Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Ethics and Morals of Theater

Theater has historically gotten a bad rap... and a bad rep.  Actors, actresses, the Stage in general have been thought depraved, immoral, flat-out sinful.  Here's a quote from Harriet Beecher Stowe's influential 1869 book, The American Woman's Home (which, no kiddin' I happened to read right before watching Five Women Wearing the Same Dress):

"Another rule which has been extensively adopted in the religious world is, to avoid those amusements which experience has shown to be so exciting, and connected with so many temptations, as to be pernicious in tendency, both to the individual and to the community...  So with theaters.  The enacting of characters and the amusement thus afforded in themselves may be harmless; and possibly, in certain cases, might be useful; but experience has shown so many evils to result from this source, that it has been deemed wrong to patronize it...  Horse-races might be so managed as not to involve cruelty, gambling, drunkenness, and other vices.  And so might theaters.  And if serious and intelligent persons undertook to patronize these, in order to regulate them, perhaps they would be somewhat raised from the depths to which they have sunk."

There you have it, theater = pernicious.  And yet...

At the Opening party I got to chat with theater buddies.  There's generally some Drama going on somewhere to discuss, but last night's was a doozy:  a local actor (different show) refused to perform because the audience was, he deemed, too small.  General shock and horror.  FaceBook outrage.  And I truly was shocked, because the famous "the show must go on" really is bedrock ethics in this community.  The rest of the world may think theater people immoral, but that is untrue, their moral code is just different...  What was Beecher Stowe's list:  "cruelty, gambling, drunkenness, and other vices"?  Sounds like a good party!  (BTW She missed, or was too prudish to mention, licentiousness.)

But never let the show or audience down.  That's unethical.

I doubt that actor will be cast in many shows after this - the directors are all in an uproar.  And the audience happened to be a critic so... word will spread.  As Cassius from Othello puts it:

"Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!"
illustration from Othello courtesy of Charles and Mary Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare (Public Domain)

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