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=https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140922/18035428602/moral-panics-1878-ny-times-warns-people-about-evils-thomas-edisons-aerophone.shtml”>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.