“The statesman tells you with a sneer,
His fault is to be too sincere.”
Jonathan Swift, “The Beasts’ Confession” (1732)
“A sort of malaria that infects the soul seems to lurk among those dark, filthy passages of the theater . . . . The solemnity and reality of life disappear, the most sacred things are matter for jest, the most impossible things seem to be true . . .”
Honoré de Balzac, A Distinguished Provincial at Paris (1839)
It is generally known that the Puritans detested theatrical performances and did what they could to suppress both players and playhouses. They could see that the stage must pander to its audience, and therefore must always tend towards ribaldry and smut. As one Puritan detester put it in 1625:
“They teach their hearers and beholders much sin in the acting of their plays . . . to play the bawd and the harlot, with very many such other lewd lessons.”*
Most people nowadays will laugh at his prudery, but if Leighton were with us he might point to the “lewd lessons” of the new HBO’s teenage drama “Euphoria,” a pedagogic phantasmagoria of penises, drug-taking and degeneracy. If “Euphoria” doesn’t teach our youth to “play the bawd and the harlot,” it can only be because they are very slow learners. St. Cyprian explained this effect of theaters to Donatus in the Third Century A.D.
“Here the contagion of adultery
Infects the heart through deluded eye,
And easy dames seduced by the stage,
And lewd example of an impious age,
Are filled with passion, and with fury burn:
Though chaste they came, corrupted they return.”**
Most people nowadays would also laugh at another objection Leighton makes against the stage. In Leighton’s day, men normally played female parts, and Leighton suspected that this crossdressing might lead to emasculation and what we nowadays call gender fluidity.
“For this change of apparel maketh the man effeminate, and the woman manish, as some can testify if they would, some have confessed, and the heathen know.”
Leighton pointed to the clear injunction against crossdressing and gender fluidity in Deuteronomy 22.5, and also, once again, to St. Cyprian.
“What strictest morals can, without a stain,
Amidst the enticements of the stage remain?
Where men themselves with painful shame disgrace,
Both human laws and Nature’s rules transgress,
To gain a beardless and effeminate face.
The vigorous graces of the manly look,
Into the tender female air are broke;
And him whom most from manhood can descend,
The pleased auditors do most commend;
The lower he sinks, his praise advanceth still;
And by his impudence they judge his skill.
When to such softness man himself degrades,
He moves the passions, and the will persuades,
. . .
Whilst the connivance of the applauding town
Gilds o’er the pill, and sends it glibly down.
If Leighton or St. Cyprian were with us, they would not find it difficult to prove that we have swallowed that gilded pill (or should I say that gelded pill?).
Leighton’s third objection against plays and players was that “they never come on the stage in their own name” and that “it is not lawful for Christians to sport themselves either with the dreadful judgments of God [as in tragedies], or with the abominable sins of men [as in comedies].”
In other words, he believed that pretending is dangerous for an adult, particularly pretending in connection with serious things. When Leighton says that “it is not lawful for Christians to sport themselves,” he means that it is not lawful for them to play at serious things and make them matters of mere amusement. When they do this, they invariably trivialize the serious things and degrade themselves into unserious men.
This touches on the objection that Balzac made against theaters in my second epigraph: the habit of pretending makes “the solemnity and reality of life disappear.” In a nation of actors, actresses and theatergoers, sacred things will be profaned, fantasies will grow into delusions, and the gravity of life will disappear.
St. Cyprian likewise observed that theatergoers bring the unreality of the playhouse home with them. They begin to think of themselves as stage actors (Greek hypokritēs), and of their lives as a series of staged performances (Greek hypokrisis). They become hypocrites and their lives become a series of false hypocrisies. They put on acts, stage scenes, contrive illusions, and all the while maintain a secret and sordid backstage life.
“Without remorse, and infamously bold,
They act what even is sinful to behold;
And though the fact, in public, they deny,
Yet shameless to the same offences fly,
. . .
If from the public they their sins conceal,
They think themselves acquitted of the ill.”
As the Bard explained and the Puritans feared, the playhouse thus draws all the world into itself, until, at last, “all the world’s a stage” and “all the men and women merely players.” Mere hypocrites, in other words. Pretenders pretending in a world that is only pretend. Their creed, in the words of one of their heroes:
“A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”†
The natural leader of a nation of insincere pretenders is the arch-pretender and super-hypocrite that we know as a democratic politician!
* * * * *
Readers of the New Testament understand hypocrisy as ostentatious and hollow piety, and the hypocrite as a “whited sepulcher” that gleams on the outside but has nothing inside other than spiders, dust and dead men’s bones. When Jesus denounced the hypocrites, he accused them of putting on an act, of treating the streets as a stage, of pretending to be something they were not. And these hypocrites were not pretending to be pious for the fun of it, or in the hope that a habit of pious behavior would one day ripen into a real piety. They were pretending to be pious because they saw the worldly advantage of a reputation for piety.
As Jesus explained, what a hypocrite desires is the “glory of men,” and he sees ostentatious piety as a convenient means to that low and worldly end. Coleridge wrote of the man who has “mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural poetic genius,” and much the same thing might be said of a man who has mistaken an intense desire of pious reputation for genuine prompting by the Spirit.† Indeed, desire for the “glory of men” gives rise to hypocrisy in every sphere of human activity. Some men are in it for the game; others are in it for the fame. And the second sort are hypocrites.
Show me a whited sepulcher with an inside less lovely than the inside of a democratic politician!
* * * * *
A wealthy man named Meidias publicly slapped the politician Demosthenes during an Athenian religious festival in the fourth century, B.C. The slap seems to have been part a running feud between the two men, but it proved a sort of “last straw” and Demosthenes took Meidias to court. Near the end of his judicial oration, Demosthenes predicted that, when Medias stood before the judges, he would make himself “as piteous as he can.”†† He would surround himself with his children, talk very humbly, even shed tears. Medias would make this pathetic show of humility to manipulate the judges into feeling pity.
Demosthenes advised them to instead feel nothing but scorn because this groveling Meidias would be putting on an act.
Meidias was an arrogant bully by nature and habit; but he was also, like every other man, a dissembler who was capable of wrapping his true self in the cloak of an hypocrisy. And in doing this, he would invite scorn in two ways. First, this hypocrisy would show that he could control his arrogance and violent temper when it was in his interest to do so, and that he therefore could have controlled it rather than slap Demosthenes at the religious festival. Second, this hypocrisy would show that he believed he could hoodwink the judges with an insincere pantomime (an hypocrisy or staged performance) that would momentarily eclipse all of his past behavior. Thus, Demosthenes tells the judges,
“You must not let the present occasion, when he is playing the hypocrite, have more weight and influence with you than the whole past of which you have had experience.”
In other words, do not be deceived by his crocodile tears.
Show me the crocodile whose phony lacrymation can compare with the phony lacrymation of a democratic politician!
*) Alexander Leighton, A Short Treatise on Stage Players (1625)
**) These lines are from a curious versification of St. Cyprian’s letters published in London in 1717, no doubt to protest the license of English theater after the Restoration.
***) The Critic as Artist (1891).
†) Biographia Literaria (1817).
††) Against Meidias (c. 350 B.C.).