Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Mistake of the Religious Classes in their Treatment of the Stage
By Henry Whitney Bellows (18141882)
[Born in Boston, Mass., 1814. Died in New York, N. Y., 1882. The Relation of Public Amusements to Public Morality. Delivered before The American Dramatic Fund Society. 1857.]
THE ATTRACTIVENESS of the theatre, even to vice and folly, is nothing against it, until it can be proved that they are attracted there by what is bad and depraving. It is not enough to show that they carry there what is bad and depraving, or that they are not kept away by what is bad and depraving there, but that they are attracted by what is bad and depraving. I suppose them to be attracted precisely by what would attract me or you, or any innocent or well-intentioned personby the love of pleasure, spectacle, society, talent, beauty, light, architecture, and I suppose them to be very innocent so far as the enjoyment of these things is concerned. That, knowing their presence, and coarseness or unscrupulousness, the stage should cater to it, is a monstrous evil; that folly and weakness should find those waiting for them there to practise on their propensities; that they should carry their vices and tastes to the theatre with them, is a dreadful and undeniable misfortune to society. But I am yet to see how, because the wicked and the careless like what the good and the careful also likenamely, pleasureit makes pleasure wrong; and how, because the theatre, in its character of an amusement, attracts the vicious and the depraved, it proves it to be a vicious and depraved amusement. Have the vicious and depraved no human and universal tastes left? are they not still men and women? are not some of their doings and feelings such as the good and the innocent can share? For my own part, I believe the theatre has in every age, exhibited the vices and follies of society rather than created them, and that it has owed its reputation for evil mainly to the fact that it has been the only place in which the decency, or virtue, or propriety of society has met the indecency, the vice, and disreputableness. Now, if the theatre had produced this indecency, vice, or disreputableness, or encouraged it, we should utterly condemn it; but I believe, on the contrary, notwithstanding its imperfect administration, it has done something to correct it. Perhaps the most innocent hours of the vicious have been those in which they were publicly amused under the protection of society. For the innocent pleasure which even vice and folly get out of their existence is the only part of their career we can look at with any satisfaction;all else is loss and ruin.
But, whatever the effect of the theatre is, or has been, having nothing essentially wrong in its principle, and having proved itself to be, in fact, what in theory it has already shown itself to be, the most attractive and permanent of amusements, a fixed and indestructible fact, it seems to me that avowed moralists and Christian leaders and guides have committed a grave and hurtful error in their mode of dealing with it. They have made the drama and the stage answerable for all the vices and follies which have gathered round thema course as unjust as to make the market responsible for the dogs and rats, the thieves and knaves, sure to find a harvest in that most frequented and necessary place .
The levity, excess, association with vice, and general lack of moderation in the theatre; its opposition to, or defiance of religion; its lax morals and bad taste, be they more or less, are due, mainly, in my judgment, to the unhappy separation between the church and the worldthe guides and examples in morals and virtue, and the public at large; and to the special emphasis which this separation has had in the case of the theatre. What are we to look for, in general, when the young and the old no longer mingle in the same society; when the grave and the gay keep themselves systematically apart; and society is divided into those who partake and enjoy amusement, and those who abstain from and decry it? Will it not necessarily occur that one class will ruin itself by excess in pleasures, while the other is seriously injured and narrowed by the lack of them? Is it not clear, in American society, that the gay are too gay, the grave too grave, the young too flighty, the old too sad; that places of public amusement are too exclusively; and to the great injury of their habitual frequenters, attended by a special class, when the intermingling of the class who now utterly shun them would at once act with a twofold charmnamely, to make general society, home, and intercourse with the sober less uninteresting and repulsive, and the places of amusement not so exclusively attractive, by being adapted to higher, purer, and less superficial tastes? In addition to its other offices, the theatre is now a sort of blind protest against the sad seriousness of trade and the hard gravity of piety. It says, there is some fun, frolic, nonsense, beauty, leisure still left in the world. When domestic life and the religious life shall both learn how to invest themselves with the charms of art and the mild and pleasing graces of sympathy we may anticipate some diminution of the excessive taste which the young people of our day have for the theatre. But until the more sober citizens and our religious people allow themselves some generous participation in the pleasures and amusements of the world, they will neither know what Art is nor what its powers and fascinations are. Brought up on a hard diet of duty, they have learned to live in a corner of their wide and complex nature, and cannot understand this outbreak of their children into the fields of romance, passion, and æsthetics. It is an insurrection of nature for her rights, and an insurrection which will ripen into a revolution. It becomes us by timely concession to see that something better than anarchy follows.
I charge, then, the vices and follies of the theatre, as of our other amusements, and of our general society, to the withdrawal, the self-separation, of the moral and religious portion of the community, as a class, from the pleasure-loving resorts of the people. I believe that all the specified classes of evils connected with the theatre would disappear to as great an extent as they ever disappeared, even in respectable society, if, after having recognized the essential innocency and necessity of public amusement in general, and of the stage in particular, the sober and virtuous people of this and every city would go in moderation to the theatres. This would at once take the ban off this diversion as a thing essentially and hopelessly wrongan enormous injury to actors, and also to the public, whom it drives to their pleasures in defiance of what they themselves suppose to be right. Next, their presence there would be the only possible and effective censorship in a country like ours, securing the selection of plays of a harmless and spotless character, and their performance in a manner decorous and unblamable. Further, the same influence would excludefor it has partially done it alreadydrinking-places and improper characters, as such, from the play-house; and, finally, their countenance, requirement, and support, would give actors and actresses the strength and courage they so much need, to rise above the perils of their laborious and exciting vocation, and to take their place with other respected and respectable callings, upon the common platform of moral and Christian amenableness.