A view from Australia but it could easily be about Portugal
Visto da Australia, mas podia muito bem ser de Portugal
And the Theatrical-Industrial Complex
by Roger Sandall
A talk given at a private gathering in
Our general subject this evening is the health of society and the place of the arts. So let’s begin where we have to begin, with Plato. At a time when today’s showbiz celebrities are doing what they do best—extending the boundaries of outrageousness in speech and conduct, defying convention and thumbing their noses at community standards—serious criticism has to begin where this puzzling tendency was first noticed: in The Republic.
Some of you may remember that Books Two and Three of The Republic contain Plato’s thoughts on education and the role of poetry and drama (Plato also returns to the topic in Book Ten). Let me remind you what Socrates says.
“It is not only to the poets therefore that we must issue orders requiring them to represent good character in their poems or not write at all; we must issue similar orders to all artists and prevent them portraying bad character, ill-discipline, meanness, or ugliness in painting, sculpture, architecture, or any work of art, and if they are unable to comply they must be forbidden to practise their art.”
Plato doesn’t want to be destructive. Unlike me, he doesn’t dislike actors on principle. He finds many redeeming features in the arts. In a note contrasting the simplicities of peasant life in the countryside with civilization, he explicitly includes in his vision of a healthy society “artists, sculptors, painters, and musicians… poets and playwrights with their reciters, actors, chorus-trainers, and theatrical producers…”
But the role of the arts was to assist in harmonizing reason and passion, thought and instinct, the best things of the mind and the irreducibles of animal appetite. And as Plato saw it, this was not what was happening in Athens—any more than it’s happening in Sydney today. This led him to a severe editorial decision: “Most of today’s stories must be rejected.”
His reason is that they do not build character—they corrupt and weaken it, and they encourage impiety. Plato complains that Homer impiously misrepresents God. (According to Francis Cornford Plato “uses the singular ‘god’ and the plural ‘gods’ indifferently”.) Poets who do this will be refused permission to produce their plays or educate children, for the main purpose of education is to raise men and women who “grow up godfearing and holy, so far as that is humanly possible.”
This was unlikely to happen, he felt, from immersion in the old Greek legends—for example, Atreus making a tasty stew out of his brother Thyestes’ children, and serving heaped platefuls to Thyestes himself. Plato considered misbehavior of this kind deplorable. What he finds additionally objectionable about Athenian youth playing the part of profligates and murderers is that they are being induced by their elders to act, to impersonate, to physically represent on stage and to incarnate in performance, despicable social types.
True, Plato had some funny ideas about families and what he called ‘community of women.’ He seems to have been overawed by Spartan communism. But when it comes to showbiz most of what he says is common sense. He disagreed with the Greek practice of encouraging schoolboys to recite Homer “delivering their speeches with the tones and gestures of an actor.” Plato says that encouraging children to behave like trashy people doing trashy things—the Kylie-ization of the world—is deeply wrong. Imitating Kylie or Madonna brings an inevitable decline in manners, speech, and conduct. What schools should be trying to do, he says, is exactly the opposite. Children in school
“must no more act a mean part than do a mean action or any other kind of wrong. For we soon reap the fruits of literature in life, and prolonged indulgence in any form of literature leaves its mark on the moral nature of man, affecting not only the mind but physical poise and intonation.”
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Plato lived from 427BC to 347BC. Socrates was forced to drink hemlock in 399BC. The Academy was founded in 386BC. How, one wonders, have we got from there, and from Plato’s common sense educational proposals, to where we are now? Plato understood that some artistic values—some products of the artistic imagination, playing heedlessly in the fraught domain of ethics—were clearly inimical to social health. But when Plato was writing the showbiz demographics were different. Most people farmed the land, they did not live in towns, and they were certainly not actors. What would he have made of a country where nearly half a million people out of 20 million work in the Theatrical-Industrial Complex sharing and promoting the louche values of the lumpenartistry—the values of our “celebrities” and the vast and cynical apparatus that manufactures them?
In banning evil from literature Plato was being perhaps a touch unrealistic. For grownups, drama lacking both sin and redemption cannot adequately portray God’s will and man’s fate. Mature audiences require something else. But young people? Most of us can only feel that given the inexpressibly sordid media environment in which children are being raised today, he was pointing in the right direction. It is more than likely that under Plato’s educational program the two teenage girls who hanged themselves in Melbourne might still be alive.
In Book Ten he returns to his earlier argument. Here he points to a ubiquitous aspect of theatre. Showbiz, he says, necessarily avoids the ordinary, the normal, the calmly reasonable, and always goes for the extraordinary, the abnormal, the outrageous. For, says Plato, “the reasonable element and its unvarying calm are difficult to represent on the stage in an appealing way, and difficult to understand if represented, particularly by the motley audience you find in a theatre.”
For that reason, he argues, playwrights who want to be popular avoid the normal, the calm, and the stable, preferring characters who are gross, violent, deranged and murderous. He was probably thinking of the violence in Homeric myths and legends; but looking at present trends today we note that where only fifty years ago, in the movies, one saw actors like Gregory Peck or Trevor Howard embodying calm reasonableness and social responsibility, we must now endure Russell Crowe.
But let’s move on. For the last forty years the most common way of getting an edge in both showbiz and shopping has depended on breaking sex taboos. This first took place with the production of Kenneth Tynan’s series of nude sketches Oh! Calcutta! in 1969. It’s opening run was long, and its revival in 1976 was longer: it ran 13 years. According to Wikipedia, knowing allusions to Oh! Calcutta! may occasionally be found in the children’s show The Simpsons. We’ve certainly come a long way from Peter Rabbit. Those working in today’s Theatrical-Industrial Complex now feel free to parade their values in the Children’s Hour.
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So much for
We need first to understand its economic basis. For there are parallels here too. The games developed in Imperial Rome as the employments of the arena expanded to fill the void left by the disappearance of more ordinary livelihoods. The curse of slavery meant that no sober and industrious middle class ever arose in Rome. By the end of the Republic the rural yeoman class of small farmers was being destroyed: grain was no longer produced locally—soon it was all imported from North Africa. As for the urban working class, in the words of the historian W. E. H. Lecky,
The poorer citizen found almost all the spheres in which an honorable livelihood might be obtained, wholly or at least in very great degree occupied by slaves, while he had learnt to regard trade with an invincible repugnance. Hence followed the immense increase of corrupt and corrupting professions—actors, pantomimes, hired gladiators, political spies, pimps and prostitutes, astrologers, religious charlatans, pseudo-philosophers… Meanwhile the mass of the people were supported in absolute idleness by the public distribution of corn from North Africa, given without any reference to desert, and received, not as a favour, but as a right; while gratuitous public amusements still further diverted them from labour. — History of European Morals, from Augustus to Charlemagne, Part One
The free “public amusements” Lecky speaks of were the gladiatorial games. We need not dwell on them—but we have to note them. They had a long history. Of Etruscan origin, gladiatorial games were first introduced to Rome in 264BC. They survived formal prohibition 90 years into the Christian era, the last taking place in Rome in 404AD. Around 100AD, at a festival staged by Trajan, ten thousand men fought and died over a period of three months, before an estimated five million spectators. Around 250AD Galerius liked to see men torn to pieces by wild beasts as he ate his dinner. It was said that Galerius “never supped without human blood.” The emperor Claudius aestheticised the games: he delighted in watching men die, “for he had learnt to take an artistic pleasure in observing the variations of their agony.”
Lecky, in the middle of the 19th century, writes as follows: “It is well for us to look steadily on such facts as these. They display more vividly than any mere philosophical disquisition the abyss of depravity into which it is possible for human nature to sink. They furnish us with striking proofs of the reality of the moral progress we have attained, and they enable us in some degree to estimate the regenerating influence that Christianity has exercised in the world. For the destruction of the gladiatorial games is all its work.” W. E. H. Lecky was a 19th century rationalist openly hostile to the Catholic Church. But history obliged him to truthfully honour the indispensable role of Christianity in rescuing Europe from Roman decadence and ruin.
And there we might leave the Romans, except for one last thing. It is part of my argument that once diabolism takes over and any sense of limits are lost, once what Lecky calls an “abyss of depravity” looms… As I say, when the degradation of showbiz is far advanced, then the universal coarsening of taste brings a demand for more and more brutishness at any price. In Ancient Rome, the taste for blood and spectacle had a similarly coarsening effect. Lecky writes that
One of the first consequences of this taste was to render the people absolutely unfit for those tranquil and refined amusements which usually accompany civilisation. To men who were accustomed to witness the fierce vicissitudes of deadly combat, any spectacle that did not elicit the strongest excitement was insipid.
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Our next stop is Rousseau. Jean-Jacques should be read with discrimination. His ideas about noble savages are ridiculous. But his ethical critique of theatre contains much truth. In his First Discourse he had expressed doubts about the value of literature in general. These doubts are not at first easy to understand, but they become clearer if we look more closely at Rousseau’s main concern. This is not simply a matter of morality, per se. As Lionel Trilling explains in his book Sincerity and Authenticity, it has to do with the psychological foundations of morality, in a markedly Protestant form. Only fully autonomous individuals, who freely make their own decisions, employing private reason as the supreme arbiter, receive Rousseau’s approval as truly moral agents in a moral world.
It follows that virtually any social influence brought to bear on the autonomous conscience may be undesirable; influence constricts free choice in this libertarian world; literary influence in the form of stories and characters and imitations of life—and the literal meaning of influence is “in-flowing”—pours over the helpless reader/viewer both young and old until (adapting Hamlet), the will is puzzled, it’s hard to tell right from wrong, and moral enterprises of great pitch and moment run awry. (‘Pith’ and moment if you prefer.)
“Have you read the novels of Philip Roth or John Updike?” you may be asked at a party. Let us say that you haven’t read them. Rousseau would say good for you—in that case you’re much better off. Because reading them, the prestigious influence of “society”—of the status groups and peer groups and critics and reviewers and weekend magazines and literary intellectuals and cultural authorities and political panjandrums who, as we know to our cost, really matter in today’s world—these will eventually force you into a corner, silent and ashamed. You are not a prude. You take a wide and forgiving view of humanity. Your own judgment tells you unmistakably that 99% of Roth and Updike is little but clever writing and socially malignant tripe. Rousseau recommends that you should hold fast to that opinion if that’s what your conscience says. But the influence of society, and elite opinion, tells you otherwise and leaves you with a lingering unease.
It’s in the Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre (1758), however, that Rousseau’s thoughts on showbiz itself are set out. (This is an extended essay published in book form, not just a letter.) D’Alembert had written an article in Diderot’s Encyclopaedia suggesting that although the city of Geneva was a very fine place, adding a theatre would make it even better. Rousseau replied “You’ve got to be joking!” Instead of moral enlightenment the general effect of the theatre is “to augment the natural inclinations, and to give new energy to all our passions”—sexual passions most of all. Does the theatre purge the passions, as Aristotle claimed? Rubbish! What it mainly does is inflame passion, introduce innocent audiences to vice, habituate them to horrors, and coarsen their moral response. And, of course, broadly speaking Rousseau is right. Most showbiz is directly opposed to moral order. The beguiling actors we admire in musicals on stage or screen are often a pleasure to watch, and like the rest of us I have often enjoyed their performances. And I suppose they have to earn a crust some way. But we should also be realistic about the effects. Showgirls are to morality what advertising is to thrift.
Moreover, modern plays, in Rousseau’s opinion, are worse than ancient plays. The ancients generally wrote on heroic themes; modern playwrights write about love and sex. As for actors, “in general the estate of the actor is one of license, bad morals, and disorder.” If a theatre were opened in Geneva, wrote Rousseau, the effect of actresses on Genevan society would be dire. The menfolk of the city would be at their feet, so that candidates for public office would have to seek their patronage and “elections would take place in their dressing-rooms.” What their effect might be on the judiciary he does not say.
But the issue goes beyond social order and public morals. Plato had argued that the actor’s character deteriorates as he identifies with depraved characters onstage. Rousseau—taking his cue from Plato, and much concerned with sincerity—claims that the very act of impersonation diminishes an actor’s existence as a fully human being. An actor counterfeits himself; he insincerely puts on another character than his own.
One might object that this shows a misplaced fastidiousness. Much public life involves the playing of roles. It is not entirely unreasonable to ask: In which role is a man most truly ‘himself’? (The American sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a number of interesting books in answer to that question.) But if we look at the cases where men and women on the modern stage are asked to simulate sexual activity, or publicly exhibit sexual congress, the argument becomes more exigent: may it not be true, as Rousseau argues, that this role diminishes their existence as persons, and that this diminishment lastingly degrades their human standing in the world?
Publicly performing sexual acts defiles the humanity of the actor, and exalts the beast in man, legitimating it first in the world of theatrical mimesis—the stage, and next in ordinary life. Rousseau may be seen as presciently describing the pioneering pantlessness of Ms Paris Hilton and Ms Britney Spears on the World Wide Web, and predicting the likely consequences for the teenagers who idolise them, and who emulate their public depravity.
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Now let’s see what Rousseau would make of Australia today. Let’s fly him out and ask what he thinks. Naturally enough he wants to know if his recommendations for Geneva have been followed, and if Australia has banned theatres and actresses. He is therefore astonished to learn that we have 435,000 people employed in the performing arts, 300,000 of them women. (From ABS publication Work in Selected Culture and Leisure Activities, April 2004, Catalog Number 6281.0.)
I hope that from these figures you will understand that when I speak of the “Theatrical-Industrial Complex” as a major social and economic force I’m not kidding. No doubt many of these people are sewing costumes, rigging microphones, and so on. But it is equally obvious that the overall moral direction of the stories being told, the narratives of human aspiration, are increasingly sordid.
This is driven by the showbiz need for ratings, and I shouldn’t need to spell out the fact that it is not merely the owners of television channels that have an economic interest here. Most of the 435,000 employees have rents and mortgages and cars to pay off and petrol to buy… and therefore a stake in the show. They are inevitably in a weak position to resist the debauching of their own professional and personal lives. Other things being equal, outrageousness increases ratings. And it is the profit motive in the generally amoral world of showbiz that mainly drives sexual outrageousness today. (I say mainly: our modern heroines of self-exposure, like Ms Paris Hilton, don’t need the money. In the sick minds of sexual exhibitionists notoriety is sufficient reward in itself.)
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In all of this, one category of interest is music. Each day as I walk along the promenade at Bondi scores of joggers pass by ostentatiously NOT listening to the sound of the sea and the cries of the gulls. They’re plugged into rock stations and iPod downloads. Plato wanted music to inspire good behavior and stiffen morale. He had no truck with gloom, self-pity, or despair. Feeling that the Lydian mode of harmony expressed these moods, and that it encouraged unhelpful attitudes, he banned it from his Republic. It is I suppose possible that the stalwart young men and women springing along the strand are listening to music of a spiritually uplifting sort. It is equally possible that they are listening to the foul language and debased imaginations of rappers and hip-hoppers—indeed, more than possible I fear.
Be that as it may, The ABS report tells us that in
We noted earlier that in the Roman Empire, as worthwhile and honorable occupations dried up, more and more citizens were sucked into a multitude of worthless and dishonourable occupations that took their place. Is a similar process occurring today? At first glance one might think not: an enormous range of employments are available in the modern world of a perfectly respectable kind. But there’s a catch. Today’s occupations require, increasingly, high levels of attainment. What happens when educational levels fall below the standard required? When a pupil’s history, or English, or science, or math falls short? Then the Theatrical-Industrial Complex lies waiting, and the burgeoning of Song Contests is a symptom of this state of affairs. At first such competitions might have been seen in a positive light: girls or boys whose minds were not strong enough to compete academically could choose a career requiring only strong lungs and vocal chords. But as a ruined school system produces more and more vocationally disabled students, many incapable of qualifying for more serious work, singing and dancing come to be seen as worthy endeavours in themselves. You don’t have to pass exams in history of English. You don’t need to know how to write. You don’t have to know anything. You just open your mouth and wail.
The German writer Thomas Mann made an acute observation about music and thought. Music, he said—in the rambling disquisition of Memoirs of an Unpolitical Man—music displaces articulate thought; and although he lived too early to see what we see today, it follows that given enough time and space and sheer volume, music will effectively extinguish articulate thought. Looking back a million years into the Stone Age, when hunting took up most of men’s time, one assumes that the incessant uproar of stamping and yowling that filled whatever time there was left over prevented the rise of articulate thought in the first place. No-one could hear themselves think. Anyway that’s the sort of loud and mindless inarticulacy we seem to be going back to. You cannot escape it in bars, in cafes, at sports meetings, or at a hundred forms of assembly in public places. Even weather reports on television are now 50% showbiz with song and dance. Where formerly there was relative peace there is now universal din. I don’t think it unreasonable to claim that we live today in a culture where articulate thought, the calm and critical thinking about human affairs necessary for informed discussion by an informed citizenry, is increasingly threatened by a tsunami of musical noise.
But that’s enough. This is beginning to sound uncomfortably like Savonarola. I originally intended to say rather more about the phenomenon of sexual outrageousness in itself, and apologise if the notice advertising this talk aroused false expectations. But if I have managed to throw some light on the larger problem of the effects of theatrical representation—the problem of the foetid amoral underworld of showbiz that is invading every last corner of our lives—perhaps it will have been useful after all.