Monday, 3 March 2014


A RATHER interesting controversy has lately taken place, in the columns of the Sydney Morning Herald, on the somewhat vexed and oft-recurring question of the bearing of the theatre on the morals of the community. The disputants are the Rev. Dr. JEFFERIS and Mr. DION BOUCICAULT. The former is the pastor of the leading Congregational Church in Sydney, and the latter is a distinguished actor, who, with his company, is fulfilling a series of theatrical engagements in the colonies. The occasion of the present discussion of the time worn topic was the utterance of some words of warning against the theatre in a discourse, by Dr. JEFFRIS, on "Leisure and Pleasure," addressed particularly to young women. The topic discussed crops up again and again in social life and in the public Press, and every recurrence of the controversy creates lively interest, not only among partisans and critics of the theatre, but also among the news-reading public generally.
Let us glance, then, at the clerical indictment against the theatre as an existing social institution, catering for public amusement. Dr. JEFFERIS is not a Pecksniff a Chadband, or a Stiggins, but a broad-minded, genial-hearted man, who looks in no scowling, ultra-Puritan fashion upon the pleasures of society. He thus expresses his sentiments:—
"The theatre, as you know, professes to teach morality in a pleasant and interesting way, by exhibiting life itself on the stage. And some have tragedy there, with its powerful appeal to the loftier sentiments of the soul, showing the dignity of virtue and the shamefulness of voice. And so we have comedy laughing at folly and frailty, and endeavouring to cure her audience of its own foibles, by showing how ridiculous they are in others. It requires no great courage in a religious teacher to say something in defence of the drama. Bishops, now-a-days, extend to it their patronage, and, once in a while, are to be seen at a theatrical performance. For myself, I have, during nearly the whole of my public life, pleaded for the drama as a Christian possibility, as much as I have declared my antagonism to the modern theatre, in its existing condition, as upon the whole an anti-Christian agency. Yesterday, there was a remarkable leader in the Herald, dealing with the whole question from a editor's point of view. The article shows clearly how the play-goers of the English theatre are losing their relish for what little of the pure drama yet remains, and are fast sinking into that stage of mental weakness which delights only in broad farce— farce, the word itself carries with it self-condemnation. It is clear, in spite of ecclesiastical yearnings for a renovated stage, that the stage is getting more foolish and vapid than ever. The explanation is easy. As a theatre manger who figures in a recent play says, in defence of his own conduct, "They want a bad thing, and I give it to them." That is it. The great mass of the theatre-going public care nothing for tragedy, very little for honest comedy: they must have the foolish farce. They want a bad thing, and the managers supply it. The question, then, for you to settle in your own minds is not whether the drama is or is not lawful, but whether the theatre, as it is, is a place to which earnest-thoughted, pure-souled English maidens ought to go. Do you not know—if not you ought to know—that the theatre is the recognised place of amusement for all the idle and all the vicious of the city ? Do not be misled by the argument, so often used, that, if Christian people would go to the theatre, the theatre would be purged and restored to the high and honourable place among the beneficial agencies of society. Why, thousands of Christian men and women are going to the theatre to-day, with this distinct result—that it is getting worse and worse. It will be reformed, not by good people countenancing a bad thing, but by a change in the nation's purpose, an elevation of the nation's life."
This lengthy extract (which would not bear excision without the omission of important sentences) sets forth, in temperate but emphatic language, the objections which are held, in the present day, against theatre-going on moral grounds, and, undoubtedly, there are many in the community who consider the reasons urged sufficient to justify them in withholding their countenance and support from the theatre as it is.
Mr DION BOUCICAULT replied to these strictures in an argumentative letter, marked by commendable courtesy and moderation. He simply denies (so far as Great Britain and America are concerned) that, "the theatre is the recognised place of amusement for all the idle and all the vicious of the city." He then employs what logicians call the tu quoque line of argumentation against his clerical opponent :—" I regret to state that the criminal records discover that there is more crime, drunkenness, and wantonness committed on a Sunday than on any other day in the week. If I were as uncharitable and prejudiced as some Christian teachers, I might suggest that on Sunday the Churches are open and the theatres are shut. Justice and truth incline to the belief that the enforced idleness on the Sabbath is at the root of the evil."
Mr. BOUCICAULT appears to dissent from the view which many advocates of the theatre put forth—viz., that it is a school of morality, presenting vivid and realistic object-lessons by means of its many-sided characters. To the observation made by Dr. JEFFERIS that "the theatre professes to teach morality in a pleasant and interesting way," he replies: " I am unaware of any such design. The drama is not a pulpit; it is one of the imitative arts; together with painting, sculpture, poetry, music. Art is the philosophy of pleasure; these are its schools; and the drama is acknowledged to be the highest school of all, as it imitates the inner and spiritual man ; not an attitude, but a life in motion. Whatever moral may be drawn from art should be unrevealed, but susceptible of detection by the keener minds, who thus enjoy a double delight; for as Quintilliaun observed, 'The vulgar minds possess only the pleasure of art, but the instructed recognise its beauty.' (Docti ratiounemartis intelligunt, indocti voluptatem.)"
We consider that this is the weakest point in the actor's reply. If there is no moral mission and no reclaiming purpose in the representations of life depicted at the theatre, its aim is certainly a lower one than is usually claimed for it. Its portraitures of life should be deterrent of vice, and auxiliary to virtue. And we think the moral should be apparent; it, should not be so reconditely presented that only the unusually penetrative mind should see the "beauty" and the vulgar mind should realise the "pleasure" of the histrionic pourtrayal. Vice should not be depicted merely for the fascinating study which its career affords, but that it may be censured and reprobated. And virtue should not be presented, as it often is on the stage, as something lacking robustness, and strength, and as a quality extremely simple and verdant, deserving only of sarcasm and derision. It is often claimed for the stage that it is a more potent exponent of morality than the pulpit. Mr. BOUCICAULT dissents from this—and "Brutus is an honourable man," and must be listened to. It exists, he says, to afford representations of "beauty" to the "instructed" and to minister pleasure to the "vulgar."
But it is just to Mr. BOUCICAULT to say that he considers the theatre has contributed to public morality, and is now, more than in the past, an ameliorative and elevating agency. "The recent spread of education," says he, "has created a numerous public, composed of the trading classes, skilled artisans, and working men. Sixty years ago, such people frequented the public-houses and got drunk— now they spend their leisure and a couple of shillings at the theatre, and go home sober." He admits, however, that there has been a literary degeneracy in the drama. It is feebler, and silliness, stupidity, and commonplaceness are too generally characteristic of modern farces and melodramas. But he contends that these things are not impure, and that the theatre never occupied so high and honourable a place in social estimation as it does at the present time.
Mr. BOUCICAULT incidentally allows that many theatres are conducted so as to pander to sensual and vicious tastes. These are the theatres visited by the upper classes of society. His contention is, that the populace are purer in their tastes than the nobility and gentry. The former care more for fun; the latter for indecent dramas of the "fleshly school." "The working classes," he observes, "may be shallow-minded, but not so shallow or vicious as some of their betters. I speak of the importation of French dramas and opera-bouffes, brought over to England to gratify the prurient tastes of the upper classes; who nearly exclusively patronise the theatres devoted to such productions. The theatres sustained by the people of London are devoted to no such entertainments."
Dr. JEFFERIS, in the discourse which the actor criticises, cautioned his hearers not to be misled by the argument that, if Christian people would go to the theatre, the theatre would be purged and restored to its high and honourable place among the beneficial agencies of society. The only touch of sarcasm in Mr. BOUCICAULT'S reply comes out in response to this note of warning. He remarks that "many Christian people—and amongst them the Queen—have frequented and continue to frequent the theatre. There are a small sect of self-elected Pharisees who never enter a theatre, and there are a small sect of artists who never enter a church, but the Church is none the worse for their absence, and the theatre is none the worse for the loss of such an ascetic addition to their patronage."  
We have already remarked that this is an oft recurring social question, and is likely to be for a long time to come. One grave objection, on moral grounds, to the theatre as an institution in a city concerns not its stage representations, but its adjuncts, surroundings, and associations. We say nothing, here and now, about the actor's profession and its conduciveness, or otherwise, to morality; it is admittedly a perilous calling, requiring the utmost restraints of self-regarding care. It is, moreover, a significant fact that nearly all parents instinctively deprecate any desire on the part of a son or daughter to take to the stage. The strongest objection, however, to theatres as they exist in large cities is the well-known fact that they are the market places of prostitution, it being understood that a portion of the structure or its precincts is shunned by respectable people because it is the resort of the demi-monde. The surroundings, also, in the shape of restaurants and other places of accommodation, which, to the initiated, are scenes of assignation, make the whole thing nauseous to the moral section of the public. If dramatic representations could be kept free of these thickly-clustering evils of the average theatre, and were given in halls used for other purposes, much moral mischief might be avoided. In our own town, the School of Arts is used for histrionic purposes, and the morally perilous associations of play-going are reduced to a minimum, and thereby the patronage of many who, for the reasons stated, object to a theatre, is usually secured.

 Ipswich Herald &c; General Advertiser 22 September 1885, Queensland Times.

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