At one point in the story, however, Holmes is quoted as saying: “The theatre is a singular calling. A noble art but a dreary profession and one that reveres that which the rest of society condemns. Deception. The ability to dissemble and deceive, to pass for what you are not. You will find it better expressed in Plato. These, however, are the actor’s stock in trade.” The Platonic reference, of course, comes from Plato’s disapproval of theatre (and other arts) as “imitations,” meaning that they are not Truth. This philosophical disapproval of the theatre has lasted down to the present day, although it has ameliorated to some extent. This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that the Church used theatrical performance from the later Middle Ages until the earliest stages of the Renaissance as a device for teaching Christianity to a largely illiterate population. It all began, I would argue, with the Quem Quaeritis (which was strictly religious) and continued through the Cycle/Pageant plays when the trade guilds were involved. By the end of this time, the theatre was becoming both a fashionable interest for the elite, as well as a profession for those engaged in its production.
Still, persecution of theatre practitioners remained common for a very long time. And it may not be all that surprising. It is quite easy to demonstrate that the history of the theatre, and playwriting, is filled with persons who deviated from “the usual norms of social behavior,” even if they were highly praised for the quality of their work. The history of theatre and dramatic literature is filled with drunks, lechers, sexual deviates (at least for their historical period), drug addicts, murderers, practitioners of all forms of sexual promiscuity, religious heretics, spouse beaters, etc. I could name names, but I won’t bother. However, examples can be dated back to the classical Greek and Roman eras and down to the present.
Post-Platonic religious objections developed after the Church lost control of theatre, so Moliere was buried in “unhallowed” ground in Paris because he was an actor/manager/playwright. On the other hand, Shakespeare, who held, roughly, the same positions at almost the same time, was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon. However, I suspect, knowing the religious pressures of the time, that that was only possible because he had, basically, left the theatre, had acquired money and was a member of the “landed gentry.” That is, he owned significant property in the area and was entitled to refer to himself as a “Gentleman,” as his family had acquired a coat of arms, although that was not without controversy, since he was an actor. That could partially explain why he sought a coat of arms for his father. This allowed Will to inherit it, since an actor would not have been considered a “Gentleman” without other over-riding credentials, at least until MUCH later. It should also be noted, however, that the discriminations against theatre people were NOT solely against men.
In fact, women had it worse, if anything. There is some belief that women may have appeared in some Medieval Pageants on the continent, but I’ve not encountered any evidence of that in England. Certainly, women DID appear on the stage in Italy and France long before that was legal in England. Even so, women who hung around theatres were always suspect pretty much everywhere for a long time, as it was a fact that the early commercial theatres were one of the places where prostitutes sought clients and/or practiced their trade. But, once they were allowed to appear on the stage, itself, their reputations went into even further decline, if possible, not always without cause. Nell Gwyn (Gwynne) has been quoted as telling the crowd pushing around her carriage in the mistaken belief that she was the Catholic mistress of Charles II that they were incorrect in their belief by saying, “Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore.” Nell was, of course, well known as one of Charles’ mistresses, but that was after Charles introduced actresses to the English stage after the Restoration. Actresses, especially, remained “questionable,” at best, however, even as they rose to considerable fame as we approached the present.
The reality was that musicians, composers, sculptors, painters and many other artists, in addition to theatrical people, have also engaged in behaviors which would be considered sexually deviate (promiscuity of both a homo and heterosexual nature) are pretty much accepted as common throughout much of artistic history. This, probably, became more “normal” during the Romantic period when the idea was established that the “Artist-genius” should not be bound by the “artificial” norms of society.
Anyway, a few weeks ago, I ran across this article from The Wrap online somewhere. I confess that I’m not sure exactly how it came to my attention, but it got me to thinking about the seeming demand for what one might call “purity tests” for figures in the public eye today.
Here is the article which started my thinking.
So, what’s my point here? Like Ms. Dench, I have no desire to defend behavior on the part of artists which is offensive. However, I think that we, as a society, should be very careful to separate an individual’s work from their personal behavior. If an individual’s behavior is not acceptable, they should be condemned for their misdeeds. However, that behavior does NOT diminish the artistic value of their creations. Does the widely-held belief that Shakespeare may have engaged in homosexual relations with the “Fair Youth” and broken his marriage vows with the “Dark Lady” diminish the artistic quality of his Sonnets? If we believe that he was both “gay” and a heterosexual adulterer, should we condemn his plays and poems as “inappropriate” or “unacceptable” if we disapprove of homosexuality or adultery?
Please note that we have NO proof of his guilt of such acts, only assertions that he engaged in such behavior based on individual interpretations of his works. On that basis, all works of literature MUST be assumed to be based on actual behavior. That would mean that The Hobbit, LOTR, Harry Potter, and Asimov’s Foundation series, etc. must be assumed to be based on fact (since we have disallowed imagination as being possible). And, Dr. John H, Watson really MUST have run around late 19th and early 20th century England with Sherlock Holmes, and Arthur Conan Doyle really was just his “literary agent.” That notion may be fun as “The Great Game,” but I hope no one really takes it seriously. No, I firmly believe that imagination is real and can account for much in the way of fantasy and fiction. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that imagination can, and has, contributed a great deal to the creation of much in the way of many sorts of artistic works, in spite of the fact that not all artistic creators are, necessarily, the kind of people one might choose as one’s most steadfast friends or favorite people.
I must ask, does an individual’s undesirable personal behavior mean that we are supposed to reject his/her artistic talents? I don’t think so. I believe that artistic work should be allowed to stand on its own. That does not mean that “artistic works” which “advocate” socially unacceptable behaviors must be promoted, but that they should be evaluated on the basis of their artistic merit.
Huckleberry Finn is often challenged in libraries and schools because the “N” word is used in it. Of course, when Twain wrote the book about 1894, he was writing about a period roughly forty years earlier in a story told by the, roughly thirteen-year-old, not well-educated son of the town drunk. We may not approve of Huck's language today, but it always struck me as a reasonable representation of the sort of language such a character in that time would probably use. AND, the book is considered quite an important work of fiction. It also might be worth noting that Huck behaves very well toward Jim, in spite of the fact that he refers to him by what has become a socially unacceptable word.
As another example from literature, Ibsen’s play, Ghosts, is considered a rather important play in spite of the fact that it deals with religious hypocrisy, venereal disease, incest, and euthanasia, making it quite controversial at the time. Many of Ibsen’s other plays deal with controversial subject matter, but I don’t believe that one can pretend to be dramatically literate without some exposure to Ibsen’s works.
Picasso had mistresses in addition to his wives and was a member of the French Communist Party. I still think some of his works are wonderful and, more importantly, perhaps, his influence on 20th Century art is incalculable. Wagner was a political revolutionary and led a complicated personal life, filled with affairs, debt, etc. Still, his music and, in particular, his “music-drama” had a significant effect on both music and modern theatre.
I think the idea of suppressing ideas, or language, is extremely dangerous. The same is true of artistic works of all sorts. Individuals MUST have the right to determine for themselves what works (or ideas) have merit on the basis of the works, themselves. I don’t believe that the work IS the author. (Or the composer, sculptor, painter, etc.) If the creator is a jerk, that doesn’t mean that his/her work is valueless, any more than the creator being heroic makes her/his work of higher quality. It may enhance our desire to experience a work, if we find its creator admirable, but that doesn’t make the work better. I suspect that if we were to suppress (remove from circulation/availability) all of the works of all creators who there is/was some reason to find less than totally admirable, we would lose much of Western culture. That seems counterproductive, at least to me!
The term, “casting couch,” referring to the trading of sexual favors for acting roles, etc., goes back at least as far as the early days of silent movies, but the idea can, in all likelihood, be traced back considerably further. And, it seems probable that it was not always against the wishes of the job seeker (male or female). AND, it would almost certainly be a mistake to limit the idea of such practices to the theatrical/movie/tv industry. I can’t prove it, but I suspect that sexual “favors” have influenced hiring practices, promotions, academic grades, many sorts of things for a long time. If it’s been used in the arts or education, I find it especially reprehensible (as I consider myself to have been a part of that community). But, even if it has, that really has little bearing on making any final work product created better, or worse. That product is what it is; and that work should be evaluated on the basis of its perceived merit.
Also, it’s August again, and I am, again, reminded of the fact that Martha Carrier, my ancestor, was hanged as a witch in Salem three hundred and twenty-seven years ago because a bunch of hysterics decided that she was practicing witchcraft and Cotton Mather, the prominent minister, described her as “a rampant hag” who had been promised by Satan that she would be “the Queen of Hell.” (I confess to always wondering how he “knew” that, since he stated it as a fact.) I find it revealing (and amusing) that her response was, “It is false and a shame for you to mind what these say, that are out of their wits!”
Common sense and sanity suggest that we don’t have to admire the messenger to acknowledge that the message may be of value. When we pay more attention to the messenger, rather than considering the real value of the message, however, the “Witch Hunt” truly lives again.
I don’t much like “witch hunters.” I think their work is unlikely to serve any useful purpose. An honest evaluation of any work is always worth some attention, as people of many races, religions, sexual preferences, political parties, etc. all have produced works worthy of consideration. As the old saying goes; “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” To that statement I would add; "and my decision of its validity and importance will be based on the logic and sense of what you say, not whether I “like” you, or not."
I hope you agree.