The Christian Father's Present to His Children
by John Angell James, 1825
ON THEATRICAL AMUSEMENTS
I do not hesitate for a moment to pronounce the THEATER to be one of the broadest avenues which lead to destruction. Fascinating, no doubt it is—but on that account the more delusive and the more dangerous. Let a young man once acquire a taste for this species of entertainment, and yield himself up to its gratification, and he is in imminent danger of becoming a lost character—rushing upon his ruin! All the evils that can waste his property, corrupt his morals, blast his reputation, impair his health, embitter his life, and destroy his soul, lurk in the confines of a theater. Vice, in every form, lives, and moves, and has its being there! Myriads have cursed the hour when they first exposed themselves to the contamination of the theater. From that fatal evening, they date their destruction. Then they threw off the restraint of education, and learned how to disregard the dictates of conscience. Then their decision, hitherto oscillating between a life of virtue and of vice—was made for the latter. But I will attempt to support by arguments and facts these strong assertions.
The theater cannot be defended as an amusement; for the proper end of an amusement is to recreate without fatiguing or impairing the strength or spirit. It should invigorate, not exhaust the bodily and mental powers; should spread an agreeable serenity over the mind and be enjoyed at proper seasons. Is midnight the time, or the heated atmosphere of a theater the place, or the passionate, tempestuous excitement of a deep tragedy the state of mind, that comes up to this view of the design of amusement? Certainly not. But what I wish particularly to insist upon is, the immoral and anti-christian tendency of the theater. In order to judge of this immoral and anti-christian tendency, let us look at the precepts of God's word. Here I will select a few out of many passages of the Holy Scriptures.
Texts which relate to our conversation, or the right use of SPEECH–
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless, who takes his name in vain. Exod. 20:7.
I say unto you that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give an account thereof in the day of judgment, for by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned. Matt. 12:36, 37.
Be not deceived, evil communications corrupt good manners. 1 Cor. 15:33.
Let no corrupt communications proceed out of your mouth—but that which is good to the use of edifying that it may minister grace to the hearers. Ephes. 4:29.
Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt. Col. 4:6.
But above all things, my brethren, swear not. James 5:12.
It is evident then, from these passages, that the Bible forbids all conversation which is idle, impure, or obscene—and commands us to employ the gift of speech in no other way than that which is good and to the use of edifying. Now I confidently ask if there is scarcely one popular play ever performed which is not polluted, in very many places, with the grossest and most shocking violations of these sacred rules. What irreverent appeals to heaven, what horrible abuse of the thrice holy name of God, what profane swearing, what filthy conversation, what lewd discourse, are poured forth from the lips of almost every actor that comes upon the stage. Can it be a lawful entertainment to be amused by hearing men and women insult God by cursing, swearing, and taking his holy name in vain? It is nothing to say that this is only done by the actors and, not by the spectators, because we are commanded not to be partakers, even by attendance and support, of other men's sins.
Passages which condemn all impurity of MIND and CONDUCT–
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. Matt. 5:8.
I say unto you that whoever looks on a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery with her already in his heart. Matt. 5:28.
Now the works of the flesh are these—sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, and envy, drunkenness, revellings, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19-21
It must be evident to every one who reads with impartiality the word of God, that the most remote approach to lewdness is forbidden by the scriptures, even the excursions of the imagination, and the wanton exercise of the senses. It is obviously the design of the Bible to form a character of the most elevated and refined purity, in which the lustful passions shall be in a state of entire subjection to undefiled piety. Now, I ask, is it possible to comply with this design, if we attend the theater, where, in every possible way, appeals are made to these carnal propensities of our nature? Will any man in his senses contend that a playhouse is the place where men are taught to be pure in heart, and assisted to oppose and mortify "those fleshly lusts which war against the soul?"
"It is as unnecessary to tell the reader, that the playhouse is in fact the sink of corruption and debauchery; that it is the general rendezvous of the most profligate people of both sexes; that it corrupts the neighborhood; and turns the adjacent places into public nuisances; this is as unnecessary as it is to tell him that the marketplace is a place of business."
Let me set before you also, a few passages which are given in scripture to regulate our GENERAL CONDUCT–
"Lead us not into temptation—but deliver us from evil."
"Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."
"If you live after the flesh you shall die."
"Flee youthful lusts."
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness."
"Pray without ceasing."
"Watch the heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life."
"Add to your faith, virtue; to virtue, knowledge; to knowledge, temperance; to temperance, patience; to patience, godliness; to godliness, brotherly kindness; to brotherly kindness, charity."
"Let your affections be set on things above, and not on things on earth."
"To be spiritually-minded is life and peace—but to be carnally-minded is death."
From these passages it is evident that the spirit enjoined and the character to be formed by Scripture, consist of humility, meekness, purity, spirituality of mind, heavenliness of affection, devotion, watchfulness against sin, caution not to go in the way of temptation. Now it would be to insult the common sense of every one who is conversant with the theater, to ask if such dispositions as these are enjoined and cherished by dramatic representations. I suppose no one ever pretended, that these saintly virtues are taught by the tragic or the comic actor. If our Lord's sermon on the mount, or the twelfth chapter to the Romans, or any other portion of inspired truth, be selected as a specimen and a standard of Christian morals, then certainly the theater must be condemned. Light and darkness are not more opposed to each other, than the Bible and the theater. If the one be good the other must be evil; if the scriptures are to be obeyed, the theater must be avoided. The man who at church on the Sabbath day, responds to the third or the seventh commandment, "Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law;" who presents so often on that day the petition, "Lead us not into temptation—but deliver us from evil," is, to say the least of his conduct, the most glaring instance of absurdity in the world—if he on other days attends the theater.
The only way to justify the theater, as it is, as it ever has been, as it is ever likely to be, is to condemn the Bible—the same individual cannot defend both. The one is too strict, or the other is too lax.
Now the Bible, the Bible, my dear children, is the standard of morals. No matter by what plausible arguments a practice may be defended; no matter by what authority it may be sanctioned, if it be in opposition to the letter or the spirit of the Bible, it is wicked and must be abandoned. Even were the theater as friendly as its warmest admirers contend, to the cultivation of taste; if in some things it tended to repress some of the minor faults or vices of society—yet if, as a whole, its tendency is to encourage immorality—it must be condemned, and abandoned, and deserted! All I ask you is to weigh its pretensions in the balance of the sanctuary, and to test its merits by the only authorized standard of morals, the Bible, and sure I am you will never hesitate for a moment, to pronounce it unlawful.
It is an indubitable fact that the theater has flourished most, in the most corrupt and depraved state of society—and that in proportion as sound morality, industry and true religion, advance their influence—the theater is deserted. It is equally true, that among the most passionate admirers, and most constant frequenters of the theater, are to be found the most dissolute and wicked of mankind. Is it not too manifest to be denied, that piety as instinctively shrinks from the theater, as human life does from the point of a sword, or the draught of poison? Have not all those who have professed the most elevated piety and morality, borne an unvarying and uniform testimony against the theater? Even the more virtuous pagans have condemned this amusement, as injurious to morals, and the interests of nations—Solon, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Livy, Valerius Maximus, Cato, Seneca, Tacitus—the most venerable men of antiquity—the brightest constellation of virtue and talents which ever appeared upon the hemisphere of philosophy—have all denounced the theater as a most abundant source of moral pollution, and assure us that both Greece and Rome had their ruin accelerated by a fatal passion for these corrupting entertainments.
William Pyrnne, a satirical and pungent writer, has made a catalogue of authorities against the theater, which contains every name of eminence in the heathen and Christian world—it comprehends the united testimony of the Jewish and Christian churches; the deliberate acts of fifty-four ancient and modern, general, national, provisional councils and synods, both of the Western and Eastern churches; the condemnatory sentence of seventy-one ancient fathers, and one hundred and fifty modern Christian authors; the hostile endeavors of philosophers and even poets; with the legislative enactments of a great number of pagan and Christian states, nations, magistrates, emperors, and princes.
The American Congress, soon after the declaration of Independence, passed the following motion: "Whereas, true religion and good morals are the only solid foundation of public liberty and happiness,
"Resolved, that it be, and hereby is, earnestly recommended by the several States, to take the most effectual measures for the encouragement thereof, and for the suppression of theatrical entertainments, horse-racing, gaming, and such other diversions as are productive of idleness, dissipation, and a general depravity of principles and manners."
Now must not this be regarded in the light of very strong presumptive evidence of the immoral tendency of the theater? Does it not approach as near as can be to the general opinion of the whole moral world?
But let us examine the average character of those productions which are represented on the theater. If we go to TRAGEDY, we shall find that pride, ambition, revenge, suicide, the passionate love of fame and glory—all of which Christianity is intended to extirpate from the human bosom—are inculcated by the most popular plays in this department of the drama. It is true, gross cruelty, murder, and that lawless pride, ambition, and revenge, which trample on all the rights and interests of mankind, are denounced—but I would ask, who needs to see vice acted, in order to hate it? or will its being acted for our amusement be likely to increase our hatred of it upon right principles?
As to COMEDY, this is a thousand times more polluting than tragedy. Love and intrigue; prodigality dressed in the garb of generosity; profaneness dignified by the name of fashionable spirit; and even seduction and adultery; these are the usual materials which the comic actor combines and adorns, to please and instruct his votaries. This department of the drama is almost unmixed pollution. How often is some profligate, dissolute person, introduced to the spectators, furnished with a few traits of frankness and generosity, to interest them by his wicked career; and who so far reconciles them all to his crimes, as to tolerate his atrocities—for the sake of his open hearted, good-humored virtues. Who can wonder that young women should be prepared by such stuff, for any intrigue with a bold and wily adventurer; or that young men should be encouraged to play the good-natured heroic profligate, which they have seen such a favorite with the public on the theater?
Besides, how saturated, as I have already observed, are both tragedies and comedies with irreverent appeals to heaven, profane swearing, and all the arts of falsehood and deception! What lascivious allusions are made, what impure passages are repeated! What a fatal influence must this have upon the delicacy of female modesty. Think too of a young man coming at the hour of midnight from such a scene, with his passions inflamed by everything he has seen, and everything he has heard; and then having to pass through ranks of wretched creatures waiting to ensnare him, and rob him of his virtue; does it not require extraordinary strength of principle to resist the attack?
I admit that modern plays are, in some measure, purified from that excessive grossness which polluted the performances of our more ancient dramatists. But who knows not that vice is more mischievous in some circles of society, in proportion as it is more 'refined'. The innuendos and double entendres of modern plays, "are well understood, and applied by a licentious audience; and the buzz of approbation, which is heard through the whole assembly, furnishes abundant proof that the effect is not lost." Little will be popular with the public in the shape of comedy, farce or opera—but what is pretty highly seasoned with indelicate sensual allusions. Hence it is that even the newspaper critics, whose morality is, in general, not of the most saintly character, so often mention the too-barefaced indecencies of new plays. Dramatic writers know very well how to cater for the public taste.
How many sentiments are continually uttered on the theater, how many indelicate sensual allusions are made which no man who had any regard to the virtue of his sons, or the feelings of his daughters, would allow to be uttered at his table. Are not whole passages repeatedly recited, which no modest man would allow to be read before the family? Nothing but the approval of the public, could induce many females to sit and listen to that which they hear at the theater. Were any man to quote in company some of the expressions which are in constant iteration at the play-house, would he not be regarded as a person most dangerous to the virtue of others? And yet these nauseating exhibitions are heard with pleasure, when they are heard with the multitude.
Can this be friendly to modesty, to virtue, to piety? Must there not be an insensible corrosion going on under such an influence upon the fine polish of female excellence, and upon the moral principle of the other sex? Is this avoiding the appearance of evil? Is it in accordance with that morality which makes an unchaste feeling to be sin—and that injunction which commands us to watch the heart with all diligence?
Then remember all the accompaniments of the theater—the fascinations of music, painting, action, oratory—and say if when these are enlisted in the cause of fiction, they do not raise the passions above their proper tone—and thus induce a dislike to grave and serious subjects, and a distaste for all the milder and more necessary virtues of domestic life.
Add to this the people who are generally attracted to the theater. I do not say that all who frequent the theater are immoral—but I do affirm, that the most polluting and polluted people of the town are sure to be there. Is it not a fact that a person who could not wish to have his eyes and ears shocked with sights and sounds of indecency, must keep at a distance from the avenues of the theater? for these are ever crowded with the vilest characters of both sexes. Sir John Hawkins has a remark which strikingly illustrates and confirms what I have now advanced. "Although it is said of plays, that they teach morality, and of the theater, that it is the mirror of human life, these assertions have no foundation in truth—but are mere rhetoric. On the contrary, a play house, and the region about it, are the hot-beds of vice. How else comes it to pass, that no sooner is a theater opened in any part of the country, than it becomes surrounded by houses of ill-fame? Of this truth, the neighborhood of the place I am now speaking of has had experience. One parish has expended a great sum, for the purpose of removing these vile inhabitants, whom the play-house had drawn there."
The arguments against the theater are strengthened by a reference to the general habits of the performers, and the influence which their employment has in the formation of their character. And here I may assert, that the sentiments of mankind have generally consigned this wretched class of beings to infamy. The story of the unfortunate Laberius exhibits, in a strong point of view, the odium which was attached to the profession of an actor among the Romans. Compelled by Caesar, at an advanced period of life, to appear on the theater to recite some of his own works, he felt his character as a Roman citizen insulted and disgraced; and in some affecting verses, spoken on the occasion, he incensed the audience against the tyrant, by whose mandate he was obliged to appear before them. "After having lived," said he, "sixty years with honor, I left my house this morning a Roman knight, but shall return to it this evening an infamous theater player. Alas! I have lived a day too long!"
As to the feelings of modern times, is there a family in Britain, of the least moral worth, even among the middling classes of tradesmen, which would not feel itself disgraced, if any one of its members were to embrace this profession? I ask, if the characters of the actors is not in general so vile, as to make it matter of surprise to find one that is truly moral? A performer, whether male or female, who maintains an unspotted reputation, is considered as an exception to the general rule. Their employment, together with the indolent line of life to which it leads, is most contaminating to their morals. The habit of assuming a 'pretend character', and exhibiting 'unreal passions', must have a very injurious effect on their principles of integrity and truth. They are so accustomed to represent the arts of intrigue and gallantry, that it is little to be wondered at, if they should practice them in the most unrestrained manner.
Of the truth of this description of the moral character of actors and actresses, most convincing evidence is afforded by the disgusting disclosures which have been made in a court of law, in reference to two of the most celebrated performers of the day. In speaking of one of them, the Times paper observes, "The conduct of people who appear on the theater has ever been the most wicked; and it may be doubted whether such a mass of living vice as the actors and actresses but too generally present in their private lives, is not more injurious to public morals, than the splendid examples of virtue which they exhibit in their theatrical characters, are useful. It appears, however, that Kean, the defendant in the cause which was tried yesterday, is advanced many steps in profligacy beyond the most profligate of his sisters and brethren of the theater. Some of Kean's letters are of so filthy a description that we cannot insert them. Yet have the managers of Drury Lane Theater the effrontery to present, or to attempt presenting, such a creature to the gaze of a British audience. It is of little consequence to the nation whether the character of King Richard or Othello be well or ill acted—but it is of importance that public feeling be not shocked, nor public decency be outraged."—Times Newspaper, Tuesday, Jan. 18th, 1825.
Doubtless our morals and taste as a nation will be wonderfully improved by such lectures and examples as these. These are the characters which young men and young women are sent to the play-houses to admire; which husbands and wives, and sons and daughters are to witness, as teaching not only by theory but by practice—the vices that corrupt the mind and pollute society. An admirable school for morals truly! When will the virtuous part of the community, with unanimous and indignant voice, condemn the play-house as a moral nuisance, which no wise and good man ought to tolerate? When!
I was visited some years ago by an individual who had been for a long time engaged as an actor—but who was then most anxious to be liberated from, what he had at length been brought to confess and to loathe—as a most immoral profession. In considerable distress, he implored me to assist him in endeavoring to flee from a situation, of which he felt it difficult to say whether the vice or the misery was the greater. Never did a captive more detest his fetters, or more covet to be free, than this poor creature did to be liberated from the thraldom in which he groaned.
To send young people therefore to the play-house to form their manners, is to expect they will learn truth from liars, virtue from profligates, and modesty from harlots.
Can it then be right, even on the supposition that we could escape the moral contagion of the theater, to support a set of our fellow-creatures in idleness, and in a profession which leads to immorality, licentiousness, and profligacy?
But, my dear children, I have not only arguments to bring in proof of the immoral tendency of the theater—but I have facts. It is useless to contend against these. I am distressed while I write, to think of the once promising young men, who, to my certain knowledge, have been utterly ruined by resorting to this scene of polluting amusement. I am not allowed to disclose the details, or I could unfold a tale that would shock every right feeling in your hearts.
Take warning then, and have nothing to do with the theater. Avoid it as one of the avenues to the broad road that leads to destruction. Do not run with the multitude to do evil. Do not be thrown off your guard, and enticed to sin, by being directed to some who have never been injured by such amusements. Would it be any inducement to you to venture near a plague-infested house, to be pointed to some person who had breathed an atmosphere tainted with the plague, without receiving the infection? I admit that the danger is not the same in all cases. Individuals, whose connections, habits, characters, are formed, may not receive so much injury as younger people—though the most virtuous and moral cannot, I am sure, escape all harm; even they must have their mental purity injured, and their imagination corrupted; they must acquire a greater and greater distaste for true religion, and irreverence towards God. But to young people, and to young men especially, the danger is greater than I describe—to them the doors of the theater are as the jaws of the devouring lion!
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