The Theater!

Henry Ward Beecher, 1849

Desperate efforts are made, year by year, to increase this corrupting evil. Its claims are put forth with vehemence. Let us examine them.

1. They claim that the theater cultivates the taste. Let the appeal be to facts. Let the roll of English literature be explored our Poets, Romancers, Historians, Essayists, Critics, and Divines and for what part of their memorable writings are we indebted to the theater? If we except one period of our literature, the claim is wholly groundless; and at this day, the truth is so opposite to the claim, that extravagance, affectation, and rant, are proverbially denominated theatrical.

If agriculture should attempt to supersede the admirable implements of husbandry, now in use, by the primitive plough or sharpened sticks it would not be more absurd than to advocate that clumsy machine of literature, the Theater by the side of the popular lecture, the pulpit, and the press. It is not congenial to our age or necessities. Its day is gone by it is in its senility, as might be suspected, from the weakness of the garrulous apologies which it puts forth.

2. They claim that the theater is a school of morals. Yes, doubtless! So the guillotine is defended on the plea of humanity. Inquisitors declare their racks and torture-beds to be the instruments of love, affectionately admonishing the fallen of the error of their ways. The slave-trade has been defended on the plea of humanity, and slavery is now defended for its mercies. Were it necessary for any school or party, doubtless we should hear arguments to prove the Devil's grace, and the utility of his agency among men.

But, let me settle these impudent pretensions to Theater-virtue, by the home thrust of a few plain questions.

Will any of you who have been to Theaters, please to tell me whether virtue ever received important accessions from the gallery of Theaters?

Will you tell me whether the Theater is a place where an ordinarily virtuous man would love to seat his children?

Was ever a Theater known where a prayer at the opening, and a prayer at the close, would not be tormentingly discordant?

How does it happen, that in a school for morals the teachers never learn their own lessons?

Would you allow a son or daughter to associate alone with actors or actresses?

Do these men who promote virtue so zealously when acting, take any part in public moral enterprises, when their stage dresses are off?

Which would surprise you most, to see actors steadily at Church, or to see Christians steadily at a Theater? Would not both strike you as singular incongruities?

What is the reason that loose and abandoned men abhor religion in a Church and love it so much in a Theater?

Since the Theater is the handmaid of virtue, why are drinking houses so necessary to its neighborhood, yet so offensive to Churches? The trustees of the Tremont Theater in Boston, publicly protested against an order of council forbidding liquor to be sold on the premises, on the ground that it was impossible to support the Theater without it.

3. I am told that Christians attend the Theaters. Then I will tell them the story of the Ancients. A holy monk reproached the devil for stealing a young man who was found at the Theater. He promptly replied, "I found him on my premises, and took him."

But, it is said, if Christians would take Theaters in hand, instead of abandoning them to loose men they might become the handmaids of religion.

The Church has had an intimate acquaintance with the Theater for eighteen hundred years. During that period, every available agent for the diffusion of morality into it has been earnestly tried. The result is, that familiarity has bred contempt and abhorrence. If, after so long and thorough an acquaintance, the Church stands the mortal enemy of Theaters, the testimony is conclusive. It is the evidence of generations speaking by the most sober, thinking, and honest men.

Let not this vagabond prostitute pollute any longer the precincts of the Church, with impudent proposals of alliance. When the Church needs an alliance, it will not look for it in the kennel. Ah! what a blissful scene would that be the Church and Theater imparadised in each other's arms! What a sweet conjunction would be made, could we build our Churches so as to preach in the morning, and play in the theaters by night! And how melting it would be, beyond the love of David and Jonathan, to see minister and actor in loving embrace; one slaying Satan by direct thrusts of plain preaching and the other sucking his very life out by the enchantment of the Drama!

To this millennial scene of Church and Theater, I only suggest a single improvement: that the church building be enlarged to a ring for a Circus, when not needed for prayer-meetings; that the Sabbath-school room should be furnished with dice and card-tables, and useful texts of scripture might be printed on the cards, for the pious meditations of gamblers during the intervals of play and worship.

4. But if theaters are put down, men will go to worse vices. Where will they find worse ones? Are those who go to the Theater, the Circus, the Race-course, the men who abstain from worse places? It is notorious that the crowd of theater-goers are vomited up from these worse places. It is notorious that the Theater is the door to all the sinks of iniquity. It is through this infamous place that the young learn to love those wicked associates and practices to which, else, they would have been strangers. Half the victims of the gallows and of the Penitentiary will tell you, that these schools for morals were to them the gate of debauchery, the porch of pollution, the vestibule of the very house of Death!

5. The theater makes one acquainted with human life, and with human nature. It is too true. There is scarcely an evil incident to human life, which may not be fully learned at the Theater. Here flourishes every variety of wit ridicule of sacred things, burlesques of religion, and licentious double-entendres. Nowhere can so much of this lore be learned, in so short a time, as at the Theater! There one learns how pleasant a thing is vice; immorality prospers; and the young come away alive to the glorious liberty of conquest and lust.

But the stage is not the only place about the Drama where human nature is learned. In the Boxes the young may make the acquaintance of those who abhor home and domestic quiet; of those who glory in profusion and obtrusive display; of those who expend all, and more than their earnings, upon mirthful clothes and jewelry; of those who think it no harm to borrow their money without permission from their employer's til; of those who despise vulgar appetite, but affect polished and genteel licentiousness.

Or, he may go to the Theater, and learn the whole round of villain-life from masters in the art. He may sit down among thieves, blood-loving scoundrels, swindlers, broken-down men of pleasure the coarse, the vulgar, the debauched, the inhuman, the infernal.

Or, if still more of human nature is wished, he can learn yet more; for the Theater epitomizes every degree of corruption. Let the virtuous young scholar go to the Theater, and learn there, decency, modesty, and refinement, among the quarreling, drunken, ogling, mincing, brutal women of the brothel!

Ah! there is no place like the Theater for learning human nature! A young man can gather up more experimental knowledge here in a week, than elsewhere in a year.

But I wonder that the Theater should ever confess the fact; and yet more, that it should lustily plead in self-defense, that Theaters teach men so much of human nature! Here are brilliant bars, to teach the young to drink; here are mirthful companions, to undo in half an hour, the scruples formed by an education of years; here are pimps of pleasure, to delude the brain with bewildering sophisms of immorality; here is pleasure, all flushed in its gayest, boldest, most fascinating forms! Few there be who can resist its wiles, and fewer yet who can yield to them and escape ruin.

If you would pervert the taste then go to the Theater.

If you would imbibe false views of life then go to the Theater.

If you would efface as speedily as possible all qualms of conscience then go to the Theater.

If you would put yourself irreconcilably against the spirit of virtue and religion then go to the Theater.

If you would be infected with each particular vice in the catalogue of Depravity then go to the Theater.

Let parents, who wish to make their children weary of home and quiet domestic enjoyments take them to the Theater. If it be desirable for the young to loathe industry and education, and burn for fierce excitements, and seek them by stealth or through pilferings, if need be then send them to the Theater!

It is notorious that the bill of fare at these temples of pleasure is made up to the taste of the baser appetites; that base comedy, and baser farce, running into absolute obscenity are the only means of filling a house. Theaters must be corrupt, to live; and those who attend them will be corrupted!

Let me turn your attention to several reasons which should incline every young man to forswear such immoral amusements.

1. The first reason is, their waste of TIME. I do not mean that they waste only the time consumed while you are within them; but they make you waste your time afterwards. You will go once and wish to go again; you will go twice, and seek it a third time; you will go a third time a fourth; and whenever the Theater opens, you will be seized with a restlessness and craving to go, until the appetite will become a passion. You will then waste your nights: your mornings being heavy, melancholy, and dull you will waste them. Your day will next be confused and crowded; your duties poorly executed or deferred; habits of arrant slothfulness will ensue; and day by day, industry will grow tiresome, and leisure sweeter, until you are a waster of time an idle man; and if not a rogue, you will be a fortunate exception.

2. You ought not to countenance these things because they will waste your MONEY. Young gentlemen! Wasting and squandering is as shameful as hoarding. A fool can throw away and a fool can lock up; but it is a wise man, who, neither stingy nor profuse, steers the middle course of generous economy and frugal liberality. A young man, at first, thinks that all he spends at such places, is the ticket-price of the Theater, or the small bet on the races; and this he knows is not much. But this is certainly not the whole bill nor half.

First, you pay your entrance fee. But there are a thousand petty luxuries which one must not neglect, or custom will call him niggard. You must buy your cigars, and your friend's. You must buy your juleps, and treat in your turn. You must occasionally wait on your lady, and she must be comforted with divers confections. You cannot go to such places in homely working dress new and costlier clothes must be bought. All your companions have jewelry you will need a ring, or a gold watch, or an ebony cane, or some other luxury. Thus, item presses upon item, and in the year a long bill runs up of money spent for little trifles.

But if all this money could buy you off from the yet worse effects, the bargain would not be so dear. But compare, if you please, this mode of expenditure with the principle of your ordinary expense. In all ordinary and business-transactions you get an equivalent for your money either food for nourishment, or clothes for comfort, or permanent property. But when a young man has spent one or two hundred dollars for the Theater, Circus, Races, Balls, and reveling what has he to show for it at the end of the year? Nothing at all good and much that is bad! You sink your money as really as if you threw it into the sea; and you do it in such a way that you form habits of careless expense. You lose all sense of the value of property; and when a man sees no value in property, he will see no necessity for labor; and when he is both lazy and careless of property, he will become dishonest. Thus, a habit which seems innocent the habit of trifling with money   often degenerates to slothfulness, indolence, and roguery.

3. Such pleasures are incompatible with your ordinary pursuits. The very way to ruin an honest business is to be ashamed of it, or to put alongside of it, something which a man loves better. There can be no industrial calling so exciting as the Theater, the Circus, and the Races. If you wish to make your real employment very dull and hateful, visit such places. After the glare of the Theater has dazzled your eyes your blacksmith-shop will look smuttier than ever it did before. After you have seen stalwart heroes pounding their antagonists you will find it a dull business to pound iron. And a faithful apprentice who has seen such gracious glances of love and such rapturous kissing of hands will hate to dirty his heroic fingers with mortar, or by rolling felt on the hatter's board.

If a man had a plain, but most useful wife patient, kind, intelligent, hopeful in sorrow, and cheerful in prosperity, but yet very plain would he be wise to bring under his roof a fascinating and seductive beauty? Would the contrast, and her fascinations, make him love his own wife better? Young gentlemen, your wives are your industrial calling! These theater beauties are artful jades, dressed up on purpose to purloin your affections. Let no man be led to commit adultery with a Theater, against the rights of his own trade.

4. Another reason why you should let alone these deceitful pleasures is, that they will engage you in BAD COMPANY. To the Theater, the Ball, the Circus, the Race-course, the gambling-table resort all the idle, the dissipated, the rogues, the licentious, the epicures, the gluttons, the artful jades, the immoral, the worthless, the refuse. When you go, you will not, at first, take introduction to them all, but to those nearest like yourself; by them the way will be open to others.

A very great evil has befallen a young virtuous man, when wicked men feel that they have a right to his acquaintance. When I see a gambler slapping a young mechanic on the back; or a lecherous scoundrel suffusing a young man's cheek by a story at which, despite his blushes, he yet laughs I know the youth has been guilty of criminal indiscretion, or these men could not approach him thus. That is a brave and strong heart that can stand up pure in a company of seductive wretches.

When wicked men mean to seduce a young man, so tremendous are the odds in favor of practiced experience against innocence, that there is not one chance in a thousand if the young man lets them approach him. Let every young man remember that he carries, by nature, a heart full of passions, just such as bad men have. With youth these passions slumber; but temptation can wake them, bad men can influence them they know the road, they know how to serenade the heart; how to raise the sash, and elope with each passion.

There is but one resource for innocence among men or women; and that is, an embargo upon all commerce of bad men. Bar the window! bolt the door! nor answer their seductions, even if they charm ever so wisely! In no other way can you be safe. So well am I assured of the power of bad men to seduce the erring purity of man, that I pronounce it next to impossible for man or woman to escape, if they permit bad men to approach and dally with them.

Oh! there is more than magic in temptation, when it beams down upon the heart of man, like the sun upon a morass! At the noontide-hour of purity, the mists shall rise and wreathe a thousand fantastic forms of delusion; and a sudden outbreak of passion, a single gleam of the imagination, one sudden rush of the capricious heart and the resistance of years may be prostrated in a moment, the heart entered by the besieging enemy, its rooms sought out, and every lovely affection rudely seized by the invader's lust, and given to ravishment and to ruin!

5. Putting together in one class, all gamblers, circus-people, actors and racing-jockeys I pronounce them to be men who live off of society without returning any useful equivalent. At the most lenient sentence, they are a band of mirthful idlers. They do not throw one cent into the stock of public good. They do not make shoes, or hats, or houses, or harness, or anything else that is useful. A stableboy is useful; he performs a necessary office. A street-sweeper, a chimney-sweep, the seller of old clothes, a tinker all these men are respectable; for though their callings are very humble, they are founded on the real needs of society. The bread which such men eat, is the representation of what they have done for society; not the bread of idleness, but of usefulness.

But what do pleasure-mongers do for a living? what useful service do they do? what do they make? what do they repair? what do they for the mind, for the body, for man, or child, or beast? The dog that gnaws a refuse bone, pays for it in barking at a thief. The cat that purrs its gratitude for a morsel of meat, will clear our house of rats. But what do we get in return for supporting whole loads of play-actors, and circus-clowns? They eat, they drink, they giggle, they grimace, they strut in garish clothes and what else? They have not afforded even useful amusement; they are professional laugh-makers; their trade is comic or tragic buffoonery the trade of tickling men. We do not feel any need of them, before they come; and when they leave, the only effects resulting from their visits are, unruly boys, aping apprentices, and unsteady workmen.

Now, upon principles of mere political economy, is it wise to support a growing class of wasteful idlers? If at the top

of society, the government should erect a class of favored citizens, and pamper their idleness with fat pensions the indignation of the whole community would break out against such privileged aristocrats. But we have, at the bottom of society, a set of wandering, jesting, dancing, fiddling aristocrats, whom we support for the sake of their capers, grins, and caricatures upon life and no one seems to think this an evil!

6. But even this is cheap, compared with the evil which I shall mention. If these morality-teachers could guarantee us against all evil from their doings, we might pay their support and think it a cheap bargain. But the direct and necessary effect of their pursuit, however, is to debauch and corrupt others!

Those who defend Theaters would scorn to admit actors into their home society. It is within the knowledge of all, that men, who thus cater for public pleasure, are excluded from respectable society. The general fact is not altered by the exceptions   and honorable exceptions there are.

In the support of gamblers, circus-riders, actors, and racing-jockeys, a Christian and industrious people are guilty of supporting mere mischief-makers   men whose very heart is diseased, and whose sores exhale contagion to all around them! We pay moral assassins to stab the purity of our children. We warn our sons of temptation, and yet plant the seeds which shall bristle with all the spikes and thorns of the worst temptation.

If to this strong language, you answer, that these men are generous and jovial, that their very business is to please, that they do not mean to do harm I reply, that I do not charge them with knowingly trying to produce immorality but with pursuing a course which produces it, whether they want to or not.

Moral disease, like the plague, is contagious, whether the patient wishes it or not. A vile man infects his children in spite of himself. Criminals make criminals, just as taint makes taint, disease makes disease, and plagues make plagues. Those who run the mirthful round of pleasure cannot help dazzling the young, confounding their industrious habits, and perverting their morals it is the very nature of their employment.

These debauching and corrupting professions could not be sustained but by the patronage of moral men. Where do the clerks, the apprentices, the dissipated, get their money which buys an entrance? From whom is that money drained, always, in every land, which supports vice? Unquestionably from the good, the laborious, the careful. The skill, the enterprise, the labor, the good morals of every nation are always taxed for the expenses of vice. Jails are built out of honest men's earnings. Courts are supported from peaceful men's property. Penitentiaries are built by the toil of virtuous people. Crime never pays its own way. Vice has no hands to work, no head to calculate. Its whole faculty is to corrupt and to waste; and good men, directly or indirectly, foot the bill.

At this time, when we are waiting in vain for the return of that bread which we wastefully cast upon the waters; when, all over the sea, men are fishing up the wrecks of those sunken ships, and full freighted fortunes, which foundered in the sad storm of recent times some question might be asked about the economy of vice; the economy of paying for our sons' idleness; the economy of maintaining a whole lazy profession of gamblers, racers, actresses, and actors human, equine and beastly whose errand is mischief, and luxury, and license, and giggling folly. It ought to be asked of men who groan at a tax, to pay their honest foreign debts whether they can be taxed to pay the bills of charlatans?

It is astonishing how little the wicked influence of those professions has been considered, which exert themselves mainly to delight the sensual feelings of men. That whole race of men, whose camp is the Theater, the Circus, the Gambling-table, is a race whose instinct is destruction, who live to corrupt, and live off of the corruption which they make. For their support, we sacrifice annual hoards of youthful victims. Even sober Christian men, look smilingly upon the garish outside of these bands of destruction; and while we see the results to be, slothfulness, dissipation, idleness, dishonesty, vice and crime still they lull us with the lying lyric of "classic drama" and "human life" "morality" "poetry" and "comedy"?

Disguise it as you will, these men of sinful pleasure are, the world over, Corrupters of Youth. Upon no principle of kindness can we tolerate them; no excuse is bold enough; we can take bail from none of their weaknesses it is not safe to have them abroad even upon excessive bail. You might as well take bail for lions, or allow scorpions to breed in our streets for a suitable license; or raise a tax to fund assassins.

Men whose life is given to evil pleasures are, to ordinary criminals what a universal pestilence is to a local disease. They fill the air, pervade the community, and bring around every youth an atmosphere of death. Corrupters of youth have no mitigation of their baseness. Their generosity avails nothing, their knowledge nothing, their varied accomplishments nothing. These are only so many facilities for greater evil.

Is a serpent less deadly, because his burnished scales shine? Shall a dove praise and court the vulture, because he has such glossy plumage?

The more talents a bad man has, the more dangerous is he they are the garlands which cover up the knife with which he will stab. There is no such a thing as good corrupters. You might as well talk of a mild and pleasant murder, a very lenient assassination, or a pious devil. We denounce them; for it is our nature to loathe treacherous corruption.

We mourn over a torn and bleeding lamb but who mourns the wolf which rent it? We weep for despoiled innocence but who sheds a tear for the savage fiend who plucks away the flower of virtue?

Even thus, we palliate the sins of generous youth; and their downfall is our sorrow. But for their destroyers, for the corrupters of youth, who practice the infernal chemistry of ruin, and dissolve the young heart in vice we have neither tears, nor pleas, nor patience. We lift our heart to Him who bears the iron rod of vengeance, and pray for the appointed time of judgment.

You miscreants! You think that you are growing tall, and walking safely, because God has forgotten? The bolt of judgment shall yet smite you! You shall be heard as the falling of an oak in the silent forest the vaster its growth, the more terrible its resounding downfall!

Oh! you corrupter of youth! I would not have your death, for all the pleasure of your guilty life, a thousand fold. You shall draw near to the shadow of death. To the Christian, these shades are the golden haze which Heaven's light makes, when it meets the earth and mingles with its shadows. But to you, these shall be shadows full of phantom-shapes. Images of terror in the Future shall dimly rise and beckon the ghastly deeds of the Past shall stretch out their skinny hands to push you forward! You shall not die unattended. Despair shall mock you. Agony shall offer her fiery cup, to your parched lips. Remorse shall feel for your heart, and rend it open.

Godly men shall breathe freer at your death, and utter thanksgiving when you are gone! Men shall place your grave-stone as a monument and testimony that a plague is stayed; no tear shall wet it, no mourner linger there! And, as borne on the blast, your guilty spirit whistles toward the gate of Hell, the hideous shrieks of those whom your hand has destroyed, shall pierce you Hell's first welcome! In the bosom of that everlasting storm which rains perpetual misery in Hell, shall you, corrupter of youth be forever hidden from our view! And may God wipe out the very thoughts of you from our memory!