great commandment is, "you shall," and men must be governed by a law that directs and develops the forces that are within them. You might as well attempt to shut up the steam in the boiler with a glowing fire beneath, as attempt to shut up the forces of a young life and deny it the development of its natural powers and impulses; explosion and death is the result of such a course. Not repression, but education, is the law here as elsewhere.
A young lady asked an aged minister, "What, then, shall I do for amusement?" The answer was, "Walk out into the field, or lie down and sleep." A very sleepy answer — and a powerful, practical argument to the young lady's mind in favor of the theater and the dance. Lack of occupation is not amusement, nor is rest always to be found in doing nothing. It is our duty to study and understand the provisions God has made in nature, and in the development of society for the amusement of the young and of all classes. Ignorance and indifference here, are no less criminal than in other departments of divine truth.
Society carries with it from generation to generation a great number of innocent games and amusements, needing no mention here, since they are well known to all. The magazines and papers of the land are full of suggestions to those who need them, and a sharp eye will soon detect enough to stock the home for any reasonable demand. There are also many books of games and amusements to which one may resort when invention runs low.
No enumeration of games and amusements, even if it were to descend to minute details, could satisfy the abnormal craving for new and exciting entertainments everywhere found among the patrons of the theater and the dance. Neither would it quench the insatiable thirst of those who have never by hard work earned the right to amusement, or created the need and healthy appetite for recreation. How such people are to be amused, I have no skill and little disposition to say; to them "one thing is needful" — honest toil with hand or brain, all else will naturally follow.
I must close this chapter with a few general remarks about the character of amusements.
1. Amusements should not be expensive. Many people live in rented houses all their days, and yet patronize expensive theaters, operas, and parties. They cannot afford books or higher education for their children, but they have money for a base clown or actor who will make them laugh, or play upon their passions. Many professing Christians give more every year to the support of the theater, than to the cause of God!
2. Amusements should be used among adults, only for rest and recreation after toil. The true object of life is realized only in some useful employment, the pursuit of knowledge, works of charity, or the exercises of religion. When amusements usurp the place of these, or of any one of them, and become the chief object of life, the thing most eagerly sought — then the divine purpose and plan for life is utterly frustrated, God's law broken and trampled upon, and the life becomes a wretched failure!
Amusements are designed to rest and refresh the weary powers after toil. Keep this design in view, and there is not much danger of going astray.
The idle, languid multitudes who clamor for amusements, who live for them, and find their only relief from boredom and stagnation in the excitement they afford — of all other classes have least need of them. They are . . .
debauching their God-given abilities,
defying the laws of God and of their own being,
and dwarfing intellect and heart.
What they do need is solid work, hard study, earnest purposes, lofty aims, and sincere convictions. The frivolous, worthless multitudes, who clamor continually for some new excitement to relieve the terrible burden of an aimless being, who swarm about our large cities feeding the haunts of vice, poisoning the moral atmosphere, and threatening the very existence of society; who, knowing neither the exquisite pleasure of hard toil nor the sweetness of the rest that follows it — are driven to find a substitute for both in the intoxication of amusement and folly, need nothing so much as to have this abnormal appetite cured by the healthy discipline of hard work.
3. Amusements should be innocent and pure. To work with saints through the day — and play with sinners in the evening; to pray with children of God in the Church — and to laugh with the children of Satan at impurity in the theater — is not in harmony with the teaching of the Word of God or of sound reason.
To engage in such amusements as are furnished by performers of known corrupt character, or that attract to them the vile classes — must of necessity be perilous to good character. No amusement ought to be touched . . .
in which there is a well understood drift or tendency toward evil;
in which there is any improper association of the sexes, or indecently clothed people;
or in which there is any suggestion or allusion to coarse or base passions, otherwise than in severe condemnation.
To associate with vile people,
to look upon impure scenes,
to patronize corrupt institutions —
is the sure beginning of moral degeneracy.
4. They should be such as not to detract from our Christian influence.
The world laughs at Christians who attend sinful amusements,
Satan rejoices over them,
and godly men mourn for them.
The Christian's power for good, a power of more value than any other, is greatly injured, if not destroyed — the moment he is seen to engage in doubtful amusements. The eyes of unconverted men are very keen upon this point; and whatever they allow themselves, they at least require that professing Christians shall make no compromises with the world and sin. Doubt and suspicion of the integrity of Christian character, as well as of the truth of religion — spread abroad like a deadly blight in communities where Christians discredit their profession by these sinful amusements.
Even the use of innocent and pure amusements by Christians, is not entirely free from danger. When a man who professes to be consecrated to the work of saving men, hundreds of whom surround him daily, as he professes to believe in the broad way to destruction — gives up a whole day at a time, from sunrise to sunset, to some trivial game, proper enough for an hour's recreation — he lays himself liable to a suspicion of insincerity and a lack of moral earnestness.
The day laborer who gets his two dollars a day, cannot afford to spend his time thus; and if the Christian, who professes to be working for God and souls, can — then it is construed as an indication that he has not a very high opinion of the importance of the work, or of the money he earns. The wasting of time and opportunities in innocent recreations, may prove destructive of Christian influence.
"We scatter seeds with careless hand,
And dream we never shall see them more,
But for a thousand years
Their fruit appears
In weeds that mar the land,
Or fruitful harvests.
The deeds we do, the words we say,
Into still air they seem to flee,
We count them ever past,
But they shall last.
In the dread judgment they
And we shall meet."
A very safe rule for the Christian, is never to go anywhere or do anything upon which he cannot ask God's blessing.
Another equally good was thus expressed by Dr. Charles Hall: "I have made up my mind never to go to any place where I would be unwilling to die. Now, I would be very sorry to die while seeing a play in a theater."
Hannah More gives the following safe counsel to Christians: "A Christian's amusements must be . . .
blameless — as well as sincere,
safe — as well as rational,
moral — as well as intellectual.
They must have nothing in them which may be likely to excite any of the sinful tempers which it is his daily task to subdue, or any of the passions which it is his constant business to keep in order. His chosen amusements must not . . .
deliberately add to the weight which he is commanded to lay aside;
feed the besetting sin against which he is struggling;
obstruct that spiritual-mindedness which he is told is life and peace;
inflame that lust of the flesh, that lust of the eye, and that pride of life which he is forbidden to gratify."
The History of the Theater
The theater is an institution of civilization, though germs of it may be found in semi-civilized tribes as early as a thousand years before Christ. Its universality proves that its existence depends upon no accident of time, place, or circumstance; that it is founded upon human nature, and gives expression to natural faculties, and satisfies tastes and aspirations common to all men. In spite of the severe and just criticisms to which it is everywhere subjected because of its immoral influences — it flourishes and holds a position of power in all civilized lands.
The disposition to represent real or fictitious scenes from life in drama, has been universal in the history of the race. Traces of it are found in the crude war dances of savages, in which the scenes of combat are dramatized — and it appears in all the comic and tragic performances of more cultivated nations. As dark as the history of the theater has been, and as futile as have been all attempts to reform it — I must suppose that God gave man this talent and love for dramatic representation that it might be developed and used for his good. The failure of all attempts in the past, points to the conclusion that the theater as an institution for the amusement of the public, cannot be reformed — yet we may still hope that in other forms the exercise of dramatic talent may be made to serve the highest interests of society.
Turning from all speculations, however, we find that as matter of fact, the good and the holy of all times have pronounced the theater "disgraceful" — that is the word chosen and consecrated by the use of the world's nobility.
We can trace the theater to a definite beginning in the feasts of Bacchus, five hundred years before Christ; from which time, hand in hand with the wine-god, its first lover and life-long companion — it has journeyed through the world, spreading demoralization and desolation on every hand. We consider it to be the devil's most successful scheme for destroying the morals of the culture.
The theater, the saloon, and the brothel are the three confederate tempting devils of civilization, seeking to despoil the flower of humanity.
The theater insinuates lust, murder, theft, hypocrisy, and profligacy upon overworked and sensitive minds, under the name of amusement and recreation. It inoculates our fairest sons and daughters with the most deadly poisons, corrupting personal purity, destroying domestic happiness, and dishonoring the sanctuary of home — under the guise of entertainment. It has proven "a school of vice and the home of debauchery" under the name of recreation. It is . . .
black with the curses of the souls it has ruined,
infamous for the social impurities it has nursed into life,
and abhorred by everyone who studies its work of degradation and destruction.
In every culture, the theater has proven to be a demoralizing agency. That this arraignment may not seem too severe, and be credited to personal hostility or over zeal in a good cause, I will here give the corroborating testimony of men whom all must respect.
Testimony Concerning the Character of the Theater
We are now to examine the character of this ancient institution, whose whitened locks, as it stands before us clad in the robes of its own history, might awaken our veneration were it not for . . .
the blood-spots on its hands,
the demon leer in its eye, and
the foul odors from its filthy clothing proclaiming it one of the vile monsters that still lingers on the earth because mankind have not had virtue enough to exterminate it.
We will proceed by the fair and rational method of calling in competent witnesses who have known and studied the institution, to testify as to the character of the accused for common virtue. Passing by the great lights of the Christian Church, the martyrs, the ministers, and the godly fathers and mothers whose voices would of course be against the accused; passing also those who have made the theater a source of gain as actors, managers, or advocates, knowing that "a bribe perverts judgment," I will go into the world's high court of philosophers, thinkers, and sages, and ask the men revered by all ages to testify.
The first I introduce with an apology to the reader for presenting a pagan, and with a request to the witness to be careful to say nothing to shock the fine moral sensibilities of my Christian reader, is the pagan philosopher Plato. Hear him: "The diversions of the theater are dangerous to the temper and sobriety of mind. They rouse the feelings of passion and sensual desire too much. Tragedy is prone to render men unfeeling — and comedy makes them buffoons. Thus those passions are cherished which ought to be checked, virtue loses ground, and reason becomes uncertain."
Let us try another pagan, even though our Christian cheeks were made to tingle by the words uttered by the master thinker, Plato. Here comes Aristotle, one of the world's greatest thinkers, dominating pagan and Christian thought for many centuries, a man who saw deep into the soul and inner life of things. He declares: "The law ought to forbid young people the seeing of comedies until they are proof against debauchery."
Solon, the wisest of the Greeks, and their lawgiver, forbade "theatrical exhibitions as pernicious to the popular mind."
But let us turn from these ancient dreaming Greeks to the more modern and commonsense Romans, and hear what they have to say. The first shall be the greatest thinker of them all, the prince of orators, the powerful advocate, the versatile and elegant writer, the incorruptible patriot, the savior and the glory of Rome, Cicero. He declares: "The theater exists on lewdness," a short sentence, but a lightning-stroke from a brain surcharged with truth, the shock of which is still felt by the forces of evil.
We next invite the great historian, Livy, to the stand, and ask him, in his calm, deliberate way, to comment for us. He says: "A theater was being erected in the city, and Scipio Nasica urged before the senate that the theater was a useless establishment, and its exhibitions destructive of good morals. By these and similar reasons the senate, feeling themselves to be the guardians of the welfare and virtue of the citizens, passed a decree which leveled the walls of the unfinished theater to the ground."
We may lift our hands in holy horror at this infringement of liberty; but remember, dear reader, these were unenlightened pagans, and it is highly probable they knew no better, the light of the nineteenth century not having yet dawned.
Seneca, the great heathen moralist, says: "Nothing is so injurious to good morals as theaters, for then vice makes an insensible approach and steals upon us in the disguise of pleasure."
Rome has other witnesses ready to testify, but I wave them aside, as nothing they could say would add to the overwhelming force of the testimony already given. If anything more is desired — read it in the history of the growth of theaters and gladiatorial exhibitions of Rome as its virtue declined and its fall approached; read it in the light of that conflagration kindled by the bloody Nero, a patron of the theater and an actor on the stage; read it in the words of the master historian, Gibbons, who, among the causes of the fall of Rome, names the corruption of the people by theatrical exhibitions and shows.
Let no one attempt to break the force of these testimonies by saying that they do not apply to the case in hand, since they allude to the ancient theater, which all must confess was corrupt.
The elegant writer, Joseph Addison, gives the following testimony upon the corrupt character of the English theater as compared with the Greek and Roman: "It is one of the most unaccountable things that the lewdness of our theater should be so much complained of, so well exposed, and so little redressed." From the days of Athens until now, the wise and good have not ceased to bewail the demoralizing effects of the theater.
If we descend to modern times, we do not find the advanced age of the institution winning for it that respect of the good and great which they are accustomed to bestow upon virtuous old age.
If we may accept the testimony of those most to be trusted, the theater grows worse, rather than better, as it grows older — a strong indication that its character is essentially bad.
Sir Matthew Hale, one of England's most honored sons, says "that when he was at Oxford University he made great proficiency in his studies, but the stage players coming there he was so much corrupted that he almost entirely forsook his studies. He then came to the solemn resolution that while he lived, never would he again enter a theater."
Mr. Wilberforce, known and honored wherever freedom unfurls her banner, affirms, "The debauchee, the sensualist, the profane, have ever found in the theater their chosen resort for enjoyment." He asks: "How can a virtuous mind seek pleasure in such a place, amid such companions, and from such people as the actors and actresses are generally known to be?"
Sir John Thomkins, in his life of Dr. Johnson, remarks, "The play-house is the very hot-bed of vice, and wherever planted becomes surrounded by a halo of brothels."
I have thus called up the men most honored and revered to testify of the character of this institution, and they give it with united voice such a character as should deny it the patronage and company of every virtuous and right-minded person.
There are many utterances by the legislative and judicial bodies of England and America showing the character of the theater in the opinion of patriots and thinkers in more recent times.
An English judge, in charging a jury in London, said: "One theater ruins more souls than fifty churches are able to save!"
In 1778, when the American colonies, struggling for independence, felt their dependence upon God and their need of his aid, Congress passed a law providing for "the dismissal from office of any officer of the United States who should be found in attendance upon a theater."
Soon after the declaration of independence, the following resolution was adopted by Congress: "whereas, True religion and good morals are the only solid foundation of public liberty and happiness:
Resolved, That it be and is hereby earnestly recommended to the several States to take the most effective measures for the suppression of theatrical entertainments, horse-racing, gambling, and such other diversions as are productive of idleness, dissipation, and a general depravity of principles and manners."
Our municipal governments have been compelled to pass very stringent laws to protect society against the evil classes and influences that gather about and go out from the theater.
The Testimony of the Church
If pagan philosophers, poets, and historians speak of the theater as we have heard them in the last chapter, what may we expect of the Church of Christ but indignant denunciation when the theater comes in sheep's clothing, pretending to be the friend of virtue, and seeking Christian patronage? With only an occasional exception, the Church has faithfully witnessed against the monstrous iniquities nourished and propagated under this assumed ministry of the fine arts.
Among the reformed Churches, where a personal religious life is enjoined and cultivated, and where vigorous efforts are made for the salvation of the souls of men — there is but one voice in regard to the theater.
John Calvin exterminated the theater in Geneva, and gave the Presbyterian conscience such a decided tone on this question that ever since his day, when you find a good, true Presbyterian, you find an uncompromising foe of the theater.
John Knox did for Scotland what Calvin did for Geneva and the continent of Europe, and the Scotch Presbyterians are a solid phalanx against the theater. Whatever may be true of particular congregations or communities, the Presbyterian Church has stood like an iron wall against the theater and all the grosser worldly amusements.
The early Methodists imbibed the spirituality of the Quakers, the strict morality of the Puritans, and the conscientiousness of the Presbyterians — has always been understood as a denomination having no fellowship with the theater.
John Wesley found the clergy of his day attending races and games, going with the people to the play-house, while the masses were given over to worldliness and vice, with "no man to care for their souls." Against this condition of things he lifted his voice in loud and earnest protest, as the large denomination of which he, under God, was the founder has not ceased to do to this day. Methodism has always been a foe to the playhouse, by its general spirit of earnest piety. In the General Conference held in Brooklyn, in 1872, a more explicit rule was adopted "forbidding attending theaters."
The Baptists stand side by side with the Methodists and Presbyterians, while the Congregationalists and Episcopalians are not far behind. Throughout history, Christian people have always been at war against "Satan's chapel" — the theater.
"An English writer in the time of Charles II made a catalogue of authorities against the theater, which contains every name of eminence in the heathen and Christian world; it comprehends the united testimony of the Jewish and Christian Churches; the deliberate acts of fifty-four ancient and modern, general, national, and provincial councils and synods — both of the Western and Eastern Churches; the condemnatory sentence of seventy-one ancient fathers and one hundred and fifty modern Christian authors."
It may be useful here to give the utterances of a few of its great leaders to show the opinion of the Church in regard to this institution.
Clement: "the theater is the seat of pestilence."
Augustine calls the theater, "a cage of immorality and a public school of debauchery!"
Tillotson, speaking of the conduct of certain parents, says, "They are such monsters, I had almost said devils, as not to know how to give their children good things. Instead of bringing them to God's Church, they bring them to the devil's chapels, playhouses, places of debauchery, those schools of lewdness and vice."
John Wesley says, "The theater not only saps the foundation of all religion, but also tends to drinking and debauchery."
These testimonies, given without a bribe and with no conceivable reason for their utterance save the conscientious convictions of these eminent servants of God, must have great weight with all right-minded people as to the relation of the theater to spiritual religion and good morals.
Pollok says: "The theater was from the very first, the favorite haunt of sin; though honest men maintained it might be turned to good account. And so, perhaps, it might — but never was. From first to last it was an evil place; and now such things are acted there as make the demons blush!"
The Corrupt Character of most of the Actors is an Objection to the Theater
If it can be shown that the maintenance of the theater requires the corruption of a large class of men and women as actors, who for hire are required to appear in scenes on the stage that surely undermine virtue — then every pure mind must look upon it with horror — even if it were possible to show, as it is not, that the contagion could not possibly spread from actors to auditors. No Christian man who will stop to think of the matter can consent to contribute the price of a ticket to the fund necessary to hire men and women to lives of shame and folly. The man who pays the price in such a transaction, is as guilty as he who accepts it — just as the giver and the receiver of bribes stand on the same moral footing.
It is not here assumed that every actor is a vile person, nor that virtue is necessarily excluded from the theater. I gladly recognize and proclaim the fact that there have been commendable examples of integrity and virtue among actors — the more conspicuous and the more to be lauded because of the difficulties overcome. I assume that the profession is such as to demoralize, degrade, and corrupt the character — and therefore he must be a paragon of virtue who keeps himself pure in it.
If the ministers, the physicians, or the judges of the land were to turn actors and go upon the stage, ten years would probably find them as corrupt as the present occupants of the theater.
I have not a word against the unfortunate class, driven, beguiled, or howsoever brought to this profession — but I have maledictions and curses for the institution that has corrupted and destroyed them, and sorrowful rebuke and condemnation for the professing Christians who have contributed to the fund that bribed them to their shame and ruin.
It is not strange that actors would become corrupt. The man who simulates a feeling or emotion he does not possess; who for a price, by strength of will or power over his feelings, raises abnormal passions and emotions to entertain and please, or who sells himself to act an unreal part on the stage — sets at naught and defies those laws of God and of human nature by which good and strong characters are formed.
To assume that a man may act the part of deception, fraud, hypocrisy, cruelty, murder, intemperance, and debauchery, and do it well, with heart and brain fully awake and active in his theme — and not be corrupted by it, is a monstrous absurdity. History, no less than common sense and philosophy, teaches us that when one sells himself to play the clown or the villain for public amusement, he trails the flag of virtue and grasps hands with infamy.
Cicero, in his treatise, "De Republica," informs us that Rome passed a decree by which "common actors were expelled their town, and, like the felons of our penitentiaries, deprived forever of all rights of citizenship."
Another decree was passed called the Praetorian edict, "that whoever appears on the stage to speak or act, is declared disgraceful."
The laws of England, from a very early period, until recently spoke of actors as "rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars."
These edicts and laws express sufficiently the verdict of history as to the character of this profession.
Those who complain most bitterly of such an arraignment are the first to justify and emphasize it when the occasion arrives. In a fashionable boarding-house on Fifth Avenue, New York City, there were a number of wealthy ladies very fond of the theater, of which they were regular patrons. There was also a young lady in the same house of fine personal qualities, good character, and ladylike deportment. It became known to our theater-loving ladies that the young lady was preparing for the theater. Their indignation rose so high that they waited on the proprietor and informed him that the young lady must leave the house or they would, on the ground that it would injure their reputations for it to be known that they associated with one who was preparing for the theater! Nothing was alleged against the young lady's character — but the well-known character of actors and actresses, and the sentiment of the public was such that they felt themselves in danger from the presence of one in the house who was even preparing for the theater.
The common feeling is that when a young man or a young lady goes on the stage, they are lost to good society. There is not a virtuous mother who would not rather bury her daughter, than give her up to the stage.
A bold and fearless announcement of these facts ought to be kept before the public, if for no other purpose, to save, if possible, the multitude of "stage struck" young girls and boys to be found in every theater-going community, many of whom are so unfortunate as to have silly, foolish parents who seem not to know or care that their children are on the way to shame and destruction.
Let the ministry imitate the Christian heroism and fidelity of the noble Wilberforce in Westminster Abbey on the occasion of Sarah Bernhardt's visit to London, when he said: "She has dared to come to London, bringing her illegitimate children with her, and flaunting her skirts in the very face of royalty." Then, turning to the Prince of Wales, he said: "It is the nation's disgrace that Briton's future king should so far forget what belongs to the dignity of his station, that he should visit this woman in the theater dressing-room and speak face to face to her in flattering words." Then, in closing, Wilberforce said: "O how deeply virtuous England regrets the premature death of the former Prince! Had he been living today, this could never have happened."
The strongest testimonies to the truth of these remarks upon the character of actors as a class, come from the honorable men and women whose exceptional purity and integrity in the profession have retained for it the respect which still lingers to some degree among the intelligent and pure-minded. The modern theater has no brighter ornament for splendid abilities and pure character than Edwin Booth. He declares that he does not "permit his wife and daughter to see a play without previously ascertaining its character;" that the theater has become "a mere shop for gain, open to every huckster of immoral character." This well-known criticism of modern plays and actors.
My argument, then, is that the theater, or any other institution which maintains itself by corrupting the people it employs, is of necessity vile in character, and is an agency employed by the prince of darkness for the ruin of the souls of man.
And, further, that whoever puts funds into the hands of such an institution, is in some degree an accomplice of the devil.
The Character of the Plays in Use
It is freely conceded that the theater is not necessarily evil, but I am not dealing with ideals, or supposable possibilities, nor with abstract theories — but with a visible fact and reality — a tangible something, called the theater, which touches the every day life of the masses in our great cities, which every man may put under the microscope or into the crucible and study for himself.
The evil is not in the curtains, the costumes, the scenery, the stage, nor the acting; neither is it wholly in the fact that the only object is to amuse and entertain. It is chiefly in the fact that immoral and impure plays are put upon the stage, corrupting both actors and auditors.
Take the popular scripts for a season in any of our cities, analyze and study them, and what are they? I will not even give you the name or outline of any one of them, but if you doubt the truth of what I am about to say, I challenge you to buy them, which you can do anywhere for ten or fifteen cents apiece, and examine for yourself. You will find the majority of these to be . . .
studies in vice,
shrewd excuses for crime,
an attempt to make shame honorable,
to give lying and falsehood, the respect due to truth,
to give robbery and theft, the immunity and protection claimed for honesty,
to elevate the profligate, to a favorite of society,
to make the seducer a gallant hero, and
to subvert the whole order set up in God's law and by pure Christian society.
The heroes of the stage are eminent as they excel in cunning duplicity, prodigality, and evil passions. These are the qualities set forth in the most favorable light, securing favor, preferment, and prosperity. While virtue, honesty, sobriety, and piety are made ridiculous by being associated with stupidity and dullness in some blockhead, with shameless hypocrisy, or with disheartening misfortune and failure.
The man of low, base character is always revealing some unexpected noble quality; while the man of professed virtue and religion always surprises you by some base deed or by downright hypocrisy. Vice is hailed with applause — and virtue with hisses. Gambling, drunkenness, profanity, and libertinism are considered as chivalric weaknesses, rather to sins, and yet to be expected in "a really good fellow." While . . .
integrity is ranked as cool villainy,
honesty as stupidity,
virtue as an outward garb for greater security in vile practices,
and religion as a sham and pretense.
It is precisely on the plane of the argument criminals always make in their defense.
The thief says, "all men steal, the merchant in a mean, sneaking way, by overcharging — and I, in an open, manly way." So says the play.
The gambler says, "I use my brain power just as the lawyer or the physician, for after all every business is but a game of chance; therefore all men are gamblers in some form."
The profligate says, "There is no such thing as virtue, the only difference is some are a little more discreet than others."
These are the principles taught in most of the popular plays, and they are the principles discussed in the haunts of evil men and vile women wherever found. Such teaching tends . . .
to destroy the very idea of virtue,
to obliterate morals, and
infiltrates in this soft, subtle way, the ideas of debauchery and crime.
The sublime plays of Shakespeare will not hold an average theater audience, and when presented, it must be with such accompaniments as make the appeal to the lower and baser nature, not found in the words of the great master, by which the patronage of the multitudes is maintained.
Henry Ward Beecher says, "Keep on the safe side. Avoid the dangerous. If you do not know whether to go to the theater or stay at home, stay at home. It is better sometimes to go hungry, than to eat poisoned food. The evil of a licentious picture, does not depart when the eye turns from it — the photograph remains in the brain. The evil of a wicked suggestion does not depart when the the curtain comes down. No man can touch pitch and not be defiled. It is better to lose all amusement, than to suffer the contagion for a single night of some of the modern dramas."
The Theater's Defense
It would scarcely be possible to find an individual or an institution so base as to have no quality worthy of praise. The courts of the land, as well as public opinion, condemn a man even to death upon proof of a single transgression, no matter what good qualities may be truthfully alleged for him.
One sin condemns the whole character, as one rent ruins the garment, and it is useless to allege good qualities in the face of such a condemnation.
A friend remarked to an elderly lady of a very charitable disposition that he never knew any one so bad that she could not speak of something good in him, and that even if the devil should appear, she would doubtless have some good to say of him. "Yes," she said, "I have always heard he is very industrious; we surely cannot accuse him of being lazy."
It may be admitted that the theater has its excellent qualities, without implying an approval of its general character — any more than the above mention of a good quality in the "prince of darkness" is to be accepted as a certificate of good character for him.
It is alleged that the theater is the patron and friend of the fine arts. The claim is freely conceded. Music, painting, sculpture, oratory, and poetry have all been invited to the stage, have grown in popular favor and power because of it, and in turn have given to the stage the influence it has wielded in society. This, however, does not relieve the theater of the indictment brought against it for bad moral character and influence. To allege that a man is a fine musician — is no answer to the charge of murder. To say that a man is highly accomplished and thoroughly educated — is no answer to the charge of theft. Just so, to say that the theater is a patron of the fine arts — is not an answer to the charge of bad moral character.
It is claimed that the theater inculcates many valuable lessons. This is certainly true. Even vile plays, full of the worst moral influences, may have in them many excellent passages and characters. Even the devil, in his interviews with our first parents, with Christ, and concerning Job — spoke some truths, quoted a little Scripture, and gave some valuable hints on questions of practical life — but they were only shrewd disguises in his effort to hurl his victims into the bottomless pit. If a vile and disreputable person or institution is charitable to the poor and unfortunate, as is often the case — so far from atoning for vice, it only makes it more apparent, as the lightning flash makes more sensible the darkness which it relieves for but a moment.
It is further claimed that the theater is an educator of the ignorant masses. This can be true, if at all, to a very limited extent. The plays in common use contain a smaller percent of knowledge, than may be found of solid nutriment in intoxicating. Even if the claim could be allowed, it would be but a doubtful apology for the institution. The ox that is fattened to be killed, owes few thanks for his good feeding,; and the fish that is taken makes no mention of the excellence of the worm used for bait. If the knowledge imparted is sandwiched with folly and vice, it is only a disguise for a deadly poison.
It is claimed for the theater, that it affords the amusement and recreation needed after hard toil. If it would . . .
do this without demoralizing and destroying;
please without raising vile passions;
entertain without insinuating lust and impurity;
amuse without profanity and vulgarity;
afford diversions without infusing poisons;
give rest to tired brain and muscle without doing violence to conscience and moral affections —
then would it indeed be an angel of light. The theater, like intoxicating drinks, amuses, excites, and entertains — but the other half of the story is too dark and terrible for human words to utter.
It is also said that the theater has greatly aided the growth of good literature. The fact, however, that the theater has been able to offer such prizes as would stimulate genius to its best efforts, is no argument upon its moral character or its fitness as a place of resort for Christian people. Highway robbery, assassination, and dueling have done much to improve the manufacture of pistols, knives, and all kinds of weapons, and yet they are everywhere condemned and execrated. Whatever may be said of the past services of the stage to good literature, its mission seems to have ended, for there is not a single living writer for the stage who produces anything but low, worthless trash.
The are critics who have no special concern for the moral influence of the theater, bewail in loudest terms the sad decline of the drama — its low intellectual, artistic, and moral character. They are the weeping Jeremiahs of the age, and have cause enough for their tears, for their "holy city" also "has become a harlot."
The Moral Influences of the Theater
There is about every person and institution, an indefinable something called moral influence. Like the odor from a flower-garden, or a mass of putrefaction — it penetrates the surrounding atmosphere, and though invisible and intangible, it is distinctly recognized and felt. It may not be traced to any single act or element of character; it may be the mystic aroma of hidden unseen qualities — but like a deadly malaria, floating about in invisible particles in the air, it may carry death to the most healthy, robust natures.
The oldest and wisest teachers of the race — fathers, mothers, and philosophers — have all warned the young against the danger of evil associations that would bring them into contact with vice. If God had not spoken upon the subject, we would need but to look about at the wide spreading, desolate ruins, where the fires of passion, kindled by a spark from a neighboring conflagration, have eaten up everything that was beautiful or of value, leaving only ashes and blackened walls, for the most eloquent proclamation of the truth on this subject.
We are by nature strongly inclined to the imitation of others; and if passion or impulse aid this inclination, its strength is doubled; and if the fiery impetuosity and indiscretion of youth add vehemence to the passion, it will be well-near uncontrollable.
We are strongly affected by what we see — the image of a thing painted on the retina of the eye, is thence transferred to the mind and to the heart. The image of a thing is next to the reality, and hence it is that the image of vice, acted or real, carried through the eye to the mind and heart makes such a powerful impression, and so often, like a living seed lodged in the warm soil of the heart, springs up into reality after the kind of that from which it sprang.
To look upon vice must have one of two effects — either to corrupt the mind; or it will strengthen the soul in virtue by arousing its indignation, and protest against it. How is it possible to sit by the hour watching the development of an intrigue of unchaste love, of robbery, or murder, seasoned with profanity and coarse vulgarity, to seek it by choice, knowing beforehand the character of the play — and not be corrupted by it? To sit by choice, while scenes of vice are being enacted, with no protest against them — is to aid them with our assent and sanction.
The attendant upon Church services is understood to sanction and approve them by his presence, and to contribute his influence toward making effectual the principles there taught; and the same is true of attendance upon the theater. What mind can look upon the half-dressed woman, the indecent attitudes and postures, the lascivious looks and embraces, and the unfolding of a plot for the corruption and overthrow of the pure and innocent — uttering not a word of protest nor withdrawing from it as from a fatal contagion — and remain untainted?
These old lines are so true to human nature and history as to be worthy of being inscribed over the door-way of every theater as a warning to all who enter:
"Vice is a monster of so frightful deportment
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace."
To consent to look upon vice without a protest against it, is the first step to moral degeneracy.
The young may be as pure as angels, as their parents and friends claim for them, but they have passions and propensities quietly slumbering — as innocent and inoffensive as gunpowder when let alone — but one spark of fire may produce an explosion rending into fragments, all that was beautiful and lovely.
A gentleman of distinction testifies to what has been the experience of vast numbers of young men. When a boy he spent some time in the city with a friend, giving some fifteen minutes one night to looking upon vile scenes. He says: "The poison took effect — and the sin left its mark. I cannot erase the effects of the impure thoughts which in that quarter of an hour were lodged in my heart, and which (may God forgive me) I harbored there. I can and do pray against the sin, and for God's grace to conquer it; but it is a thorn in my flesh and still causes me great bitterness and anguish. Young men, as a lover of your souls, I tell you in all sincerity that there is nothing which I would not willingly give to have the veil of oblivion cast over those corrupt scenes and sentiments which still haunt me like foul specters!"
A few minutes in a pest house may be enough to blight the whole life — and one touch of impurity may poison the soul for time and eternity!
It is no credit to a man's head or to his heart for him to say he can look upon such scenes unmoved. Human nature is the same everywhere, and my complaint is not that men allow themselves to be moved by such scenes, so much as that they allow them to come into their presence. Unless one is naturally deficient, made of putty rather than of tingling nerves and delicate sensibilities — whatever moves the common mass of men will move him; for the most gifted and highly endowed are often the most sensitive and capable of impressions.
It is the design of the theater to excite the emotions and raise the passions of the audience. A good listener, like a good actor, must enter into the spirit of the piece, follow the actor in his feelings, passions, and sentiments — and for the time by the power of his imagination transform fiction into reality. He is a dull, stupid, soulless fellow, who looks upon the scenes of the stage with no rising passions.
One has forcibly said of the stage: "Wickedness is made to give amusement. Lying, drunkenness, and adultery are made a cause of sport and the occasion of hilarity, and crimes that would call down the wrath of God on their perpetrators are systematically made to provoke laughter."
Laughing at vice and sin is a mild way of taking in its infection, and a sure approach to a reconciliation and lasting friendship with it. If two people who have long been bitter enemies can be brought to indulge in a hearty laugh together, what remains necessary to a reconciliation will be easily disposed of. An uncorrupted mind has only scorn for vice — a corrupted mind consents to laugh at it.
This silent, insensible, indirect influence is one of the most deadly and dangerous forces of evil. Vice will rarely succeed in a bold, open attack upon virtuous minds; it will be rejected with scorn. It may, however, by soft, gentle, insensible approaches . . .
accustom the mind to its presence,
insinuate its charms,
blind the eyes to its character and consequences, and
at last win marvelous victories over natures supposed to be armored against it — as the continual dropping of water will change the face of solid granite.
These positions are sustained by the testimony of theater goers, that what at first greatly shocked them — they come directly to view unmoved and with perfect indifference, showing the deterioration of the finer feelings.
The Theater and Christian Life
The present dangers to Christian life are very different in character, from those which confronted the apostles and early followers of our Lord. Persecution then sought to drive them from the field, but it soon appeared that instead of hindering, this only helped the growing cause. Satan is shrewd enough when one scheme will not succeed, to try another. Being unable to subdue the Church by open assault, he adopted the more dangerous method of endeavoring to beguile it from its fidelity. The world laid aside its hostile armor, dressed itself in the most pleasing attire, bribed the fine arts as handmaids to aid its performance, and now invites the Church with many professions and pretensions of good will and laudable purposes, to a suspension of hostilities and to a fraternal compromise.
The theater is one of the most powerful elements of this new policy, presenting the combined products of many minds in such combinations as to dazzle, charm, and captivate the soul. It is not strange that Christians feel strongly drawn toward the theater; it has a great advantage over the pulpit or platform, where the speaker must both originate and render the thought.
The most gifted intellect is employed to write the play; the actor studies and practices attitude, posture, and elocution; the master of costumes carefully designs and arranges them to add force to the expression; the artist designs and puts on canvas or in statuary such scenery as will best help the impression to be made; the musician, combining the results of many minds in his department, prepares such moving strains as are at his command. And all these amid a blaze of lights and a flutter of expectation rush upon the stage to overpower and captivate the audience — or to intoxicate them by the excessive draughts of excitement and passion presented to their lips. It is the devil's attempt to play the part of the "spider with the fly" toward the Church.
If we look at a few facts lying on the surface of things, we can be left in no doubt as to the relation of the Church and the theater. One of these facts is, that the attendants upon the theater from within the Church are of the less spiritual and less earnest portion of its membership — usually mere professors. They are of those who have little to say about Christian experience, "whose delight is" not "in the law of the Lord," even in reading it, who are not specially fond of the social meetings of the Church for prayer and religious conference, who are not very earnest in the work of saving souls or in visiting and praying with the sick and dying. They may be efficient in conducting sociables, managing fairs, attending to the financial interests of the Church, and doing many good things, but in those elements of Christian life which give best proof of genuine devotion, reflect most honor on the Gospel and bring most glory to Christ — they are deficient.
Another fact is, that the earnest, faithful, truly devout Christian has no desire to go to the theater; indeed, loathes and abhors it for its moral impurities — as much as he may appreciate its artistic excellence. It is a simple fact of history, of human experience, that a high state of Christian life excludes the theater. To every true Christian, religious duties are first, and when these are discharged in the home, in society, in the Church, and at the bedside of the sick and dying, there is but little time, and certainly no desire left for theater-going.
Another fact is that the world regards theater-going inconsistent with the Christian's professions. He professes to live . . .
"not to please himself — but Him who died for him;"
not to secure the pleasures of this world — but the glories of Heaven;
not to seek pleasure and the favor of the world — but a likeness to Christ and a fitness for his society;
not to corrupt his associates by a bad example — but to lead them to Christ and to those safeguards of good character found only in true religion.
Theater-going does not harmonize with such a profession. Read the covenant under which we are admitted to holy baptism: "Do you renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh — so that you will not follow or be led by them?"
"I renounce them all." Who can lay his hand on his heart before God, take this solemn covenant, and go away to the play-house?
Attendance upon the theater destroys the Christian's influence for good. The unconverted do not apply to the theater-going Christian for council and prayer when awakened to a sense of their need of salvation. A young lady very sick, fearing she would die unsaved, asked for a minister. She was asked if the Presbyterian elder just across the way would do. "No," she said, "he goes to the theater. I am afraid his prayers would do me no good." All classes feel that such people are not the best guides to the kingdom of God. The world ridicules and scorns them, and the Church distrusts and mourns over them.
One may say, "It does me no harm to go to the theater." But, if a true Christian, you are bound to go further and ask, "Does it do others harm? Does it destroy my power over them for good? Does it influence them to go to places safe enough to me, but sure to prove their destruction?"
Paul's doctrine of Christian expediency, and the command not "to let our good be evil spoken of," certainly apply to those Christians who think they may safely go to the theater. Paul would "eat no meat" and "drink no wine so long as the world stands" if either made another to stumble or fall.
While this doctrine may be abused and carried to an extreme, every Christian conscience must acknowledge its claims. The words of Hannah More have great force and truth upon this subject. She says: "I do not hesitate for a moment to pronounce the theater to be one of the broadest avenues that 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 great 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 purlieus 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. Light and darkness are not more opposed to each other than the Bible and the theater. If the one is good — then the other must be evil. If the Scriptures are to be obeyed — then the theater must be avoided. The only way to justify the theater, as it is, as it has ever been and is ever likely to be, is to condemn the Bible — the same individual cannot defend both."
"The peril of the theater is to purity of character. Your eyes and ears are windows and doors to the heart. What enters once, never goes out. Photographs fastened on the memory are not easily effaced or burned up; they stick there, and often become tempters and tormentors for a lifetime. The whole trend of the average American theater is hostile to heart-purity. A converted actor once said to his pastor while passing a theater, 'Behind those curtains lies Sodom!' As an institution, the American theater tolerates sensual impurity in its performers, and presents scenes of impurity to its patrons. If you become one of its patrons, you go into moral partnership with the theater." Theodore Cuyler
Can the Theater Be Reformed?
In the preceding pages I have been dealing with the actual facts of an existing institution, and not with an abstraction, as an ideal possibility. Men say, "Yes, the theater as it is merits censure, but we must reform it and make it what it should be." To this I only have to say, present your reformed theater and I will rejoice with you, or propose a plausible method of reforming it, and I will join you.
It would be a great blessing to society if a pure theater could be maintained, where the people might be amused without being corrupted, and where knowledge might be imparted in a form that would give pleasure and afford recreation. That such a great and beneficent institution might be brought into the field to reinforce the agencies at work for the elevation of society, has long been a favorite dream with me, as it has been with many others. As we look carefully at it, however, the problem becomes involved and difficult, and up to this time, at least, a practical solution has proved impossible. "Time proves all things," and it has given some light upon this question. Practical experiment settles all questions; theories melt away before it, as mist before the rising sun.
The reformation of the theater has been tried by the most ingenious men, under the most favorable circumstances, with large sums of money to sustain the undertaking, at various periods during the last two thousand years — and every effort has proved a disastrous failure. If in the ordinary affairs of life a certain achievement should seem desirable and possible, and capable men with adequate means at their command should undertake it and fail, and if the effort should be renewed again and again by the most gifted men for a period of two thousand years with uniform failure — then it would be accepted as a conclusive practical argument that the thing itself is impossible.
Socrates attempted to reform the theater and failed. The Church in the middle ages made the attempt, but instead of reforming the theater, the theater corrupted the Church.
Hannah More tried it; wrote several plays herself to aid the good design — but lived long enough to abandon all hope and effort for the impossible reform.
Sir William Windham, the friend and co-laborer of Wilberforce, the philanthropist, threw all his strength into a similar effort, but with no better success.
The great and gifted Channing was equally unsuccessful in Boston. It is said that all the leading theaters of Philadelphia were started in an effort at reform, which lasted no longer than was necessary to get an expression from the patrons of the theater as to the character of the plays they were willing to patronize.
In New York the splendid genius of Booth was employed in this Utopian scheme, and the magnificent structure that bears his name stands as a monument over the grave of his buried hopes and defeated plans.
The great actor, Henry Irving, is at this time making a vigorous effort to sustain the ideal theater in London, but let the frosts of time touch him and it — and the decay and death that have overtaken all similar efforts, will fall upon this.
Under all these efforts, instead of improving, the theater has steadily grown worse. Addison declares that the theater of his day was not "half so virtuous as that of poor pagan Greece and Rome," while the critics of today testify to its continued demoralization.
The New York Evening Post, in a recent editorial on "Our Stage as it is," says: "There has probably been a greater mass of meretricious rubbish set on the New York stage during the last ten years, than during the whole of its existence. We do not, of course, refer solely to pieces that appeal to the baser instincts, but to the whole body of sensational or emotional products, to the feverish slop of a French melodrama."
Another leading journal says: "Twenty five years ago such an exhibition as is nowadays nightly made in this class of amusements (comic opera) in the most matter of fact way, would have gone near to landing the whole party in the police station."
But why should all efforts at reform fail? Is the theater necessarily evil? Must it of necessity grow worse as it grows older? Experience teaches that if it exists at all, it must be by descending to play upon the vile and base passions. Where it does this, there is sufficient patronage to sustain it; where it does not, it is driven into bankruptcy for the lack of patronage. The people will support a vile theater, while they will let a pure one perish. Philosophize about it as we may, this is the well attested fact of history, worth more to true thinkers than any amount of theorizing and speculation.
The very purpose of the institution makes its reformation difficult, if not impossible. Its purpose is to reproduce scenes from actual life, so as to excite and raise the passions; it must excite — or it cannot hold its audiences. Nothing proves so exciting to the masses as an intrigue of unholy love, a scheme of fraud or cool villainy carried out with a strong hand; the disclosure of concealed vice in the lives of professing Christians, or the wild orgies of dissipation and folly. The masses will not pay the price of a ticket to see . . .
the beauties of virtue,
the rewards of honest toil,
the respect due to manly integrity,
the quiet happiness of a pure home, or
the peaceful decline of virtuous old age, put upon the stage.
These may be seen every day without cost, are expected as a matter of course, and have no power to excite the passions. There must be violence, crimes, atrocities, wicked disclosures, vile suggestions, and powerful appeals to the sinful passions and emotions. The nature of things seems thus to determine the course of the theater if it is to live by public patronage.
If, as is claimed, the theater "holds up the mirror to human nature," and reflects only what actually occurs in life — it is not thereby vindicated. The reproduction of the follies and vices and sins of society before the eyes of the young, is the most successful way of propagating them, as I have shown in former pages. There are also many things, innocent and right in themselves, which are by nature and common custom, remanded to privacy — the representation of which in public must be highly demoralizing. Many things pure and right in themselves, are punishable by law, if brought out of that privacy to which they belong. It is corrupting to "hold up the mirror to human nature," and make public what belongs to privacy, and the excitement of the play is largely the result of this perversion of nature.
That the theater is not, and cannot, be true to nature, though true to fact, appears from another view. Events cannot be represented as they occurred, giving proper recognition to the important element, time. The transactions of years must be crowded into a few minutes; transitions, which in nature are gradual and smooth, must be made suddenly and with a shock to the feelings! Occurrences for which nature slowly prepares the way, burst upon us with a suddenness that startles and overwhelms; and the exciting events of a life, separated by long intervals in natural experience, are crowded into a single evening, and the mind intoxicated with these unnatural draughts until rational thinking becomes impossible. In these whirlwinds of excitement and passion, the birth, courtship, marriage, divorce, remarriage, bankruptcy, old age, and death of one or more parties are all portrayed to the excited feelings, producing an actual intoxication of excitement in the highest degree perilous to good morals and intellectual equilibrium.
It is further claimed that the fictitious excitement of even good and pure emotions and sympathies, reacts unfavorably upon the character. To be moved to tears of sympathy, where there is no real suffering, and where aid cannot be given and is not needed — has a hardening effect upon the heart. To raise emotions and passions with no suitable opportunity to express them in words or conduct, and by fictitious means, simply to please and entertain — is contrary to the order, of nature, and must be corrupting. There are many practical difficulties in the way of reforming the theater that need not be mentioned, as what I have already presented seems sufficient to close the argument.
"Theater-going is a sin against the whole nature and spirit of our religion. It is a contradiction to all Christian holiness and to all the methods of arriving at it!" (William Law)
"The hatred of the Puritans to the theater was the honest hatred of God-fearing men against the foulest depravity presented in a poetic and attractive form!" (J.R. Green)
"The fact is that theatrical performances, in order to be paying propositions, must pander to the baser passions in unregenerate men and women. They must be a reflex of the world — the world that lies in the Wicked One. This, say some, is their merit — they are a mirror of life, and as life includes the foul and the sordid so too must the theater.
We grant that the playwright sets out to mirror life. So too does Holy Scripture. No book so revealing as to human nature! No book which better portrays human sin! But if the theater and the Book do one and the same thing — then wherein lies the vast difference between them? And why may not one be the handmaid of the other?
For a variety of reasons; but principally for this — that, whereas the Book shows . . .
sin in its true colors,
sin in its devilish origin,
sin in its course,
sin in its wages,
sin in its awful and eternal consequences;
on the other hand the theater displays sin that men may be amused, entertained, and alas, all too often seduced! The Book smites the conscience and leads a man to say, "Woe is me, for I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!" It causes him to cry, "God be merciful to me a sinner!"
But the theater tends in another direction altogether. As it sets out to entertain, so also it blurs a man's sight of that which is truly spiritual and divinely holy; as it aims to amuse, it dulls a man's ability to examine himself in the pure light of revealed truth." (S.M. Houghton)