Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Anti-Theatrical Prejudice

Jonas Barish's book Anti-Theatrical Prejudice discusses the history of anti-theatrical prejudice dating from ancient Greece until the current day. He introduces the topic by discussing all the negative epithets from theater that have made their way into our discourse: melodramatic, stagey, putting on an act, making a scene, making a spectacle, and, of course, theatrical. I wrote a paper on this subject, specifically Seventh-day Adventist prejudice against the theater, when I was a freshman in college so I was somewhat familiar with most of the arguments. I'll just list them, because that's what the book is about.


Poets/actors/painters are "sophists," making counterfeits that look like (but are not) truth.
Drama stirs up our feelings to subvert our judgment.
Imitation is formative, so we must not imitate things that we do not want to become.
Justice and right government involve citizens knowing their place. Any crossing of identity boundaries, even imaginary, can jeopardize this.
Art is slippery; it cannot be put under exact measurements or controls; it is not to be trusted.

Classical Rome:

Actors were foreigners, slaves, and prostitutes.
Entertaining made one ridiculous (ars ludicra).
The dissolution and extravagance of Rome was demeaning to Rome; theater was part of this.

Early Christianity:

Players and mimers might mime sacraments or holy people, thus devaluing religion.
Theater was, like gladiatorial events and beast shows, a decadent extravagance that eroded morality.
Theater aims to provoke frenzy.
Changing our appearance or our names or anything else is a lie against God and blasphemy to think that we can improve on God's work: ourselves (this extends to shaving, exercising, and wearing high heels).
The Lord permits emotion but not wallowing in emotion for its own sake.

Early Lollards:

Although in the medieval period most drama was church-sanctioned, a minority spoke out against miracle and mystery plays.
God hates laughter. Christ never laughed. Amusement is a sin.
When men weep at a story, it is not real so their tears are worthless.
When people see a Bible play enacted on stage and they know it is false, they will be persuaded to believe that the Bible story itself is false as well.


The Catholic church rituals partake of aspects of theater: spectacle, rehearsed lines, costuming.
Playgoing brings one into contact with all kinds of other low entertainments: gambling, bear-baiting, prostitution.
Theater involves cross-dressing, which is not only a lie against a man's identity, but is also proscribed in the Bible. It encourages effeminacy.
Acting is based on hypocrisy and lies.
Theater implies that God's own work has fallen short, if we need fictions and costumes to be satisfied.
If something is true, it is unchangeable; it does not change its appearance and identity at will (Proteanism). To change is to fall.
The early modern theater took people away from work.


Theater-goers are a low sort, uneducated. They either come to be seen in fine dress, or to laugh at dumb shows. They cannot appreciate real poetry.
Theater is impermanent. The experience of going to a play passes away; unlike a painting or a sculpture, it does not last.
Actors on stage are not simple and sincere; you cannot trust their bombast.

The rest of the book goes on with that stuff, but I thought I'd focus on the anti-theatrical feeling up to the early modern period.

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