Monday, 3 March 2014

THE PULPIT AND THE STAGE

ADELAIDE DEMOCRATIC CLUB.

Lecture by Mr. Wybert Reeve.

. . .
Mr. Reeve said:—Tennyson, the poet, in his poem on the death of Prince Albert, writes—

A prince, indeed,
Beyond all titles and a household name.
Hereafter, thro' all time, Albert the Good.

Albert the Good, on opening the city hall in the great manufacturing town of Leeds in 1858, was asking about the progress and culture of the place. "Have you a good theatre ?" He was answered in the negative. "Ah ! that's a pity," he replied. "You should have one, for nothing is more calculated to promote culture and raise the tone of the people."
I want to prove these as no idle words in this lecture on the pulpit and the stage, and that other good and great men have looked upon the stage with the same high regard. I want you to understand the opinion of such men should outweigh the prejudices of those who denouncing it believe they have a mission in life, and that mission is to dictate a narrow code of morality for the guidance of their fellows and destroy the natural desire for amusement, which at times is, fortunately, inherent in most of our natures.
Clergymen of every denomination during their pulpit career think it their duty at some time or the other to call attention to this love of pleasure, and the stage being the most prominent form of it, it generally falls in for the majority of censure or praise. The pity of it is this, that on all sides the arguments used are more or less illogical, ignorant, and prejudiced. The disputants know too little of their subject, as a rule, to do justice to it.

Pleasure, or wrong, or rightly understood,
Our greatest evil, or our greatest good.

If I wanted to write or lecture on the art of sculpture or painting, or to preach upon the subject of religion, I should consider it my duty to first make myself thoroughly acquainted with my subject. How could I possibly express an honest opinion unless I did this ? Do critics of the stage so trouble themselves ? The majority of those who condemn know nothing or little of its literature, of its outer or inner life. Many by a narrow faith are taught from childhood to shun it as a pestilence, and with few exceptions those who befriend it from the pulpits are bound down within certain limits of approval, which is more, perhaps, than their livelihood is worth to overstep. How can such people fully comprehend the influence of the drama on the minds of others ? What does the bigot know of that wonderfully sympathetic thrill of joy or sorrow with which the listener follows the fortunes for good or ill of the mimic hero or heroine ? What do they know of the great incentive to happiness and health which the hearty laugh affords ? Or how brains and hearts, worn down by home sorrows and business anxieties, find for a time in the theatre renewed strength for the morrow to enter once more the stern battle of the busy world about them. In its highest form the stage claims a greater mission than this. You may, perhaps, remember that often quoted passage from the poet Campbell—

But by the mighty actor brought
Illusions wedded, triumphs come,
Verse ceases to be airy thought
And sculpture to be dumb.

In following out this idea of the higher motive of the drama, I will quote some of the words used by the late respected Bishop of Manchester in an address he gave from the stage in one of the theatres of that city:—" I do not want or agree with those who want to close the theatres. It is a mistake. A great heathen teacher and philosopher taught me that tragedy was a great instrument for purifying the passions. I think no one will say otherwise who has seen a well-graced actor playing a leading part in one of Shakespeare's plays, or, indeed, any good play. He must feel his nature elevated and strengthened, and even if not spiritualised, at any rate the waters have been wholesome to him, he has drunken."
Mr. Gladstone, in a speech made on presiding at the Charles Dean testimonial dinner some years ago, said:—" We cannot treat the drama as among the light amusements of the world. It belongs to no age. No student of human nature, no observer of society, no historian that tells the events of the world, and aims to give a true picture of mankind, ever can omit it from his view. It is characteristic of the whole history of man."

The Rev. Sydney Smith, the great wit and divine, writes in 1809 a defence of the stage : — " Where is every feeling more roused in favor of virtue than at a good play? Where is goodness so feelingly, be enthusiastically learnt ? What wretched infatuation to interdict such amusements as these ?" Now are we to credit these opinions or are we to take the late Mr. Spurgeon's dictum, who says in one of his sermons :— " The devil is the god of the theatre. No man can be a true child of God and yet attend these haunts of vice." From many a pulpit has much the same thing been said, more so in times gone by than now. If we are to accept it all I can say is, there are very few children of God in the civilized world worth knowing, and Mr. Spurgeon's devil is blessed with some very good society that I should be proud to meet.
If the opinions I have quoted in the drama's cause are not to be accepted, how about Martin Luther, the heroic defender of Christianity against tyranny and bigotry, who in one of his sermons said:—"Of all amusements the theatre is most profitable, the best productive of good," and further on in the same address :—" Christians ought not to fly and abstain from comedies because now and then gross tricks and dallying passages are acted thereon." He wisely argues the strictures and presence of the good tends to abolish evil. Evil is every where, and it should be met boldly for the sake of the good. Undoubtedly evil is everywhere. I would ask, with all due reverence, is the Bible perfectly free from it. Are such characters as Solomon, David, and other heroes of the Book of untainted purity of lives ? I think not—far from it. Are the wars, murders, adulteries? are the vengeances attributed to God himself examples of all that is charitable, Christian, noble, and good ? Are there no chapters we would blush to see our young and innocent daughters endeavoring to comprehend ?
" To hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, even her own image, and the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure." For all this we would not banish that venerated book, the Bible, from our homes. Do the revilers against the stage know that the Apostle Paul was asked to preach in a theatre, and had no harsh word against it, or that theatres were in Ephesus, Athens, and Rome when the apostles lived and preached, but by no syllable of implication that I know of did they denounce the stage or its professors ?
Since the age of the great lawgiver, Solon, since Thespis of Attica with his primitive accessories, for upwards of 2,000 years has the drama accompanied civilization, and where civilization has made the most progress, where social life has become more elevated, where refinement and taste have risen above sensuality, grossness, and ignorance, there the theatre has always flourished most. The history of every nation will prove this. Its influence can never die out; it must outlive all abuse, because the "greatest of the arts" is the one reflecting man's own nature. All the philosophy, grandeur, heroism, and decay of Greece and Rome we see reflected in the dramatic poetry. The gross superstition, ignorance, and priestly intolerance is apparent in that most degraded age, when the church seized hold of the stage's influence, and in sacrilegious mysteries and moralities used it for its own purposes.
The Holy Fathers of the Church began to denounce stage plays and players, and the canons of the early church refused baptism and holy communion to stage players, only when the drama was taken out of their hands by the laity, and they had lost its influence. When it became a rival attraction and assumed a more elevated humane character, which gradually developed into a form more consistent with its earlier history and dignity, then the Catholic Church thundered against it, and only excommunicated it when it was no longer a part of itself.
Briefly, to return to the subject of the stage reflecting the life around it. Is not the chivalry, enlightenment, Baconian philosophy, and the supremacy of England during the Elizabethian era mirrored in every page of Shakespeare ? Has it no place in the plays of Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and contemporary writers ? The vice, immorality, and generally debased condition of England during the reigns of the Stuarts we see reflected in the works of Wycherly, Congreve, and other writers. These faults were intensified at the restoration by the restrictions of the Puritans, who during the Commonwealth forbade not only stage plays but every kind of amusement, and imposed a penalty on all who ventured to indulge in them.
In the reigns of Queen Anne, William, and the First and Second George, conversation in fashionable circles was not particularly refined or delicate ; indeed, it was gross to an extent we cannot realize now. It improved later on in the time of Garrick, and this great actor assisted in giving the stage a purer, better tone, and what was most important the public were willing to appreciate and encourage him. When he died peers of the realm thought it and honor to hold up the pall covering his coffin as it was borne to that grand mausoleum of England's worthies, Westminster Abbey.
The present age is reflected in the drama. To be successful it must have novelty, sensationalism, realism, lightness—because it is a sensational, realistic age. It is a fierce struggle for place, in which the weakest must fall. The brain overtaxed in its strife for existence or its wild pursuit of excitement and wealth requires amusement, relaxation, rest. Poetry has nearly died out of our lives. Even pleasure must be highly seasoned and exhaustive to be en joyed, and I am sorry to say in reflecting this life the stage is at times degenerating from what it should be. For the evils in modern plays which trench too nearly upon the worst phases of social life, or the costumes in burlesque that we take exception to, is the manager to blame ? Have the public no responsibility in this ? Remember

The drama's laws the drama's patrons give,
And those who live to please must please to live.

Unfortunately it is so easy to act and write downwards to the popular level and so difficult to win appreciation for earnest, artistic work ! The public are in no small degree responsible for the nature of the attractions they will support. Demand must in this, as in everything else, control supply.
Does this maxim not hold good with the pulpit ? Do we not find novelty, sensationalism, change. When people pray they like to pray comfortably. Churches and chapels must be well fitted, and in many cases luxurious. They object to be devout in the mildew old churches and high pews of a past age. They cannot sit happily with piles of rotting humanity in the vaults beneath their feet; but this is what our forefathers did, and are we more devout than they were ? I don't think so. We must now have fine organs, good music, a choir of singers with cultivated voices. Yet I question if as many an earnest appeal to God has not gone up in the primitive days of our fathers, accompanied by an old flute and a broken-winded double bass.
How many earnest men in the pulpit find it absolutely necessary to keep up the interest of their congregation and draw strangers to the church by sermons with a startling title connected with hell, or the devil, or some popular topic of the day. Are they to blame for this? Certainly not. They may in all this teach moral truths, but they feel they can no more stem the rush of the public for the emotional and sensational than a manager can control the taste of an audience. Persistently trying to educate the public to your standard (if you have a high one) against their will may mean empty pews in a church—in a theatre the loss of a fortune, and in both cases very little gratitude or sympathy if you do not succeed. I can speak feelingly with respect to theatres. I should like to have asked Mr. Spurgeon, and his followers and imitators, wherefore their occasional startling peculiarities if not to draw the public and make the public open their purse strings, for we cannot get on with any kind of religion nowadays without plenty of money. I am stating exactly what he said.
There is another gentleman of somewhat the same school as Mr. Spurgeon, and with the same bitterness against the stage—it was the gate to hell, I heard him say—Mr. Joseph Cook, from America, who attracted very large congregations here in Australia a few years ago. I heard him describe the Day of Judgment, when he should stand, one of the elect, by the side of the Almighty. He had no doubt about his position; he had a ticket for a reserved seat, I suppose. From thence he could look down upon the thousands of unregenerate, as he pictured them—to use his own words, "cast down into hell fire," and he appeared to gloat over the picture of poor roasting humanity, and many of the white-tied gentlemen on the platform and people in the congregation seemed to join in (what I must call) his self-sufficient blasphemy. I could only look and listen in amazement that men and women with any sense of justice or humanity could believe in the brutal Godhead that man was setting up, or trust a faith too horrible for the conception of a savage, much less the Almighty whose message through Christ to all man kind is peace, love, and charity. Crowds followed him, he preached for money, and as an exponent of fire and brimstone he excelled, but I thought as I listened to him, what a blessing it would be if such people had but the soul and sense to understand and appreciate the mercy and Godhead as conceived by a profane actor and poet, William Shakespeare:—

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth, as the gentle rain from Heaven,
Upon the place beneath. It is twice bless'd,
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes,
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest.
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God
When mercy seasons justice.
Consider this—
That in the cause of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

Will religious bigots ever learn this ?
If the stage is so unworthy the recognition of the pulpit, as some preachers and people would lead others to suppose, why do they seek the aid of it in their fancy fairs and balls ? why do they encourage and profit by amateur performances ? Surely the stage is the stage, whether amateurs or professionals play, whether it is in a theatre, in a hall, or a drawing room. The fact remains the same.
It is done for money. Why demand of the stage more than the pulpit is willing to sacrifice for itself ? Christ and His disciples were poor, unselfish men, preaching for truth's sake, wandering in Palestine without riches, and envying none ; but modern followers of Christ seldom forget the loaves and fishes. I do not quarrel with them for this, but when the pulpit blames the stage there should be a little consistency.
There is another consideration. The stage cannot look to large subscriptions, endowments, taxes, licences, and pew rents. A manager is the head of a large house of business, with very heavy rents, taxes, licences, salaries to be paid, perhaps hundreds of human beings depending on him for support. In the case of Messrs. Williamson &c; Musgrove, for instance, some five hundred people are in their employ. This can only be managed by studying the wants of the public. Then why should not the public assist in making the stage, where it is needed, more refined, higher, better, and I know of no really respectable manager or true dramatic artiste who would not with all his soul help the public in the good work.
No true lover of a great art can ever wish to degrade it. Let right-minded people look upon the stage in the same light as Professor Blackie, who addressed his students at the University of Edinburgh in these words:—"If people visit a theatre and fall into bad company, and are led to their ruin, the theatre is not to blame for it, but their own unregenerate natures and want of self-control. The idea of stamping out amusements, and especially such an intellectual and morally noble amusement as the theatre, is ridiculous. The drama is fundamentally from God as much as the sermon, and the stage is a Divine institution no less than the pulpit." Further on in the address he says:—"I have much oftener felt the gracious teardrops of human sympathy and devout pity drawn from my heart and eyes by the vivid impersonations of the stage than by the most fervid appeals of eloquence ever delivered in a Scottish pulpit." It is a Scotch Professor who is saying this !
If the stage is thus a Divine instrument of good, let it be fearlessly acknowledged as such by liberal minded, open, honest support, not half-hearted condescension, not by going to the theatre because a piece or star happens to be a London or Parisian fashion, and to see it is the right thing in society. That is not supporting the drama; that is pandering to morbid curiosity and fashion. Take the success of "The Sign of the Cross." Thousands have flocked in England, America, and here in Australia to that play who would not on any consideration have otherwise entered a theatre. There never was a greater proof of mistaken prejudice. True the piece taught an historical fact in the persecution of the Christians by the Romans. It teaches the sublime faith of the martyrs. Dramatically, a contrast was necessary. It is shown in the scene depicting the wild orgies of the loose women of Rome and the passion of Marcus for the Christian maiden. They are two of the strongest scenes of their kind I know of. That without the contrasting religious element would be denounced ; but here they are accepted as part of the moral. Let me assure such theatregoers there are scores of plays with lessons of morality as strong, if not stronger, if they would honestly do away with prejudice and go and see them. If a play is bad, condemn it. Bearing this in mind, it is not by hiding evil the world is bettered, but by forcibly placing it by the side of good that human character is perfected.
Henry Irving relates how in talking to a very eminent bishop at a fashionable assembly in London, he said :—" My lord, why is it, with your deep interest in the stage and knowledge of the drama, and your wide sympathy with all that is noble and refined, you never go a theatre ?" " Well, Irving," replied the bishop, "because I am afraid of the Rock and Record"—meaning the two influential church papers so named. This was an honest but very cowardly excuse, and it is this same feeling that stands in the way of thousands. The morality of the stage is often called in question. Well, I believe it to be quite as good and pure as any other community. So far as criminal statistics go, you will perhaps be surprised to hear that the stage stands by far the purest of any class, even the pulpit.

.....

The lecturer then dealt with the charge made against the profession that they did not attend church, and asked—Were they the only people who stayed away ? If the congregation had better sermons to listen to they would more frequently attend. A complaint against the laity in London to-day was that the people leave the churches before the sermon commences.
Mr. Reeve, continuing, said the pulpit from the earliest time to the present has been jealous of the popularity of the stage. It has no right to be. Clergymen have only to look round and see the crowds who flock to hear an eloquent and earnest preacher. He is followed and attentively listened to, but he must possess the qualifications necessary to make himself popular; he must be gifted with the power to hold the sympathy of an assembly of sensible people. If he has it not how can he expect to be successful in crowding his church any more than an incapable actor can draw to a theatre.
The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher—no inconsiderable actor of the pulpit—hit the mark when he said :—"People go to church and get nothing but straw raised 500 years ago, and are dissatisfied, and will not come again. Well, I honor them for it. If a man sleeps under my preaching I do not send a boy to wake him up, but I feel somebody had better come and wake me up."
In the church, particularly the Church of England, the fitness of a young man to take holy orders is about the last thing thought of by his family and his college. Cram him with Greek, Latin, and mathematics ; leave the rest to providence. Never mind his mental capacity, his earnestness, his morals, his elocutionary powers, what should be first is last. We should not select a one-armed man to fight as a soldier, a one legged sailor to go aloft, a blind man as an explorer, yet incapables are chosen to minister to the mental wants and intelligences of a people. The only thought too often is, "It's so nice and genteel to have a clergyman in the family." Do not mistake me. I can think of no higher or nobler position than that of an earnest, popular, pulpit orator. I can think of no more morally degrading, or reprehensible one, than that of an indifferent, careless, incapable preacher, who has not the earnestness to be eloquent, the sense to feel his responsibility, or the soul to win sympathy ; who earns his "loaves and fishes" with as little trouble as possible to himself, and regards his calling as a business transaction, to deal out his "tea and muffins," or his multiplication theology, with a firstly, secondly, thirdly, a hasty benediction, amen, and now its over, and I can go home to supper and to bed, with the mistaken idea, "I have done my duty." All the teaching in the world can no more make a preacher than it can an actor, and with the capacity the greatest cultivation is required for both.
I wish you to understand what I mean by eloquence and pulpit oratory. I do not mean it to apply to preachers like Joseph Cooke, Dr. Parker of Holborn Temple notoriety, or the American preacher, Talmage (who, by-the-way, was an actor, and, I believe, a very bad one; so having failed on the stage he took to the pulpit). Such men have a rough and ready command of words appealing to the sentiments, passions, and self-sufficient godliness of inferior and narrow intelligences—more than to the heart and intellects of an assembly of a higher character. I mean the eloquence of such men as the late Bishop of Peterborough, Bishop Alexander, Canon Liddon, or I might instance Victoria's late Bishop Moorhouse, or such men as Norman McCloud, Dr. Guthrie, or amongst living men— Brooke and Dr. Alexander, or the fiery, but at the same time cultivated, invective of the late Italian ex-priest Gavazzi.

What can true eloquence not accomplish, as Milton writes :—
             His tongue
Dropt manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash Maturest counsels.

Or as Antony in his magnificent oration over Caesar's body says :—

But were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony,
Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

I need hardly say how dear a place the stage holds in the memory of most people! How fondly they turn to old stage recollections and experiences ! How vividly they recall the master conceptions of some great actor or actress.

Depend upon this, in the great economy of life the pulpit and the stage have their assigned places, and are intended as benefactors to the human race. The seeds they sow are not so very far apart; the paths they run, although distinct, are somewhat similar. The end in view is much the same —to make our lives brighter, happier, more hopeful, and better. It is to the advantage of the civilized world they should be friends not enemies. The grandest literature humanity possesses belong to both. What is there in language nobler and more beautiful than many chapters of the Bible ? What is there in human thought finer than in our immortal Shakespeare ?
The two books live together in many minds. I remember years ago going to a small cobbler's shop in a Lancashire town to have a pair of boots mended. I found the old fellow resting from labor, and on his knees he had a large well-thumbed volume, which he was reading as he eat his bread and cheese. It was Shakespeare. On a little shelf over his head was another book, a Bible. "Them's my religion," said the cobbler, "I dunnot want any other, sir."
On looking at the glowing picture, instinct with poetry and life, from a master hand, or on the sculptured marble, perfect in beauty, grace, and form, so the eloquence of the pulpit, or the life scenes of the stage, may bring even to the meanest a fellowship of silent and sweet communion with nature, which makes "the whole world kin." As greater liberty and generosity of thought increases, may this great heart sympathy of the world progress, for

I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns.

 Herald 12 August 1899,

No comments: