“Where the influence of civil laws ends that of the stage begins. Where venality and corruption blind and bias justice and judgment, and intimidation perverts its ends, the stage seizes the sword and scales and pronounces a terrible verdict on vice. The fields of fancy and of history are open to the stage; great criminals of the past live over again in the drama, and thus benefit an indignant posterity. They pass before us as empty shadows of their age, and we heap curses on their memory while we enjoy on the stage the very horror of their crimes. When morality is no more taught, religion no longer received, or laws exist, Medea would still terrify us with her infanticide. The sight of Lady Macbeth, while it makes us shudder, will also make us rejoice in a good conscience, when we see her, the sleep-walker, washing her hands and seeking to destroy the awful smell of murder. Sight is always more powerful to man than description; hence the stage acts more powerfully than morality or law.”
— Friedrich Schiller, The Stage as Moral Institution
The popularity and role of the theater in previous centuries is something that’s difficult for modern readers to fathom, as the institution is no longer for us what it once was, and the experiences of theater-goers 300 years ago is not one most of us have any contemporary reference point to analogize to. What was even preformed on the stage in the 18th century, what was popular? Readers are generally even less familiar with the theater of the 18th century than they are with its sometimes obscure novels. Though performances of Shakespeare are commonplace, what of other noteworthy plays from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries? The English stage of the 18th century featured plays like Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, Addison’s Cato, and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, but how many of us have ever heard of those? This is a world entirely alien to the modern reader, who will listen incredulously to tales of the time, of actors and musicians being physically disciplined by their masters for mistakes, of actresses being abducted off stage by their admirers, of on-stage murders and explosive riots over increased ticket prices.
The theater was not only a source of entertainment, but also one of radical political education. Actors were held in low esteem by society, at the very bottom of its hierarchy, in the same rank as servants and slaves. Off the stage the actor or actress was damned, quite literally, as was the case of Adrienne Lecouvreur, a popular actress Voltaire famously eulogized after she was denied a Christian burial due to her infamous occupation. On the stage, however, the actor performed for the Public, and it is perhaps only in the theater where there was a real sense that direct communication with this entity was possible. Novel reading was private, and functioned on an individual level, as conversation between reader and writer. Of course these individuals were members of the Public, of Society, but because novels only spoke to one person at a time, the communication between the novelist and the Public was of a much more indirect variety than it was perceived to be on the stage.
When we are anonymous, in a large group of people, and something exciting is going on, we can sometimes observe, under the right circumstances, a kind of hive intelligence at work, a reinforcement of our responses by the other participants that generates behavior that the individual, by themselves, would likely not engage in were it not for the crowd dynamic at work. Stand-up comedians are one of the many beneficiaries of this phenomena, as their crowds induce themselves to laugh perhaps more than the jokes warrant. When Darth Vader appears on screen in the latest in the never-ending Star Wars series, the members of the audience cheer and applaud, and it takes a special (if queer) energy to arouse that kind of reaction in a group of adult men and women. We have all experienced this at some time or another, when we slip into the crowd and wrap ourselves in its collective disguise and mimic and prime the reactions of the others who’ve joined us, whether it be at a comedy club or a mass protest.
The theater, during the early Modern era, was a cage constructed to contain the Public. It was a conjuring ground where the creature was summoned and only within the confines of the performance was it given free rein to vent its terrible power. Audiences in the major theaters of London, Drury Lane and Convent Garden, frequently broke out into riots over the content of plays and the interior of Drury Lane required regular renovations due to the damage generated by worked up audiences. Needless to say, though movie theaters today may somewhat approximate the experience, they do not come close to replicating its intensity and unpredictability, where audience members sat on stage and plays and music provided a night of entertainment and social catharsis for sometimes unstable crowds.
This creature, as I have previously discussed, was not just a byproduct or accident of other effects, but the deliberate creation of the early Modern period. It was nurtured and incubated and the theater was engineered to allow it to discover and express its power and capabilities. The temptation of the stage, then, naturally became irresistible to poets and actors alike, as there they could treat directly with the creature called Society. For some this was a source of vanity. Unhappy being themselves, some actors were eager to escape their sense of social insignificance, by pretending to be others and appearing in a favorable light directly before Society in its most concentrated form. In their real lives, where society surrounds us only a dissipated and uncertain force, their condition was one of anonymity and misery. On the stage this class of actor hoped to show society that they have been placed where they are by mistake, as if to demonstrate for Society what a hero they would make had they been given the opportunity.
This attitude, I believe, is nicely illustrated by Moritz in the following passage of his novel Anton Reiser, which chronicles the attempts of a nervous and socially insecure young student to become an actor on the revolutionary stage of the late 18th century theater:
“To attain fame and applause had always been [Reiser’s] supreme desire; — but the applause was not to be too remote — he wanted to have it immediately, and, in keeping with the natural inclination to sloth, would have liked to reap without sowing. — And thus, of course, it was the theatre that appealed most strongly to his ambition. — Nowhere else could he expect such immediate applause as here. — When he saw Brockmann or Reinike walking along the street, he always regarded them with a kind of awe, and what could he desire more strongly than to exist in other people’s heads, as these actors existed in his head. — To pass in turn through all the devastating emotions of fury, revenge, magnanimity, as these people did before a larger number of people than are ever normally assembled, and to communicate with the spectator’s ever nerve, as it were — this struck him as the liveliest way of affecting other people that could be found anywhere in the world.”
There was another, perhaps more powerful attraction that the theater offered to the playwright or actor however, that of political education. It was this possibility, of using the stage to educate Society in a direct manner, that most interested philosophers and intellectuals like Schiller in the theater, not necessarily as an avenue to fame, but more importantly as a political and moral institution. If here Society was called forth by esoteric aesthetic ritual, as a creature and force, was that not an opportunity to also educate the beast? to teach it the values worked out in our philosophies so that, in its dissipated everyday state, it functions in a way that is more just or humane or enlightened? Whether or not the theater is really capable of making this transaction of values into Society possible Goethe himself was skeptical. At the end of his Meister Wilhelm gives up his own theatrical mission in favor of social responsibility and a focus, not on Society in the broadest sense, but on society as a limited community of individuals striving quietly for shared goals. Still though, that the theater tempted more than one playwright with the promise of educating the Public cannot be denied.