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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Passages which condemn all impurity of MIND and CONDUCT–
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
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
"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
"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
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 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
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
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
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.
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
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