On The Morality Of The Dramatic Arts

Before going too far into this subject, one that has been a controversy within Western civilization for at least four hundred years, it is helpful to point out that I am personally a dramatist who has authored more than three score completed plays. It is helpful to say that right up front, lest people assume that my own perspective is too biased for me to examine the subject fairly. Nonetheless, as our particular era is extremely devoted to entertainment, it is worthwhile for us to examine the moral consequences of that devotion, and to see whether it is in fact appropriate for us to engage in the sort of entertainmet practices we do. Though it is not a new question, it is an important one.

It is worthwhile to examine, if only briefly, a bit of the history of the dramatic arts so that we can gain an understanding of the context of drama in Western Civilization. There is no dramatic culture, so far as we can determine, that springs from biblical roots, even though the history of the Bible is very dramatic (and has inspired many popular and enduring works of drama and cinema), and even though the Bible includes as books at least three works that could be easily termed dramatic within its writings—the poetic dialogues of Job and the Song of Solomon and the wisdom monologue Ecclesiastes. Nonetheless, the beginnings of drama as we recognize it within Western Civilization sprang from heathen mystery worship among the Greeks, where drama was a part of the practice of pagan holy days and connected with false worship and the debased religious practices of that immoral people. The Romans themselves copied drama along with much of the pagan culture of the Greeks when they became an imperial power.

Nor is the pagan origin of drama merely an antiquarian matter. When the Italians sought to restore the brilliance of classical culture, they brought along with it the pagan dramas of old. Machiavelli, besides being an anti-biblical political philosopher, is responsible for seeking to restore the military culture of Rome’s empire, and he also adapted a couple of older plays, which became Clizia and Mandragola, for “modern” sensibilities. With a “re-paganization” of European culture in the 1500’s came a restoration of pagan dramas, many of which found their way into the writings of playwrights like Shakespeare and Moliere through Italian originals.

Nor was this the only pagan source of plays that the playwrights of the 1500’s drew from. The Roman Catholic Church long continued the heathen tradition of the mystery plays, supposedly drawn from scripture but adopting much more pagan trappings, ensnaring the guilds of towns into supporting pagan worship practices, as is the tradition of the heathen Babylonish system mixing false religion with tyrannical government and debased commerce. All of these elements combined to create the long running “cycles” of plays that were popular for a long time within nations like England. Sometimes these plays even included superficial “everyman” dramas including such characters as vice that have endured as stock characterizations even in modern dramas.

Nor do these two sources exhaust the pagan and heathen nature of drama as it existed in the Elizabethan realm. In addition to the streams of pagan culture extending from the classical dramas of Greece and Rome coming from the “learned” culture of the day and the heathen drama of the Catholic church coming from its origins as a “mystery” religion, royal pageants, themselves a source of royal support for playwrights like Lyly (in England), Moliere (in France), and de Vega (in Spain), inculcated supposed civil virtues by glorifying ungodly and tyrannical monarchs harshly opposed to God’s ways, and often persecutors of their own citizens. Yet these ungodly rulers were glorified, sometimes in idolatrous ways, by their paid flattering court dramatists.

For one of the moral problems of drama as it existed in the past (and as it exists for us today) is the way in which drama served both to legitimize ungodly authorities (by flattering rulers in lying spectacles), as well as to distract people from the miseries of their age rather than equipping them to do something about it. While playwrights like Shakespeare undoubtedly had a moral purpose in their work (I happen to believe Shakespeare was a closet Catholic), the fact is that much of the appeal of plays came because of the spectacles of sex and violence that served to dissipate the energies of frustrated groundlings in immoral ways—like bear-baiting, drug and alcohol abuse, and prostitution (which often has accompanied playhouses)–rather than have those people seek to really address the problems of their day and age. Bread and circuses have always been the way that corrupt regimes have distracted their populace from the real problems of the day—it was as true in ancient Greece and Rome as in Tudor England or Bourbon France as it is today.

Nor let us neglect the immoral behaviors associated with acting itself. The origin of our insult “hypocrite” comes from the name for the Greek actors of those heathen plays of yore who wore stone masks over their faces and pretended to be someone else. This relationship between acting and fraud—pretense, false identity—has continued on to this day, though the masks these days are far more subtle. Additionally, acting has often been connected with deviant sexuality. In the times of Shakespeare all actors were men, so romance plays often carried with them a homoerotic edge of having men kiss boys, itself a sign of the pederasty that itself came along with Greek culture as well as Roman Catholic practice, problems that still linger on to cause substantial trouble in Western civilization, as does the sexual immorality associated with actors even to this day, a problem that is intricately related to the often pornographic and unsettling subject matter of plays as well. I speak from personal knowledge in the matter.

Even if playwriting can have moral means and ends, there is no doubt that the dramatic and cinema culture of our time is clearly immoral, and often supports explicitly immoral behaviors and practices. The moral (or immoral) worldviews of playwrights and directors and producers is clearly seen in the moral or immoral content of plays themselves. Likewise, we are all affected by the sort of culture we ourselves enjoy and celebrate. We too enable corruption and immorality if we frequent immoral places and support immoral works and cheer on immoral “stars.” It is hard to imagine the lying and pretending that is itself a key aspect of the dramatic art of acting not seeping through to other parts of one’s life. Is the kissing and making out (and sometimes even more outright sexuality) of a movie or television show real? If one’s husband or wife is engaged in that activity on-screen, can one trust one’s spouse to be loyal and faithful? Probably not.

What is our responsibility in all of this. Those of us, like myself, who create dramatic works must bear a greater responsibility because it is our “lies” that other people perform. Likewise, those who perform bear a greater responsibility than those who merely witness, but all of those who support or enable such works, or who cheer on such works, themselves bear responsibility. If the works we support are rubbish, we bear some moral culpability for enabling its creation, for what sins are committed in the commission of such works. This is a heavy responsibility. Even if we do not wish to be puritanical in our approach to the arts, we must at least be sensitive to the moral implications of the art we appreciate. If we cheer on “Song of the South,” or enjoy blackface comedies (or their “whiteface”) cousins, do we then endorse racism? If we support witchcraft and wizardry, do we support evil and immoral occult practices involving demonic influence and possession? If we cheer on bullfighting and bear-baiting, do we endorse animal cruelty? If we make lewd and crude sexist or racist jokes, does it expose us as lewd and immoral and sexist or racist people? If it does, then our entertainment tells us unsavory and unpleasant truths about ourselves, and exposes our own moral insensitivity.

As someone who is deeply creative, whose plays (even, perhaps especially, the unpleasant ones) is a matter of wrestling with deeply unpleasant personal truths and struggles, I feel deeply uneasy about my own involvement in unpleasant or unacceptable forms of entertainment. Whatever my own desires to wrestle with my demons, so to speak, and overcome my own trials and tribulations, the works of my own hand can be used for evil purposes without very much difficulty. As human “sub-creators,” we bear a serious responsibility, because a creator has moral responsibility for his creations. We cannot pass the buck and simply say we are giving the people what they want. Nor can we pass the buck as consumers and supporters of entertainment, because we enable filth to be made by our support and patronage. No one can escape responsibility for the ethical and moral nature of a creation, and so we ought to be more careful about that sort of art we create and support. If we are not led to change our opinions on it, we at least ought to be reminded that we will stand accountable for all that we put into and took out of our minds and hearts. For some of us, myself included, that responsibility bears very heavily indeed.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to On The Morality Of The Dramatic Arts

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