THE HEARING EAR AND THE SEEING EYE.
The hearing ear, and tlu seeing eye, the Lord hath made even both of them.
Proverbs Xx. 12.
S. James's, Piccadilly, 2nd Sunday after Easter, 18731.
I HAVE undertaken to speak to you this afternoon
on the subject of the Drama, and yet I am well aware
that the very selection of such a theme for a sermon
will not escape without censure. For is it not an
essentially secular topic? What meeting-point can
there be, or ought there to be, between the pulpit and
the stage, between the direct presentation of the
Gospel and the very embodiment of the world? The
patent incongruity, I shall be told, ought to have
warned me off this forbidden ground.
1 Reprinted from 'The Use and Abuse of the World' (London, S.P.C.K. 1874).
Some will condemn the subject, prompted by their zeal for the Gospel. They can regard it as nothing less than the prostitution of a great opportunity to waste the valuable half-hour which convention allows to the preacher, in speaking of plays and playgoers, when every moment abstracted from the lessons of man's corruption and God's justice and Christ's satisfaction is a moment squandered and lost, a moment for which an account will be demanded before the great tribunal in the last day. One stern, strong word of absolute condemnation would have sufficed. As in the poet's vision of the lost souls, the voice of the divine monitor bids the Christian preacher not halt before such a theme, but give one look only —one glance of sorrow, of reprobation, of warning— and then pass on.
And others will condemn it on different grounds. They are more concerned for the immunity of the drama than for the profanation of the Gospel. Religion is a good thing, and amusement is a good thing; but do not mix up the one with the other, or you will spoil both. They are ready with a text— what evasion has not its favourite text ?—' Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.' They are prepared to fulfil their religious duties with decent regularity, to attend prayers, to listen to sermons, to signify their approval or disapproval of the preacher; but, having thus paid their homage to religion and given satisfaction to their conscience, they hold themselves free for the rest: they have purchased immunity from interference in the gaieties of social life.
Nay, sirs, is not this temper the most complete vindication of the preacher when he ventures to handle such a subject? I cannot ignore the fact that the drama is, and always will be, an enormously powerful engine in the hands of society—an instrument of incalculable influence for evil or for good, as it is wrongly or rightly directed. Its popularity, its vividness, its directness of appeal to the imagination and the emotions, will inevitably secure to it this influence. And, if so, I cannot consent to turn my back upon it, or to close my eyes as if it were not. It is a matter of incalculable moment to yourselves and your children, to this your country, to the Gospel and the Church of Christ in this land, whether the English drama shall be suffered to sink to yet lower depths of degradation, or whether you will use all the influence which you possess, by abstention, by encouragement, by hearty sympathy with all its nobler efforts, by outspoken abhorrence of all its baser tricks, to raise it from its fallen estate, and to make it, what God would have it be, the purifier of the moral impulses, the quickener of the intellectual life, the common educator of the people in all that is heroic and truthful and just and unselfish and kindly-affectioned and pure and lovely and of good report.
For if any, despairing of the drama, should hold it the duty of a patriot and a Christian to crush it, the thing cannot be done; and, even if it were possible, the history of the past does not encourage us to hope that any good would result from this repressive policy, successfully pursued.
I, For first of all; dramatic representation is natural to man. Watch your own children, when they are left to themselves, and you cannot fail to be struck with this fact. The child rehearses in the nursery the scenes which it has witnessed in the drawing-room, or has read of in the story-book. It has no instruction, it receives no encouragement, in its childish attempt at dramatic action; but scenic imitation is a sort of instinct, which it gratifies as a matter of course. It is the same with the infancy of peoples, as with the infancy of individuals. Among the most barbarous tribes, wholly removed from the influences of civilisation and culture, the drama in some rude form has been found to exist as a spontaneous outgrowth of the soil. What again is the painting, or the oratorio, but another mode of gratifying this perfectly natural, perfectly human impulse, which leads to the reproduction of the real or imaginary scenes of the past? And if this impulse be, as it appears to be, natural to man, it is quite vain to attempt to crush it, because it is not uncommonly degraded and abused. What abuse is more common or more fatal than the abuse of that natural emotion which we call love? The corruption of the best is always the worst . 'If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!' But the preacher and the moralist do not therefore attempt to repress the natural affections (what folly could be greater than this ?) but to guide, to cultivate, to ennoble, to chasten and purify them.
2. But again; this policy of repression has been tried at one period of our national life, and never was its futility more signally shown than in the issue. During the Commonwealth the drama was sternly proscribed, and with what results let the history of the English stage at the Restoration declare. The pent-up passions of a coerced but not convinced people burst out in the most fearful excesses, as soon as the restraint was removed. The drama of the Restoration is the foulest blot on our national literature, for which, as Englishmen, we may well hang our heads in shame, and of which, as Christians, we hardly dare venture to speak. The grossest licentiousness was paraded on the stage. Virtue was derided by all the artifices of an ignoble ridicule, and vice recommended by all the attractions of a corrupt invention. The unclean spirit returning had found the house empty, swept, and garnished, and had entered in, taking with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself. So disastrous was the issue of this ill-judged attempt at proscription. As our brilliant historian and essayist has only too truly described it, 'A frightful peal of blasphemy and ribaldry proclaimed that the short-sighted policy which aimed at making a nation of saints had made a nation of scoffers1.'
3. Once more; even if history had not taught us that the attempt to crush the drama is attended with far greater evils than those which it is designed to remove, would it be altogether wise to resort to such extreme measures, and thus to cut ourselves off from a powerful instrument of education, without at least making the attempt to direct it and to use it for good? The drama was in times past the great teacher of the people, sharpening and refining their intellectual faculties, and setting before them a lofty standard of domestic and political morality. Why should it not be so now? The ancient stage in its purest ages was the pulpit—not only in name but in teaching. In the Athenian theatre 'tragedy in scepter'd pall' preached the noblest sermons which
1 Macaulay, Essay on the Comic Dramatists of the Restoration,
the poet could conceive or the age comprehend. And have we not ourselves seen of late how, in a remote village of the Bavarian highlands, the most terrible tragedy in the history of our race, represented on a rustic stage by a simple peasantry, could rivet thousands of spectators during the long hours of a summer's day, subduing the most frivolous into silent awe, and thrilling all alike with a more profound sense of the power and significance of that unique act of self-sacrifice—the most solemn, most pathetic, most vivid, most effective of all sermons? I am far from wishing to see the religious drama introduced again into this country. Only as a directly devotional service is it at all tolerable. Even then the scenic representation of the Passion may be a questionable mode of teaching. But profaned by the touch of gain or the vanity of display it is transmuted at once into the rankest of all blasphemies. I only mention the fact, as illustrating the capabilities of the drama for the highest purposes of instruction. But what is there to prevent the English stage from taking its proper place as the most useful ally of the school and the pulpit by promoting all that is healthiest in morality, and all that is most bracing to the intellect?
It is not without shame that as Christians we read a definition of the drama given by a heathen philosopher more than three centuries before Christ. He tells us that the aim of tragedy is the purification of the emotions of awe and pity in the audience through their sympathy with the action of the drama1. To purify, and not to stimulate at any cost—this, according to Aristotle, is the proper function of scenic representation. I desire no other definition. I make no larger demand. Let it be the aim of the tragic poet to purify one set of emotions, such as anger, fear, pity, by kindred representations of pathos and suffering; of the comic poet to purify another set— love, mirth, geniality and the like—by kindliness, by humour, if need be, by satire and by ridicule, but at all events to purify. This was the tendency of the English stage in the age of its greatest triumphs and in the person of its noblest dramatists, despite occasional coarsenesses of expression, the more to be deplored as blots on a fair picture. But can this definition be applied with any truth to the recent drama of this country? I am glad to think that there are some noble exceptions, of which this may indeed be said. All honour to those dramatic writers and those stage managers who have disdained to court popularity by flattering a vicious public taste. But as a rule, is purification either the aim or the tendency of the English stage at this moment? If
1 Arist. Poet. 6 Si' i\£ov /col (j>6f!ov irtpalvovaa rr/v T&v Toioirwv so, how comes it that the clergyman is almost barred entrance into a theatre by general consent, and even worldly men would sneer if he should appear frequently within its walls? How comes it that the plots and the dialogue of pieces which are witnessed without a blush by thousands cannot be alluded to in the family circle, except under the disguise of some delicate euphemism or some carefully guarded periphrasis?
Test the present tendency of the theatre by this standard, and what results will the examination yield? Shall we say that it enlists all the activities of the mind and all the sympathies of the heart on the side of purity and honour and virtue? Shall we say that it shows a scrupulous respect for the chastity of growing youth and the fidelity of wedded life, holding up every violation of the one and every breach of the other to scorn, as mean and degrading; that it carefully abstains from inflaming any corrupt passion by a gesture or a look or a word suggestive of evil; that it is scrupulously modest in its appointments, its dresses, its movements; that its mirth and its repartee are not barbed with any taint of poison which will rankle and fester in the imagination; and that thus, while it attracts and amuses, it also chastens and elevates, doing its noble work all the more effectually because it teaches without seeming to teach, because it demands no effort, which is not also a delight, in the spectators?
Are these its moral effects? And do its intellectual influences correspond to these? Does it give a healthy tone to the mental faculties? Does it abhor all mean artifices, and aim at producing its effects by imagination, by humour, by careful construction of plots, by truthful delineation of character? Does it avoid mere sensationalism, striking right home to the mind, rather than dazzling the eye and fascinating the ear? Does it eschew mere burlesque, scorning to purchase an easy popularity by caricaturing any illustrious name or any important movement or any great work of genius, and thus by a false association of ideas debasing and vitiating the public taste? For what are sensationalism and burlesque but different kinds of mental intoxication, producing a delirious sense of excitement for the moment, but ending in the degradation and wreck of the faculties, where each fresh gratification begets a fresh craving, till the intellectual constitution is shattered by excessive indulgence in stimulants?
And we have had our warning. If we sin again, we shall sin with our eyes open. The history of English literature is our monitor, and the voice speaks with no faint or stammering utterance. I have already alluded to the drama of the Restoration as the deepest stain on the pages of our national history. I might quote paragraph after paragraph from one who was no unfriendly critic of dramatic literature and had no puritanical leanings1, in which he paints in ever-darkening colours the profaneness and immorality of the English stage at this period; when 'the common characteristic was hard-hearted, shameless, swaggering licentiousness, at once inelegant and inhuman,' when 'nothing could be so pure or so heroic, but that it became foul and ignoble by transfusion through those foul and ignoble minds,' when 'the comic poet was the mouthpiece of the most deeply corrupted part of a corrupted society.' These sentences of indignant scorn—and they are not the strongest—were penned, be it observed, not by some fanatical preacher of the age, but by a cultivated man of literature in our own generation, jealous for his country's honour and blushing for his country's shame. Then it was, that one man stepped forward to denounce the shameless scandal. It might have seemed that a clerical outlaw, like Jeremy Collier, aiming his blows at his own political friends, would prove only a sorry champion of such a desperate cause against all the genius and fashion and power of the ageBut there is a majesty in purity and honour, before which baseness recoils overawed. The smooth pebble 1 Lord Macaulay in the Essay referred to above.
from the brook, slung with fearless hand, smote the great intellectual giant of the age in the brow; and the 'towering crest of Dryden' fell before his dauntless assailant. Dryden, a chief offender, retracted. 'In many things,' he wrote,'he has taxed me justly and I have pleaded guilty.' Dryden retracted; and his retraction stands recorded as a warning to all future times. But no retraction can unprint the printed page; no retraction can wipe out the stain on our literature; no retraction can arrest the spread of the poison through the veins of generations yet unborn.
But we have not fallen so low as this. The profligacy and profaneness, the shameless parade of vice, which disgraced the drama of that ill-starred period, would be revolting to our good taste now. We need not fear any recurrence to such a state of things. Yes; there is perhaps little likelihood of a return to the coarseness of the past. But may not a still greater peril to the morals of England lurk under the insidious refinement which disguises its corrupt tendencies in graceful images, which trades on the fact that our noblest impulses lie very close to our basest passions, and thus leads astray by working on the amiable sensibilities of the heart? Mere coarseness carries with it its own antidote, for it repels all but vulgar and debased natures by its loathsomeness. It is the fatal association that blends the good with the evil, that makes vice palatable by culture and refinement, from which we have most to dread.
We have not fallen so low yet. Thank God, it is true. But in what direction are we moving? This is the really momentous question. Are we on an incline? For, if so, unless we arrest ourselves at once by a stern effort, then by an inevitable law of forces moral as well as physical, the descent will be accelerated, and the precipitation must come at last. I wish I could think it possible to answer this question in more than one way. But can any man who calmly reviews the last quarter of a century doubt that during this period a poisonous taint has been spreading through literature and society? The infection may have been communicated in the first instance from abroad; but it is naturalised, or almost naturalised, among us now. The degradation of the stage is only one token of a much more general corruption. The popular literature—the novels and poetry—the newspaper reports, even the shop-windows, tell the same tale. Subjects are discussed, and sights are exhibited, which would not have been tolerated a few years ago. And we, as patriots, look idly on, discussing the material defences of our country, as though no moral danger threatened her integrity; we, as Christians, fold our arms, as though we should never be called s. s. 3
to account for any of these things, as though it were a light matter in ourselves or others to abuse the faculties and the senses which God has given us, forgetting the responsibility inculcated in the wise man's saying, 'The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the Lord hath made even both of them.'
And yet what interests should appear more momentous either to the patriot or to the Christian than the purity of his country's literature? A bad law may be rescinded, a vicious institution may be abolished; but a corrupt work of genius is there, there for ever. Can there be any lesson more grave or more deeply pathetic than the confession of that epilogue in which the father of English poetry, at the close of his life, glancing back on the creations of his literary genius, retracts all that is tainted with grossness and levity, avowing his contrition and asking forgiveness through the mercy of Christ? And again; will not all right-minded men echo the tribute of respect which our great living poet has paid to his great predecessor, and thankfully acknowledge that the laureate wreath did indeed descend upon him greener from the brows of one who uttered nothing base? Who does not regret, even in Shakspeare, the occasional coarseness, possibly not his own, which blots the pages of dramas otherwise essentially pure and healthy and noble in their moral tone?
For indeed the responsibilities of literary genius are enormous, as the consequences are incalculable. Can any anguish be imagined more bitter to the awakened conscience of a penitent than the memory of some one human soul polluted, degraded, ruined by his means? To such a one any accumulation of suffering will seem a small price to pay for redeeming the past, if only he could bear all the burden himself, if only the past were not irredeemable. Such remorse might well drag down a spirit from on high. And yet what is one isolated case of degradation through personal companionship, compared with the noxious influence of a perverted literary genius, which pervades all classes and extends to all time? Who is so hardened that he would dare to face such a retrospect, if only for a moment he were gifted with a seraph's vision, and could see spread out before him the infinite, intricate consequences of his work in all their manifold and hideous forms? Who would not hold it better far to have lived obscure and died forgotten, than thus to have laid a whole world at his feet, dazzled with the brilliancy of his genius, and then, when the intoxication of popularity has passed away, then, when it is too late, to awaken to the awful reality?
But, if the purity of our literature is threatened, the fault cannot be all on one side. There is a law of supply and demand in literature as well as in commerce. A corrupt drama is the reflection of a corrupt age. The author gives what the audience requires. Each acts and reacts upon the other, either debasing or elevating, as the tendency may be. The remedy therefore is in the hands of the people of England, more especially of the influential and cultivated classes of England.
This fact it is which makes it worth while for a preacher to dwell on the subject at all. Not a few members of this congregation have very distinct and very grave responsibilities in this matter. To such I earnestly appeal, by their example and their influence, by tacit discouragement and by outspoken reproof, by all lawful means direct and indirect, to stem this advancing tide of immorality; to set their faces sternly against the insidious attractions of a refined sensualism; to accept no compromise which condones the corrupt or mean sentiment for its sparkling wit or its graceful expression; to promote a taste for all that is high and noble and lovely in the creations of past genius; to encourage whatever is pure and healthy in the literary efforts of their own generation. This let them do, assured that the layman who will boldly take up this position before the world is the truest benefactor to his country and the most effective preacher of Christ. This let them do, remembering that all those elements in our nature which are so powerfully affected by dramatic representation for good or for evil, are God's talents given to us in trust—our imagination, our affections, our emotions, our sensibilities, our senses; 'The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the Lord hath made even both of them.'