Sunday, 2 March 2014

EXTRACT FROM THE LIFE OF MRS. SIDDONS, BY THOMAS CAMPBELL.

" Until the time of Charles the Second, there were no women actors in our theatres. Female characters were performed by boys, or young men. Even after the restoration, the custom was not all at once discontinued; and we hear of Kynaston, the last beautiful youth who figured in petticoats on the stage, having been carried about in his theatrical dress by ladies of fashion in their carriages. This was an unseemly spectacle, and we can forgive the Puritans for objecting to see ' men in women's clothing.' But, against this in propriety, the Puritans ought to have appealed to common sense and decency instead of quoting a text from the Book of Deuteronomy which forbids the appearance of men in female attire ; for, though it is true that the Jewish law has interdicted the assumption of women's dress by men, yet it should be remembered that the Levitical law is not binding upon Christians.
"The restorers of our theatres, without troubling themselves about the Puritans. followed the custom of the Continent, in bringing women upon the stage, putting a stop to the impersonation of queens and heroines by the creatures, who had some time to be shaved before they acted. Yet this admission of women among the players, though a great natural improvement occurred in times and circumstances that made it appear at first rather an unfavourable change for the moral character of the stage. Since the death of Shakespeare, and during the latter part of James's reign, the drama had grown more and more licentious. The speeches which stage heroines had to hear and utter were so gross, that the Puritans pronounced it impossible for any woman who was not a courtesan to tread the boards; and Charles the Second, who had re-opened the theatres, and was effectively the manager of nine of them, seemed as if he strove for a wager to make good the words of the Puritans. Considering the profligacy of the age, it is more wonderful that a few actresses, and these the best, were unexceptionable private characters, than that the stage gave its contingency to Charles's seraglio.
'Though, even in those times, the lives of Mrs. Betterton and other actresses belied the puritanic assertion, that no modest woman could tread the hoards, still modern civilization has robbed the Puritans of the strongest objection which they could allege against the theatre, namely, the grossness of its language ; so that the most delicate female need not now shrink from the profession on that account. At present after so many women, who have been patterns of their sex, have been actresses, it may be safely affirmed, that a young debutante, ambitious of first-rate rank as an actress, would find the greatest talents scarcely available without personal respectability of character. Still there are persons, not puritanical, who think it derogatory to female delicacy to meet the gaze of spectator, in impassioned parts. This objection, I grant, may apply to private theatricals. The unprofessional actress, who makes and returns love speeches before an audience, is likely to have no better motive than her vanity.   But the public actress has a fair apology, and her professional publicity is an additional challenge to her virtuous pride.    
"We sometimes hear the player's vocation pronounced degrading; because it exposes him to public insults ; but this is certainly a most unfair argument, at least when it comes from those who frequent the theatre. By attending such entertainments, they recognise the player as a dispenser of innocent amusement; and, when they insult him, merely because he fails to please, they are no doubt obliging the actor to ply a degrading vocation ; but, if cruelty and injustice be disgraceful, they are also degrading themselves. Either it should be proved that the stage is noxious to society, —and that it should therefore be abolished; or, if it be tolerated, the player's occupation should be made as respectable as possible by good treatment. Even if it were admitted, for the sake of argument. that there is something in the actor's life (that something I leave to others to ascertain)—which necessarily tends to impress faults on his moral character, still, what profession can be named which, if it finds any weaknesses in the nature of a man, will not tend to increase them, and bring them out ? All professions tend, more or less, to stamp us with something peculiar, and not always with amiable peculiarities. Yet society wisely honours several professions for their general usefulness, though they labour under this objection. To give but one instance :— 'The world very properly holds the barrister's calling in high respect; for we know that life and property would be less secure than they now are, if every man were to be his own lawyer. And yet it is notorious, that the lawyer's life, which makes him daily and hourly a hireling either on the right side or the wrong side of a cause, as his brief way chance to call him, must tend to imbue his mind with a taste for sophistry, as well as with adroitness at the practice of it. In fact, there is a great deal of acting, both in courts of justice and elsewhere, that goes by a different name.   
" If I should appear all this time to be begging the question, and to be assuming that theatrical amusements are de facto indispensable to society, I would only ask of those who object to them, to say if, practically speaking, they could be done away with? Would the public permit you to shut up the theatres ? No; no more (I speak it respectfully), than to shut up the churches. The love of the drama is a public instinct, that requires to be regulated, but is too deep for eradication. I am no such bigot for the stage, as to say that it is necessarily a school of morals; for, by bad management, it may be made the reverse ; and I think, on the whole, that the drama rather follows than leads public morals. At the same time, it has a general indirect tendency towards the good of society, which, if the theatre be kept amenable to decency and public opinion, may make the drama directly promotive of good morals. It contributes to cheerfulness, and it draws men from grosser enjoyments. It may be made an innocent, nay, an instructive amusement. As a tasteful recreation, it sweetens the public temper. It has well been compared to a mirror, in which we may see ourselves as others see us. But, granting the similitude to be just, the enemy of the theatre will possibly ask me—Has the mirror at which we dress ourselves the power of giving symmetry to our features, or of adding an inch to our stature? No ; but still that chamber-mirror will show a man how ugly he looks with an unwashed face, or an angry physiognomy. In like manner, the moral mirror of the drama will show us what passions most become us, and most deform us, and may therefore, certainly, instruct us in the regulation of our moral feelings.
"To say that the stage is liable to abuse is to say nothing more than is applicable to every other source of human pleasure. You cannot excite more joyously without some contingent dangers. The playhouse say its enemies, is the resort of a great numbers of the vicious, the idle, and the dissipated. Unhappily, so are all popular assemblies, not excepting every Methodist meeting in the kingdom. In fact, if you proscribe theatres, you are bound, in consistency, to persecute Methodism, to uproot vineyards, to destroy breweries, and to abolish music and dancing.
" And religion says as little as sound morality against plays and players. The Scriptures no where stigmatize them, though, in our Saviour's time, there was a theatre in Jerusalem. That theatrical establishment, we know, was forced upon the Jews, at the expense of several lives, by Herod the Great ; and after his death, if Jesus Christ had thought a theatre among the evils to be extirpated by Christianity, he would have found no topic more popular than an innovation so violent to Jewish feelings. But he has left upon it not the slightest denunciation ; and, in this circumstance, he is imitated by all the Apostles ; St. Paul even quotes a dramatic poet, and shows that he was well acquainted with the Attic drama." Morn. Chron,

 The Sydney Monitor 10 June 1835,

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