Another 19th Century Moral Panic: Theater

from the everything-is-evil dept

Every so often, we’ve written about examples of historical “moral panics” — those moments when “concerned citizens” (often including the press and/or politicians) freaked out about the moral horrors of… some awful “new” thing. You all know the obvious ones: like comic books and Dungeons & Dragons, but we like to highlight the truly oddball ones that people these days don’t realize were ever possibly considered a threat to our moral fabric. Things like chess and the waltz. Oh, and of course the printing press. Evil, evil, evil filthy things that will warp the minds of our young people and make them lazy, violent and degenerate.

A few years ago, we wrote about the delightful <a href=”>skewering of a couple of Thomas Edison inventions in the NY Times in 1878: the phonograph and the “aerophone” (a sort of loudspeaker). Here’s a snippet from that report:


Something ought to be done to Mr. EDISON, and there is a growing conviction that it had better be done with a hemp rope. Mr. EDISON has invented too many things, and almost without exception they are things of the most deleterious character. He has been addicted to electricity for many years, and it is not very long ago that he became notorious for having discovered a new force, though he has since kept it care- fully concealed, either upon his person or elsewhere. Recently he invented the phone- graph, a machine that catches the lightest whisper of conversation and stores it up, so that at any future time it can be brought out, to the confusion of the original speaker. This machine will eventually destroy all confidence between man and man, and render more dangerous than ever woman’s want of confidence in woman. No man can feel sure that wherever he may be there is not a concealed phonograph remorseless gathering up his remarks and ready to reproduce them at some future date. Who will be willing, even in the bosom of his family, to express any but most innocuous and colorless views and what woman when calling on a female friend, and waiting for the latter to make her appearance in the drawing-room, will dare to express her opinion of the wretched taste displayed in the furniture, or the hideous appearance of the family photographs ? In the days of persecution and it was said, though with poetical exaggeration, that the walls had ears.

Thanks to Mr. Edison’s perverted ingenuity, this has not only become a literal truth, but every shelf, closet, or floor may now have its concealed phonographic ears. No young man will venture to carry on a private conversation with a young lady, lest he should be filling a secret phonograph with evidence that, in a breach of promise suit, would secure an immediate verdict against him, and our very small-boys will fear to express themselves with childish freedom, lest the phonograph should report them as having used the name of “gosh,” or as having to “bust the snoot” of the long-suffering governess. The phonograph was, at the time of its invention, the most terrible example of depraved ingenuity which the world had seen; but Mr. EDISON has since reached a still more conspicuous peak of scientific infamy by inventing the aerophone–an instrument far more devastating in its effects and fraught with the destruction of human society.

Apparently that year — 1878 — was a big one for moral panics. The twitter feed of the wonderfully named “Pessimists Archive” recently tweeted out another story from 1878, discussing the addictive horrors of… the theater (dramatic music cue). From the article:

Whole evenings are squandered away. “Night unto night” teacheth not “knowledge,” but the reverse. Can it be for the good of any young person to form such a habit? He may think that he can go and stop, but often stopping becomes next to impossible. Whenever the flaming posters are seen a restlessness steals on–a craving is created. Duty becomes drudgery; industry grows tiresome; business a bore. Arrant shiftlessness is the result.

What a horrible world. But apparently the author is just getting warmed up:

Theatre-going has a very dissipating influence on the mind. It takes away the taste for serious thought, solid reading, sensible conversation and spiritual employments. The glitter and glare of the theatre, the attitudes and attire of the performers, the looks and language of the spectators are not favorable to devotion. In enjoying the pleasures of sin for a season, we lose relish for the pleasures forevermore at God’s right hand. The most limited experiences amongst us in theatrical courses will attest that nothing is apter to impart a vain and frivolous cast to the mind, to familiarize it with loose images and objects, to rub off the delicate enamel from the conscience, to deteriorate the spirit of devotion, and to destroy that true spirituality which is the Christian’s glory and joy. If you wish to have your heart draw away from what is pure, pious, sober, useful, and get in sympathy with what is gay, showy, sentimental, sensual, extravagant; to dwell in a world of romance rather than reality; to look to the things seen and temporal rather than to the things that are unseen and eternal–then by all means rush with one accord into the theatre.

Theatre-going is injurious to morals. One of the causes which contribute to this is the nature of the plays acted. There is a drama which is comparatively pure. But what is called the “legitimate drama” has been tried again and again in circumstances most favorable to its success, and has almost invariably brought bankruptcy to the well-meaning triers of the experiment. Pieces redolent with the odor of brothels and bar-rooms, and with a spice of devilry in them, are the popular ones.

You’ve been warned.

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Comments on “Another 19th Century Moral Panic: Theater”

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Arioch (profile) says:

“Pieces redolent with the odor of brothels and bar-rooms, and with a spice of devilry in them, are the popular ones.”


While being known as quite dissolute type, I am well aware of bar rooms and the spice of devilry.

But I am not (as apparently the writer is!) aware of what the odor of a brothel is.

Nothing really changes when it comes to our so called “ruling class”

Anonymous Coward says:

Pray tell!… John!… what do you perceive as the “ruling class”?… and who do you perceive as its “ruling members”? Who… John!… does this “oficionado of brothels” “rule”? Surely, not those whom he or she has hoped to sway!… nor Edison! Nor the descendants of the “would-be swayed”!… or, of Edison? Your folly!… John!… would be to ascribe “rulership” to those who manifest otherwise!… who assume a mantle, that providence has bestowed on yet others! Airs, are not synonymous with authority!… nor, is the belittlement of the unknown, and of those who fashion mysterious devices! As one great line reads:… “You are subject to that which you give yourself servant to obey!” Simply put!… do not subject yourself as servant (even unwittingly!) to obey, that which is/ who is, not worthy of your subjugation!… less, such rule you, by default!
Please!… no emails!

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Re: The more things change...

Exactly! The technology is to blame! How could anyone presume to hold these individuals accountable for their actions? The very idea is absurd! Clearly these nefarious actions were undertaken whilst beholden to the siren song of this insidious serpent named Science! These unfortunate souls are by nature morally upstanding citizens, and, absent the corrupting hand of technology, they would not hurt a fly. Why, it’s not as though there’s an entire history of widespread surveillance going back thousands of years, so the technology must be the impetus of this trend!

In other news, Congress recently passed a law making murder legal. One Senator, discussing the new law, said “Murder used to be a serious crime. Back in my day, a man who took another’s life was considered an extremely evil individual. That all changed with these new-fangled assault rifles. Nowadays, anyone can just stop by a Walmart on the way to the office, pick up an AR-15 and a box of ammo, and empty out the whole godforsaken building! It’s just so easy to kill folks these days, it seems foolish to make it illegal.”


More seriously, yes, the advances in technology have created dangerous new tools that can, and are, being used to the detriment of our society. However, a tool has no moral judgment associated with it. A hammer is neither good nor evil, it simply is. Moral weight can only be ascribed to the users of a tool.

Further, the ease of performing an immoral action does not suddenly make it any less immoral. True, it may mean that bad actors are more likely to be able to carry out these immoral actions, but that does not convey a moral judgment on the tool. (Not to mention that “un-inventing” something is a fools errand.) Society must judge the bad actors directly, instead of wishing to put the genie back in the bottle.

More specifically, complaining about the ubiquity of tools that can be used for surveillance is not only pointless, it’s actively detrimental to actually stopping any of the widespread surveillance. We need to focus on curtailing this activity from the top-down, putting in place strict behavioral guidelines for organizations like the NSA, the FBI, the DEA, etc., and, most importantly, real oversight with the ability to enforce those guidelines. (Of course, in the current political climate, that’s not likely to happen, so we have some preliminary work to do before then….)

One last note: The casual sexism in that phonograph article is just… depressing.

Seegras (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The more things change...

We need to focus on curtailing this activity from the top-down, putting in place strict behavioral guidelines

“strict behavioural guidelines”. Is that an euphemism? Because actually the only thing that’s even near a possible solution is to totally OUTLAW SURVEILLANCE. Like slavery, it’s an abomination.

Anonymous Coward says:

Little known facts

Second cave drawing, naked ladies
Second stone tablet, errotic stories
Second thing off the printing press, naked ladies.
Second telegram sent, man arranging to meet his mistress.
Second recording on the phonograph, errotic stories told by women of the night.
Second photograph taken, naked ladies.
Second phone call, phone sex.
Second movie, porn
Second home movie, porn
Second VHS tape, porn
Second CD, errotic audio book
Second DVD, porn
Second digital image, naked ladies
Second message sent on the Internet, errotic stories
Second website, porn
Second internet movie, porn
Second commercial website on the Internet, porn

That’s why every new communication method is meet with moral panic.
When imagining the possibilities of new technology the second thing on everyone’s mind is how it will be easier to get their rocks off.

Groaker (profile) says:

Re: Satire

Hardly satire. It was an editorial published by the NYT on March 25, 1878. You can get an abstract from the NYT at

or if you have access to the NYT the whole article behind their paywall.

DNY (profile) says:

Anti-theater not actually an example of "moral panic" at the new

While the anti-Edison piece is a comparable example to the “moral panics” over comic books, D&D and video games, the denunciation of the theater is not.

Anti-theater attitudes have their roots in the conflict between Christianity and paganism (cf. the scandal caused by Justinian marrying an actress* and the ancient canons forbidding Christian priests from attending theatrical performances) and revive periodically (cf. Cromwell closing all the theaters in England).

*Admittedly if Theodora’s attitude toward sex was as recorded in Procopius’s Secret History there was adequate reason to be scandalized by someone marrying her, but the polemics of the time were directed at her having been an actress.

Telzey says:

I remember reading a list from a book of “Rules for Our Young Ladies”, given to incoming students at an upper-class finishing school for girls which stated that anyone caught with any of the works of William Shakespeare would be expelled. All that violence and naughty references to sex made him a no-go for the virtuously virginal. It was a US school, I doubt European schools would ban Shakespeare, and I do seem to remember it dated from the 1880s. That era seems to have been a boom time for the virtuous, or the dirty-minded, depending on your outlook.

Seegras (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The thing is actually, that this prude 19th century (starts somewhere after 1815 and goes right up to 1918) is to blame for a lot of things we get wrong in history. We tend to apply the 19th century prudery to the 18th century or the middle ages, which were decidedly less prude. — around 1410, yes, there are genitals visible — around 1410, people bathing naked.

Both these 15th century paintings are rather benign. They just depict “as-is” without too much moral baggage. Which can not be said about the following caricatures from the late 18th century:

Skeeter says:


Irony is their fear of that time (1800’s) of being recorded in truth and having it used against them at a later date; while the modern day is a greater concern against being recorded, taken out of context, having the recording altered or modified, and then used to ‘bear false witness’ against us at the whim of some diabolical group or person.

In both instances, however, it seems that the loss of privacy is the sole root of this evil. Seems we just can’t take a hint after all.

Groaker (profile) says:

Give it up

There is no privacy anymore. What the government doesn’t know about you, it can find out. NSLs have been so grossly abused that less that one percent are used for terrorism. And I would assume that many of that one percent, 100% of the participants are undercover LEOs or their CIs.

Your medical, tax, spending and all other records are a letter away from being perused, stored, used against you, and grossly abused. Not just by our faithful government, but by some or all corporations depending on the classification. And of course, what can not be explicitly obtained can usually be inferred.

“Smart TVs” and most CTV boxes can record conversations, including the last time someone had sex on the living room couch. Who knows what comes out of the mouths of toddlers — they like to repeat what they hear.

Pay by cash? Sometimes its private, sometimes its facial recognition.

Anonymous Coward says:

A clear warning about advertisement

Whenever the flaming posters are seen a restlessness steals on–a craving is created.

A clear warning about the dangers of advertisement and *no one* has ever done anything about it.

If we don’t stop these harmful advertisements, people feel craved to go to a theatre, or smoke cigarettes, buy a bigger car, feel unhappy about their figure.

Hurry, if we’re quick we can undo this 138 years of damage to mankind before it’s too late.

Whatever (profile) says:

Gotta giggle at this...

I always get a giggle when I read one of these articles. Not because of the content (which is often funny enough) but rather at the somewhat unsubtle attempts to create a sort of mind space for Techdirt’s ideas to exist.

The concept tag teams very well with the sloganism found on t-shirts and in other Techdirt memes. It’s a rather obvious way of defining the universe and attempting to lend credence to stands that are often controversial, and sometimes just plain wrong.

It gives Mike and the other writers here a sort of magic bag of tools for dealing with people who don’t agree with them. They can write contrary opinions off as moral panics, and say that history has a long list of these panics – so clearly, any objection is just a moral panic.

The sloganism is often an attempt to either over simplify or generalize in a fashion that creates an out for many objections. “Copying is not theft” is a perfect example. The truth is far from that simple statement, which leads the faithful to paraphase as “copying / pirating isn’t illegal!” – when it fact it is. Copying may or may not be theft (it was until 2006 in the UK, when the fraud act was refined), but there are plenty of circumstances where it’s not legal or violated the legal rights of others. The zippy slogan creates a sort of invisibility cloak for all sorts of illegal things, because, well… copying.

Perhaps my post will be dismissed as a moral panic. The Techdirt audience is well prepared for that vapid dismissal.

Whatever says:

Re: Re: Gotta giggle at this...

No meds required – the endless desire to self-medicate and be medicated is an American concept… that’s not something I need or desire.

Just pointing out the obvious – talking about moral panics generally sets you guys up to be more accepting of it’s application to modern situations. It’s a great tool for dismissing points of view people don’t otherwise want to talk about.

Honestly, I applaud Mike and the crew for working so diligently to slowly but surely draw mental boundaries for the followers to think in. It’s an impressive amount of work to pretty much control and contain the discussion.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Gotta giggle at this...

Yup, and that is the assumption that Techdirt (and others) try to push. Since it’s not “theft” in their reading of the law, clearly it’s legal! Basically, it’s a trick of making you choose “theft or not theft” and be choosing by inference if it’s legal or not. It sort of short circuits the discussion of the greater implications by both the legal and moral issues of piracy.

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