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have, no doubt, anticipated my declaring, that it is the amusement of The Stage to which I allude.
Indiscriminate praise or indiscriminate censure are alike injurious to any cause, and equally indispose the friends or the enemies of it to an inquiry into its true merits; and, when we find such very opposite opinions prevail upon any subject, the probability is, that truth lies somewhere between these extreme points. *
Plays have been permitted to be performed in this place-or at least within the reach of its inhabitants—at this season, for many years past; a new theatre hath been lately erected, in a situation still nearer to us than before, and some circumstances have lately occurred to make the subject of their propriety be somewhat agitated amongst us. I trust, therefore, that the offering of some considerations upon the matter will not be deemed irrelevant or unnecessary.
The influence of the Stage upon the manners and passions of mankind is universally acknowledged; and, when we consider the size and
* Note B. + The subject of the Middle Bachelors' Prizes, recited in the Senate House, at the Commencement, this year, was, quam Histrionis Artem miremur, quærendum tamen utrum Mores Hominum emendet magis, an corrumpat Scena?"
attractions of the theatres of the metropolis, (under which term I would include all places where any entertainment of a dramatic cast is performed) when we reflect, that there are regular theatres for a considerable part of the year in most large towns, and that there is scarcely a town of a few hundred inhabitants throughout the kingdom, (and some villages,) in which plays are not performed for a few weeks in the year, or every other year, or once in a few years,—that there are companies of players travelling about to our principal fairs, and that these are visited by the inhabitants of the smallest villages, –and when we consider the farther influence of plays, from their being published and read in the closet,- it must be acknowledged as a matter of no trifling concern, whether their general and particular tendency be to promote vice or virtue. All reasonable advocates for the stage, indeed, allow, that it is greatly corrupted, and that plays are not what they ought to be, and what they might be made; while others, arguing from the constant abuse of the stage, and because it never hath been altogether reformed, (at least as far as human imperfection would allow,) are for giving it up, as the safer part. One writer against the stage goes so far as to affirm, “on the most mature deliberation, that the reason why there never was a well-regulated stage, is because it cannot be, the nature of the
thing not admitting it; and that theatrical representations are, in their general nature, or in their best possible state, unlawful, contrary to the purity of our religion: and that writing, acting, or attending them, is inconsistent with the character of a christian."*
Here, then, the matter is fairly at issue; if the stage, so far from being able to afford an amusement, of which we can partake in such a manner as to “ do it to the glory of God,” be in itself wrong, and inconsistent with the character of a christian, then, however fascinating it may be, the christian must give it up
without reluctance and without a murmur.
But, if the evil attached to it be no part of its inherent quality, but arising merely from the abuse of it, and which it is in the power of its frequenters, and properly constituted authorities, to correct; and, if this powerful engine can be farther made to promote the cause of virtue, and, with that, indirectly, if not directly, the cause of religion, then does it become our duty to separate the evil from the good, and to make it such as a christian may frequent.
It may, however, be said, since the Stage is
* Witherspoon, p. 42, also p. 47.
become so corrupt and dangerous, why not take the safer way, and relinquish it entirely? Would all persons acquiesce in this, then it might certainly be done. But if people were so rightly disposed, as willingly to give up a corrupt Stage, then they would be good enough to amend it. How, then, is it to be put down? Is the magistrate to interfere to suppress it? then may he as well, and more easily, interfere to amend it. The case is, that the Stage still exists, notwithstanding all that hath been done to put it down for centuries past. Much hath been done by its adversaries with the express purpose to vilify and suppress it, little in the endeavour to conciliate and amend.
Let us, then, direct our inquiries to consider,
1. In the first place, whether the Stage be a thing lawful in itself;
II. Secondly, If it be not unlawful, what are the abuses of it; and
III. Thirdly, What are the most probable means of improvement.
1. First, then, let us consider, whether the Stage be a thing lawful in itself.
And here, at the very outset, an objection is thrown in our way, That “the Stage is the
invention of the Devil,”* and “ owes its existence to the false religions of heathenism."*
The historians of the Stage seem, indeed, to have concurred in ascribing the origin of the Drama to the Ode and Chorus, set to music, and performed in honour of the heathen God, Bacchus; into which, first one, then two, and then more speakers were introduced, till, in a short time it arrived at the state in which we have it in the ancient Greek Tragedians; and this was from about the year 536 to the before the Christian æra. So far, perhaps, it may justly be traced to heathenism and to the author of it: but it then becomes an inquiry, Whence the heathens acquired this Ode and Chorus in honour of their Gods? The probability is, that it was borrowed, or rather stolen, from the worship of the One True God, the Everlasting Jehovah, to furnish out idolatrous rites for the abominations of the gentiles. Certain it is, that some of the Psalms of David (who died 1015 years before Christ) are written in this manner;ť and the Song of Moses, on the deliverance of the Israelites from their Egyptian oppressors, in the year 1491 before Christ, is in the same style of Chorus and Semi-chorus intermixed.
* See A Refutation of Heyrvood's Apology for Actors, p. 21; also The Conduct of she Stage considered, by Dr. CHARLES Owen, p. 6 and 7.
+ Styles, p. 2.