Leonard Woolsey Bacon.

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other half may frolic ?
Let us watch, and see !



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CHUBCH AND THEATRE. 256



XII.



CHURCH AND THEATRE.*



A SERMON ON THEATRES AND THEATRE-GOING.



Romans, XIV., 5. Let every man be fully persuaded in his
own mind.

A recent incident in the city of New York, occasioned
by the funeral of an aged actor, has given rise to a great
deal of talk in all parts of the country, and made a certain
"little church around the corner" of Twenty-Ninth Street
and Fifth Avenue, New York, famous in all the newspapers.

* Preached in Baltimore, January 22, 1871, and published in a pamphlet with
the following Prefatory Note.

The author of the following sermon apologizes to the public for the absence,
on this page, of the customary letter from eminent citizens asking a copy of the
"able and interesting discourse" for the press, and the customary reply
assuring them that it was u hastily prepared without the slightest view to
publication." Not having been, preached with the hope that anybody would be
pleased with it, it is natural enough that the sermon should have to be printed
without anybody's having requested it. It was written for the purpose of
administering certain richly and long-deserved rebukes to many classes of
persons both inside of the church and outside j and for the same purpose it is
printed. Of coarse it would be idle for one who volunteers for such a task to
grumble if his work is not welcomed. The author will be content not to be
thanked, if only he may be heeded.



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256 CHURCH AND THEATRE.

The incident is chiefly interesting to us as bringing into
court again that old case of the Pulpit vs. the Stage, — the
Church against the Theatre, which has been litigated now
for nearly eighteen hundred years, and does not seem, even
yet, to have been fully adjudicated. And here, having 1
taken advantage of an incident of no lasting interest to
introduce a subject of constant and general importance, we
might be content to say nothing of the merits of the
incident. But if any are interested to hear an opinion of
them, it is soon given. The friends of an aged actor,
deceased, against whom I hear nothing alleged but that
he was an actor, applied to the rector of a certain church
to conduct funeral services for the old man, at the church.
He declined on the sole ground, as I understand, of the
dead man's profession, and referred the applicants to the .
rector of a tt little church around the corner," by whom,
and at whose church, the funeral was attended. The
consequence is, that the minister who shirked his duty is
thoroughly roasted in all the newspapers, at which I am
very glad; and the minister who did not shirk his duty is
made the object of testimonials in all the theatres, to
which I certainly have not any objection — if he has not.
He is said to be so good and faithful a man that one can't
think of grudging him overpraise and overpay, for a. duty
so obvious and simple that it is almost incredible that
any Christian minister could have refused it. As for the
unfortunate person in the pillory, there seems nothing to
be said in mitigation of the public judgment against him
— that is, supposing the facts to be as represented. He
appears before the public as one perfectly willing that the
scandal against the church (if it be one) should be
enacted, provided it is done by his brother around the



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CHURCH AND THEATRE. 257

corner, and his name does not get mixed up with it. He
stands, not only as one "judging another's servant," but
as enforcing against an individual a sweeping condem-
nation which he has passed in his own mind, upon a
profession which he would not dare deliberately to say
was necessarily a criminal one. He seems to shut out from
his church a solemn religious service, on the ground that
it will be attended by a throng of ungodly and unbelieving
people — as if he had come to call the righteous to
repentance. If he feels some burden of warning and s
reproof for the people who seek his ministrations, why,
in God's name, doesn't he speak it out to them, like a
man, and like a good, kind, loving man, instead of
running away like Jonah? If he pleads that he is shut
up, by the rules of his denomination, to a burial service
which he cannot conscientiously use except over the
graves of the truly penitent and believing, that is a matter
for him to see to as promptly as may be ; but meanwhile,
it were better he should practice his scruples on his own
pewholders, whose sins he knows about, before putting
them in fo»ce in the case of an old man not well befriended
within the church, and belonging to a profession whom it
is easy and safe for a clergyman to dislike. Let him deny
the full honors of Christian burial, if he has the courage,
to those who patronize and sustain, for their sheer
amusement, that profession in which he cannot endure
that others should labor toilsomely, even for their daily
bread. And withal, it were not amiss that he should
consider with what grace this little spurt of zeal for Grod's
house comes from a clergy which is so constantly and
assiduously, and without one word of protest, courting
recognition and fellowship from a National Church whose

17



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258 - CHURCH AND THEATRE.

u sole head under Christ " is the public and official
patroness of the theatre ; whose cathedrals are paved with
the grave-stones of actors, and whose Westminster Abbey-
insults or corrupts the moral sense of successive genera-
tions by displaying, among its saints and heroes, the
monument of one of the filthiest of the filthy dramatists
of the Restoration, with an eulogy upon his virtues
(forsooth !) which should make the very marble on which
it is carved to blush !

- So, if you want my opinion on this reported trans-
action, I do not at all undertake to decide on the truth of
the report, neither do I judge the motives of the parties
involved, but separating the act from the actor, it seems
to me a disgusting piece of Pharisaism — what Frederick
Robertson was wont to stigmatize as u the dastardly
condemnation of the weak for sins that are venial in the
strong ; " what a greater than Robertson — his Master and
mine — used to denounce with woe upon woe ; and what 7
as I would be faithful to my Lord's example, I hope to
strike at with such strength as I have, as often as it shall
come within striking distance. *

To come back now to my main subject — the duty of the
church and of Christian people with reference to the
theatre — this text, u let every man be fully persuaded in
his own mind," is the very text that fits the case. For on
this question of duty, people are the furthest possible from
being clearly convinced in their own reason. Whether
the course of action commonly agreed upon be right or
wrong, it is true that most of us do not see the right and
wrong of it. The church is living in this matter on
certain traditions of the elders, and just in proportion as
it is inwardly conscious how much its canons of duty lack



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CHURCH AND THEATRE. 259

authority, it proceeds to enforce obedience to them by
mutual censoriousness — a sort of government of Mrs.
Grundy. In exactly the same proportion, it grows
Pharisaic, its members themselves evading the traditionary
canons, in the authority of which they only half believe,
and combining to bind heavy burdens for other men's
shoulders, which they themselves will not touch with one
of their fingers. These transgressions of the conventional
rule of chnrch-memberly virtue are not talked of much
among the brotherhood ; they are held to be of very
doubtful propriety themselves, but on one point there is
felt to be no doubt, and that is, that it is eminently
desirable to keep the facts hushed up, so that the salutary
but somewhat vague impression in the religious community
that going to theatres is wicked may be kept up to the
utmost. The whole subject is in the worst possible
position. It is just in the position in which men are
most apt to be tempted into doing doubtful things, in the
doing of which they are condemned before Grod and their
own consciences, because they do them doubting. I do not
believe the theatre could be one half so demoralizing, at
its worst estate, if all men were going to it without thought
of scruple, as it is now when men are only half deterred
from it by a doubtful scruple, founded on the tradition of
the elders, into the right or wrong of which few persons
trouble themselves deliberately to inquire, and then
conscientiously to determine, and frankly, openly, man-
fully to act. Set this down at the outset as one point
settled by the word of God beyond all reopening or appeal
— that however the general question may be settled, your
theatre-going, my Christian brother, which you only do
now and then when you are away from home, and which



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260 CHURCH AND THEATRE

you would be very sorry indeed to have talked about, is a
sin against God, and you ought to be ashamed of it, and
I have no doubt you are.

I propose that we shall know our own reasons in this
matter, by re-examining the grounds of the traditionary
argument under which the church at large are professing
to act.

1. We must acknowledge in the first place that some of
the objections to the theatre which prevailed two
generations, or even one generation ago, are now in some
cases either entirely done away or very much modified.
The abominable accessories of the theatre which old
writers, and recent writers who depend on the old for
their ideas, inveigh against as inseparable from the
theatre itself, have been separated from it. 1 mean the
solicitations to drunkenness on the premises of the theatre,
the deliberate provision for the admission of lewd women
to certain parts of the house, the arrangement of the
building to encourage and facilitate vice ; all these have
been done away, at least in many cases. Dr. Vaughan,
a recent eminent English traveller in the United States,
remarks on the difference of construction of an American
theatre in this respect from an English one. A veteran
officer of the New York police, who had known the
theatres of that city before and behind the scenes from
his boyhood, assured me of the marked change that had
taken place in the administration of theatres in his own
day, and that in almost all, if not in all, of the theatres
of that city it was as difficult for improper characters to
gain admisssion as in any places of amusement whatever.

The universally infamous character of the plays
represented, and of the actors representing them, was



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CHURCH AND THEATRE. 261

one of the counts in the old indictment against the stage ;
and it was one on which it was impossible to help
convicting. Down almost till within the memory of
men now living, the collection of the stock acting plays
of the English stage was an absolute dung-hill of filth
and wickedness. If you would get some idea of it, consult
Sir Walter Scott's History of the Drama, 1 or Lord
Macaulay's criticism of the dramatists of the [Restoration,
or his remarks on the polite literature of that period in
the second volume of the History of England. But, no !
you can get no idea of it from description. You would
have to turn over the reeking pages of some series of
volumes labelled "Old Plays/' and the knowledge you
would get would not pay you for the defiling of your
hands. And this, with some mitigations in favor — I will
not say of. virtue, but of conventional decency — has
continued to be the prevailing tone of stage literature
down, almost, to our own day. But is there any justice
in applying to the acting drama of our day the epithets
which were perfectly just so lately as when William
Wilberforce wrote his "Practical View?" Have we no
language but that of denunciation and contempt for a
literature to which Sir Edward Lytton has contributed
his superb historical picture of Richelieu, and that great
scholar, the late Dean Milman of St. Paul's Cathedral,
his drama of the Italian Wife, and which, by translation
or adaptation, has been enriched from the master-pieces
of Schiller and Dickens and Charles Reade ? By personal
knowledge I know almost nothing — less perhaps, than,
as a public instructor, I ought to know — of the stage.
But, for ten years past, I have been a pretty constant

1. Encyclopaedia Britannica, s. v. Drama.



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262 CHURCH AND THEATRE.

observer of theatrical advertisements and dramatic
criticisms in the New York press, and I recognize, with
thankful satisfaction, that, alongside of another tendency,
which I will speak of by-and-by, there has been a
growing tendency to the production of a class of plays of
domestic interest and faultless purity — like those derived
from the stories of Charles Dickens. How far these may
be deformed by bad acting, I have no knowlege ; but it
must take a very ingeniously vicious player to make the
representation of "Little Nell" and the u Cricket on the
Hearth" anything but wholesome and humanizing — and
Christianizing.

I have shown that some of the traditionary objections
to the theatre are either obsolete or very much modified.

2. I propose now to show that some of the traditionary
arguments concerning the theatre are fallacious.

Some of these it is well to touch lightly, as being too
frail to bear severer handling. The argument, for instance,
that the drama is instrinsically unfitted to please a superior
mind, is best advanced by those wh© have never known of
such earnest admirers of the stage as (for example)
Walter Scott and Sergeant Talfourd. The complaint
that the general run of acting is sad ranting and fustian
is as true now as ever, I am afraid — and is likely to
continue so. The common run of any sort of human
work will always be very poor as compared with the best.
And it is to be feared that the best acting will never be
the most popular with the crowd. It is so in literature.
Mr. Everett had no sort of success in the "Ledger"
compared with Mr. Sylvanus Cobb. And some of us
preachers, whose congregations are not large, have been
known to comfort ourselves with the thought that it is



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CHUECH AND THEATRE. 263

somewhat thus with preaching, too, and that the best
preacher does not always have the largest audience. It
is obvious enough that these little side arguments have
no force at all. Let us come at once to the main
argument in the case, as it is earnestly pressed on the
consciences of the Christian public by some of the best
and worthiest writers on Christian morality. It stands
in this wise: theatrical amusements are apt to do great
harm, and they are not necessary to us: therefore, we
ought totally to abstain from them. Now there is no
doubt that, at the time when good men first put forth this
argument, the conclusion was perfectly just — the only,
conclusion to which any decent Christian man in those
times could possibly have come. But it concerns us a
good deal, when the same argument is presented to us in
other circumstances, to look, not only at the conclusion,
but at the process by which it is reached. Now, will
anybody coolly make himself responsible to maintain the
major premise in this argument — to wit: that it is an
invariable duty to abstain from every unnecesary act that
has a tendency to do harm? Is it never right to ask
whether the abstinence will or will not tend to avert the
harm? or whethef the abstaining may not do more harm
than the act would have done? There is danger in any
course of action that one may follow, about anything.
The Son of man came eating bread and drinking wine.
Why could he not have abstained? It was not necessary
to him; and see what harm it did ! u Behold! a gluttonous
man and a wine-bibber." But John the Baptist practiced
•total abstinence, and men said: u He hath a devil."

It is obvious thstt we are in the presence of a different



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264 CHUBCH AND THEATRE.

set of facts from our grandfathers, and that we need a
more accurate logic in dealing with them.

What, then, is the present situation ?

We find ourselves confronted with a wide-spread
institution, singularly tenacious of life, and intrenched in
vested interests as well as in the universal public taste,
which has come down to us burdened with an infamy
which, in former times, at least, was most richly deserved.
It must be admitted, furthermore, that its antecedents
continue to infect its character. The New York Tribune,
within a very few years, complained that there was not a
, stage in all that city from which the actors did not insult
the audience by gratuitous and supererogatory profaneness.

An old stigma, as old as the Roman civilization, rests
upon the profession of the stage-player; and notwith-
standing many very honorable examples of character, it
remains true to this day that the profession, as a whole,
has failed to recover the public respect, through the
prevailing faults of so many of its members.

But then, on the other hand, we are bound in the merest
justice to acknowledge a rapidly increasing tendency to
improvement in the whole conduct (of the stage and
theatre, and in the character of the theatrical profession.
There was a time when to take the name of actress as a
synonym for infamy was a most sad necessity. To-day,
the man who makes such a presumption as that against a
lady devoted to this trying and perilous profession, is
guilty of a wicked calumny. The profession is indeed
most perilous and trying to the virtue of those who enter
it. But for that very cause, there are those in it whose
fidelity to duty shines the more brightly. And there are
certain traits of most excellent virtue — a generous



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CHURCH AND THEATRE. 265

overflow of kindness towards the unfortunate, a quick
sympathy with noble acts and public causes, which we
can hardly look to fifld more honorably exemplified than
in the guild of actors. We haven't all the virtues in the
church ; they cannot claim a monopoly of sins in the
green room. A very little while ago, my attention was
called as a pastor to an aged and suffering woman, found
by one of our city missionaries in Brooklyn, alone and
almost friendless in a garret, suffering for lack of fire, in
the cold of a northern winter. It seemed a case of strange
and unnatural cruelty, for she had nourished and brought
up children, and they had neglected her. She was a
member of a Presbyterian church in New York, which
I could name. Her sons, in various places, were members
in good and regular standing of Evangelical churches ;
one of them, doing a thrifty business as a photographer in
that very city of Brooklyn, was a Sunday School Super-
intendent. But out of all her children, one only shewed
her some natural affection, crossing the ferry from time
to time to bring her such relief as he could spare out of
her scanty salary — and she was an actress in the Bowery
Theatre. And when I learned this story, I concluded that
I would not be in a great hurry to denounce the sins of
the theatre, until I had first done my duty by the sins of
the church.

Alongside of this tendency to improve, we must observe,
if we would take in the whole situation, another movement
in the opposite direction. There has been what looks
almost like a concerted reaction towards the worst days of
dramatic corruption. When the ballet was first introduced
into New York, less than forty years ago, it shocked the
nerves of that not too fastidious and puritanical city, and



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266 CHURCH AND THEATRE.

called forth a protest from the secular press in the name
of morality and decency. Now, the ballet is, I will not
say an incidental attraction, it seems to be the grand
attraction which swallows up all others in most theatres
of New York and other cities, so that actors who have
studied their profession as an art, complain bitterly that
they are crowded from the stage and out of their living by
bevies of nude and shameless women, whose livelihood is
in their immodesty. Alongside of the pure and blameless
dramatization of Dickens, and Mrs. Stowe, and Wash-
ington Irving, one sees announced the scoundrelly plays
of the French Opera — as much more corrupting than the
ribaldry of the old comedies as their indecency is less
gross and nauseating — plays which the respectable secular
press of the metropolis denounced unanimously for their
wickedness, and to which the mor« they were denounced,
the more the u very best society " flocked to see them.

Such, with this double tendency, is the present position
of the theatre.

What is the attitude of society with reference to it ? It
may be defined in these three particulars :

1. Indiscriminate condemnation of the theatre as a
whole.

2. By an inevitable consequence, indiscriminate vindica-
tion of the theatre as a whole.

3. Indiscriminate evasion of traditionary formulas of
duty, half believed and half mistrusted ; acts of doubtful
and therefore guilty consciences ; and the furtive and
cowardly attendance upon all sorts of theatrical
entertainments, the best and the vilest, by people who
hypocritically profess to be governed by principles which
forbid it.



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CHURCH AND THEATRE. 267

Ah ! Let me repeat and emphasize this, for it is the
plainest thing in the word of (rod concerning this whole
business. Whatever may be the abstract right or wrong
of theatre-going, you, who have your scruples and doubts
about the matter, who think it had better be done very
quietly and so as not to excite remark, you are verily
guilty before God in every act. Don't affect to defend
yourselves, when you are brought to book for your trans-
gression of rules which you affect to approve, by citing the
respectability of some theatres and the excellence of some
plays. It is the very nature of this evasive transgression
that it sticks at no such distinction ; it has not dared to
look its conscience in the face long enough to apprehend
such distinctions. I do not believe there is any playgoing
more unprincipled and undiscriminating than your
Evangelical Christian playgoing. No, no, my dear
Christian brother or sister, it is all very well for you to
talk about the innocence of Mr. Jefferson's Rip Van Winkle
and the beauty of Lucia di Lammermoor, but these are not
what you went to see the last time you were in New
York! You went to be delighted with the chaste
elegance of the latest and nudest ballet ! You spent half
the night in rapture over the charms of the scurrilous
opera bouffe. Decent, upright men of the world have some
standards of distinction here, some principles of right and
wrong. My friend, Mr. De Cordova, who should thank
no one for calling him a Christian, spoke to me of Barbe
Bleue as an innocent blameless play, but said u I would
as soon spit in the face of a lady as ask to see Qenevi&ve
de Brabant." Your pious playgoer who slips into the
theatre when he won't be noticed, who goes with a friend
from the country, or who has a visitor who has set his



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268 CHURCH AND THEATRE.

heart upon going and must not be allowed to go without
protection, knows no such distinctions. A theatre is a
theatre. His scruples about going, instead of being the
conviction of an enlightened conscience, are a tradition of
the elders, and when he breaks over them he may as well
die for a sheep as for a lamb. 0, my devout friends,
think what you do — if ever you do think at all — when, by
your presence and patronage, yon encourage the ballet.
You vaunt the superior virtue and tenderness of our
Christian civilization, when you hear with a shudder of
fair women and gay gentlemen, in the days of the Roman
empire, looking down from the seats in the Coliseum at
the dying agonies of struggling gladiators or of martyred
Christians,

"Butchered to make a Roman holiday."

Know then that Christendom has found out a cruelty
more exquisite. The master of the Roman sports when
he had slain the body had no more that he could do.
Christian civilization has armed itself with the awful
facts of the life to come. It has cunningly contrived a
sport so destructive to the modesty, so depraving to the
womanly virtue of those who are employed in it, that for
one of them to escape perdition of body and soul is
accepted as a miracle or commonly scouted as incredible ;
and Christian men and women suffer themselves to be
enticed to the exquisite pleasure of seeing their sister, for


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Online LibraryLeonard Woolsey BaconChurch papers: sundry essays in subjects relating to the church and ... → online text (page 20 of 26)