The Antitheatrical Prejudice


Al other evils pollute the doers onlie, not the beholders, or the hearers. For a man may heare a blasphemer, and not be partaker of his sacriledge, inasmuch as in minde he dissenteth. And if one come while a roberie is a doing, he is cleere, because he abhors the fact. Onlie the filthines of plaies, and spectacles is such, as maketh both the actors & beholders giltie alike. For while they saie nought, but gladlie looke on, they al by sight and assent be actors.

     (From A Second and Third Blast of Retrait from Plaies and Theaters printed in The English Drama and Stage Under the Tudor and Stuart Princes 1543-1664, ed. W. C. Hazlitt (London, 1869, 104). Quoted in Barish, 80)

Winner of the 1982 Barnard Hewitt award for “outstanding research in theatre history,” Jonas Barish’s monumental The Antitheatrical Prejudice was ten years in the making. Covering 2500 years of theatre history, it is also the sort of book almost no scholar today would attempt to write—not least because the norms of academic publishing have shifted so significantly over the past thirty-odd years. Barish moves chronologically from Plato to twentieth-century theatre as he pursues the question of why the institution of theatre has been so vigorously and so widely opposed, especially at those moments when it flourished the most. For Barish,

the fact that the prejudice turns out to be of such nearly universal dimension, that is has infiltrated the spirits not only of insignificant criticasters and village explainers but of giants like Plato, Saint Augustine, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, suggests that it is worth looking at more closely—that it is indeed, more than a prejudice….looked at more attentively, it comes to appear a kind of ontological malaise, a condition inseparable from our beings, which we can no more discard than we can shed our skins. (2)

The “ontological malaise” Barish diagnoses can be seen in moral and religious objections to plays as vehicles for blasphemy and theatres as “dens of iniquity;” in secular objections to playgoing as a waste of time, labor, and capital; and in vehement objections to the players themselves (indeed, one of the strengths of this study was its overview of the many indignities and legal barriers actors have faced, from Roman times through to nineteenth-century France).

Elsewhere the forms of antimimetic bias Barish explores seem altogether more nebulous, his definition of prejudice expanding to include a general distaste for make believe and displays of personal “exhibitionism.” Untethered from any concrete place or period, “theatricality” by the end of The Antitheatrical Prejudice comes to define a form of consciousness that Barish associates with psychic “plenitude.” In contrast, antitheatricalism belongs

…to a conservative ethical emphasis in which the key terms are those of order, stability constancy, and integrity, as against a more existentialist emphasis that prizes growth, process, exploration, flexibility, variety and versatility of response. In one case we seem to have an ideal of stasis, in the other an ideal of movement, in one case an ideal of rectitude, in the other an ideal of plenitude. (116-7)

If you are uneasy with the notion of theatrical spectacle and suspicious of any activity that might encourage you to put yourself in another’s shoes—either as a spectator or as an actor—you may take your place alongside such vocal antitheatricalists as Plato, Tertullian, Saint Augustine, William Prynne, Jeremy Collier, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. If—like Barish himself, clearly—you embrace the educative potential of imaginative play, appreciate the sensual and the visual, and recognize the humanist value of theatrical illusion, you will find Thomas Heywood, Piermaria Cecchini, Sir Richard Baker, Adam Smith, Schiller, Baudelaire, and Dickens sympathetic to your cause.

In the context of this “untimely review,” I freely confess that what I thought was going to be an act of re-reading was, in fact, no such thing at all. I recognized Barish’s eminently useful survey of Puritan invective against the English stage as well as his more or less unchallenged picture of Ben Jonson as a playwright who, “despite a lifetime of writing for the stage, never arrived at a comfortable modus vivendi with his audiences” (133). Other chapters (on nineteenth-century philosophy, on modernist drama, on the critic Yvor Winters) seemed far less familiar, and while there is no doubt about the centrality of this book to histories of censorship of the stage, I wonder about its influence outside the fields of theatre history and early modern studies: do, say, philosophers who specialize in ethics regularly consult Barish’s chapters on Plato, Smith, and Nietzsche? Does it matter?

The range of case studies and writers figured here is nevertheless remarkable (indeed, given the grandiose sweep of the project it feels somewhat churlish to apply to it Samuel Johnson’s judgment of Paradise Lost: “that no one ever wished it longer than it was.)  The first six chapters of the book provide a useful overview of the development and refinement of arguments against drama up until the seventeenth century, beginning with Plato’s ideal republic in which “pleasure must be kept to a minimum.” As Barish puts it, notwithstanding the theatrical character of the dialogic structure he adopts in the Republic, Plato views the institution of theatre as a threat to the body politic:  “by fomenting our irrational selves,” theatre carries us from “the true, the good, and the beautiful” (10). The early Church fathers take up Plato’s argument within a Christian framework. For Tertullian, playgoing belongs to a “demonic plot to subvert mankind and destroy the authority of the Most High” (45). The more subtle Augustine (an avid playgoer in his youth) argues against theatre on the grounds of “practical morality” in that theatre “licenses the worser self of both players and spectators, and discourages the better” (64).

Fueled by religious fervor, asceticism, and at in several cases by personal disappointment—many a failed practitioner turns against the theatre—by the seventeenth century, this debate grows increasingly strident in tone. One furthermore searches in vain for new claims beyond the assertion that plays are profane, immoral, and injurious to class and gender distinctions.  Case in point: William Prynne’s Histriomastix (1633), a lengthy screed against the stage that Barish describes as a “gargantual encyclopedia of antitheatrical lore which scourges every form of theatre in the most ferocious terms, in a style of paralyzing repetitiousness from which everything resembling nuance has been rigidly excluded” (83). Looking at the same time period in France, Barish finds Jansenist writing against the theatre—if founded on essentially the same arguments—to be far better written: “It is a relief to turn from the heavy-handed Puritan tracts, with their clumsy invective and their lumbering repetitiousness, to the Cartesian lucidity of the French treatises. The debate in France proceeds on an altogether more analytical, more intellectually responsible plain” (193).

Toward the eighteenth century more explicitly secular arguments against theatre emerge, including one remarkable pamphlet Barish found “buried” in the British Museum. The 1730 “Letter to the Right Honorable Sir Richard Brocas, Lord Mayor of London” focuses solely on the economic consequences of playgoing. The unidentified writer urges the Mayor to close down a recently opened playhouse on the grounds that plays will distract laborers from their work. People “mutht” definitely not be amused, lest England’s manufacturing economy collapse:

Every working Subject is a real Advantage and a real Treasure to the Kingdom; and whatever is done to hinder the Increase of these, is a real Detriment to the Publick….In all good Policy the laboring, and the trading Part of the People should be engag’d by every possible Inducement, to marry, and educate a Race of healthy and laborious Children. By this Means there will be more Work done, as there are more Hands to perform it; and consequently the Manufactures will be cheaper, we shall make greater Exports, and gain more at foreign Markets (letter qtd 240).

As the book progresses, Barish’s field of study often shifts from theatre proper to the rules according to which we live our lives. To some, “theatricality” encourages personal exhibitionism or inauthentic forms of self-display; accordingly, the Church fathers viewed playgoing as part of a network of interlinked abuses that included cross-dressing, face-painting, hair-curling, and general promiscuity, and La Rochefoucauld “recoiled” from “the stagey quality of life in urban Paris” and the “histrionic falsity” of his peers (219). Similarly, playwright turned fervent opponent of the theatre Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues in his Lettre d’Alembert against the construction of a resident theatre in Geneva, wishing the city of his birth to remain, like Plato’s Republic, like Sparta, like London under Cromwell, free from theatre’s “adulterating” influence (260).  “Natural” man cannot remain “natural” if exposed to theatre’s hypocrisies.

Appreciating instead the power that comes from carefully crafted acts of exhibition, Machiavelli appears as a powerful pro-theatrical voice—if not an ally the earliest defenders of the theatre would have wanted. In Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Barish sees a similarly other-directed and therefore “theatrical” version of morality that encourages people to view themselves as “actors of a special sort” performing as from within a “genteel theatre of mutually self-correcting passions (254-253). Later romanticists such as Keats and “Decadents” such as Baudelaire openly appreciate artifice and impersonation as modes of life.

Some chapters include short readings of primary texts. To his discussion of Puritan opposition to drama, Barish reviews Shakespeare’s most self-consciously “theatrical” characters:  Richard III, Hamlet, Edgar, Falstaff, and Cleopatra (“it is above all in the fictive domain of the drama itself, and notably in Shakespeare, that we find theatricality not only criticized, but explored and championed,” 127). By his tenth and eleventh chapters Barish turns to nineteenth-century novels for scenes of anti- and pro-theatrical bias—we thus are treated to short and at times unexpected digressions on such topics as Fanny Price’s discomfort with acting in Austen’s Mansfield Park; the notion of theatre as “imaginative nourishment” in Dickens; and Thackeray’s complex, and not wholly unsympathetic, portrait of the Machiavellian Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair. Barish summons these literary examples not in order to build toward any systemic reading of a particular canon, but rather to further demonstrate the pro- and anti-theatrical “worldviews”—rectitude vs plenitude—I noted above.

In a short concluding chapter titled “The Theater against Itself,” Barish offers some provocative but at times confusing remarks on the “de-theatricalization” or the “denial” of theatre within modernist and avant-garde drama. Barish on Shaw: “As with Ben Jonson, for whom he should have more sympathy, Shaw’s assault on the theater involves an attack on stage claptrap and a return to the honest realities of life as lived outside the theatre” (452). On Brecht: “Brecht seeks to confront us with a simulacrum of our waking experience.…We are gazing not at a slice of life but at an artfully composed fiction, designed to teach us certain momentous truths about our lives and to challenge us to change them” (455-456). In this chapter—at least for this reader—Barish’s plenitude/rectitude binary breaks down. Granting Barish’s argument for the powerful effect of metadramatic stage devices on audiences and for the “streak of antitheatricalism” long present within plays themselves, I wasn’t sure how his observations about modernist theatre’s ability to “work a revolution in consciousness” via the inculcation of antitheatrical states of mind in audiences squared with his earlier narrative of these topics (452).

As Barish moves further afield from his specialty in early modern drama the book loses steam, advancing by greater and greater accumulation of detail rather than by greater and greater crystallization of argument. What is one of the book’s greatest strengths—its range of examples and its coverage—occasionally proves to be something of a weakness, as all of the book’s contemporary reviewers point out within otherwise positive reviews. Eileen Fischer’s review in Modern Drama 25.3 (1982) is representative:

When Barish addresses antitheatrical prejudices in modern drama, much of the book’s impact and usefulness diminishes…and one need not call upon Henry James and Yvor Winters for either the theatre’s defense or prosecution. (436)

I would indeed be interested in hearing a modernist’s take on Barish’s final chapter. For the early modernist at least, what remains most enduring about Barish’s study is his meticulously-researched account of Puritan antitheatricalism in England; of Jansenist antitheatricalism in France at the same period; and of Jonson’s complicated relationship to the “Loathèd Stage,” a fundamental ambivalence about the medium of drama he suggests later modernist playwrights share.