Though much has been written on the subject of Plato's antitheatrical stance and the Puritans' hatred of the stage, none of it seeks to trace out the roots of the conflict. Jonas Barish's exhaustive book, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, lays out the history of the antitheatrical argument in great detail. The book offers a comprehensive catalog of the arguments but does not go into depth with any of them. Though the book is an excellent place to start in understanding the antitheatrical prejudice, one must begin pulling the arguments apart if one wishes to find the root cause of said prejudice. Historically speaking, Puritan antagonism is taken as a given, being mentioned in most theatre history textbooks without extensive comment or examination of the arguments themselves.
Also, scholars have lavished much attention on Nietzsche's idea of the Eternal Return of the Same, sometimes called Eternal Recurrence. However, the majority of the material seems to focus on either the cosmological truth of the idea or the precise role it plays in Nietzsche's philosophy. Aside from Alexander Nehemas' article, "The Eternal Recurrence," there seems to be little attention paid to the question of what effects the idea has or how it may be realized in practice. Even in this article, however, Nehemas' identification of fictional characters as avatars of the Eternal Recurrence is insufficient.
Plato's attack on poetry, including the dramatic arts, in Book III of Republic begins with a stricture regarding what mimetic-- i.e. dramatic-- poets and actors are permitted to imitate. At this point his objections are a matter of content. When Plato's Socrates discusses educating the guardians, or rulers, of his perfect hypothetical "City in Speech," he states that only those things which are laudable should be imitated in the poetic arts. "Then we must assume a control over the narrators of this class of tales... and beg them not simply to revile, but rather to commend the world below."1 Note that his concerns, cloaked as they are in terms of the good of the state, are here about the content of the art. This follows an acknowledgment that imitative art forms the backbone of early education, hence Socrates' concern over the content. This form of control amounts to simple censorship and is neither more nor less than the actions of any authoritarian regime. Socrates even playfully suggests that, should the poet be able to give an amusing defense, all would be forgiven. Here, Plato's Socrates is no more inherently antitheatrical in his attitude than the Brazilian bureaucrat described, anecdotally, by Augusto Boal. The bureaucrat approves of the beauty and form of Antigone, but would very much like to work something out with the author's agent too see if some of the objectionable content can be excised.2 In essence, the content of the imitative arts must be controlled in order to properly educate the guardians of the perfect city. Plato's argument is less antitheatrical at this point and more a call to use this powerful tool-- drama-- to further the mission of the perfect city's regime.
However, Plato's Socrates strengthens his attack on poetry in Book X of Republic by making a surprising assertion regarding mimetic poetry's banishment from the City in Speech. "The rejection of imitative poetry... I see far more clearly now..." Socrates now believes that poetry should be not only censored but banned entirely. His students react in surprise to this statement and are too dumbfounded to challenge it. Their confusion is justified, as poetry has not received much substantive attention since Book III, and even then the discussion focused on restricting poetry for political ends as opposed to outright abolition. Socrates goes on to justify his ban on mimetic poetry by explaining its removal from the Truth. "Then the imitator... is a long way off the truth and can do all things because he lightly touches on a small part of them, and that part an image."3 In essence, poetry imitates the natural world, which is itself merely imitation of the perfect world of the forms, which is also the highest good. This valuation of the Truth leads to a rejection of anything which is mere appearance. At this point, the content of the artwork becomes immaterial. It would matter little to Plato's Socrates whether the play were Everyman or Vampire Lesbians of Sodom; the very fact that they are plays, and therefor imitations of imitations, condemns them to exclusion from the City in Speech. Mimetic poetry simply cannot be healthy for the soul due to its distance from philosophical Truth.
Though Plato's Socrates eventually comes to banish poetry from the City in Speech during the course of Book X, he also acknowledges the importance of mimetic poetry in the initial stages of education, particularly in the education of the guardians, those tools by which he will realize his perfect city. "We begin by telling children stories which, though not wholly destitute of truth, are in the main fictitious."4 One can also note that guardians are the only class permitted to tell lies-- for the good of the state. In essence, restricted poetry has a role in education but is not appropriate for general consumption or idle show. Poetry, then, is to be treated as something dangerous but potentially useful. Plato prefers Truth and actual experience to simple appearance. However, the guardian, equipped with philosophical understanding, is free to look upon mere appearance in safety. Though poetry needs be banished from the Platonic city, it is a necessity for the education of those who would transcend the very dangers presented by it.
Plato's belief that poetry has some usefulness as an educational tool could offer some level of explanation as to why he made extensive use of the mimetic form in the advancement of his philosophical ideas, which strikes one as inconsistent. Republic is written in poetic, almost dramatic, form. Indeed, the dialogue is the staple of Plato's writing. That Plato should decry the influence of poetical forms only to realize his vision in those same poetical forms seems fallacious if not hypocritical or careless; furthermore, his ideal of Truth as the highest good necessitates a regime founded upon a lie. "How then may we devise one of those needful falsehoods of which we lately spoke—just one royal lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city?"5 He finds a solution in the so-called Noble Lie: people were to be told that they had metal in their souls, and that the type of metal in an individual's soul would determine his or her place in society. This would ensure that people did what was required of them, whether that were horseshoeing or ruling. As Jonas Barish puts it, “The ideal city may exile the poets, but it does so in order to become all the more a poem itself, a beautiful and harmonious totality, every particle of which contributes to the total order.”6 The City in Speech does not seem, necessarily, to exist for the good of its citizens, but instead to be a perfectly unified and just city. Similarly, Oedipus Tyrannos doesn't exist for the good of the characters which constitute it, but instead as an aesthetic and effective totality. Plato's focus on that harmonious totality, as explained by Barish, makes the project a poetical one as opposed to austerely philosophical one. A cursory examination of Plato's rhetoric and practice reveals inconsistency on even the most basic issues in regards to the dramatic arts. Mimetic poetry is first to be restricted and then banned on the grounds of its status as mere appearance. However, the city from which it is banned is founded upon a falsehood and is structurally more poetic than philosophical. This complex relationship between Platonic philosophy and the dramatic arts, seemingly inconsistent and hypocritical, comprises an attempted distancing from the poetical arts, due to their pernicious influence, while simultaneously embracing those elements which are most useful and powerful.
The Puritan antitheatricalists not only echo Platonic objections, but also add numerous complaints which are unrelated to the imitative nature of dramatic poetry. They focus their additional critique on the potential ill effect that the institution of the stage could have on morality. Stephen Gosson echoes William Prynne's objections in his pamphlet "School of Abuse," pointing specifically to the degeneration of English fortitude amid the flourishing of the theatrical arts.
Our wrestling at arms is turned to wallowing in ladies laps, our courage to cowardice, our cunning to riot, our bows to bowls, and our darts to dishes. We have robbed Greece of gluttony, Italy of wantonness, Spain of pride, France of deceit, and Dutchland of quaffing.As one examines Gosson's assertions regarding English character, one is struck by the brutal efficiency of his historical Englishman. Alas, all this is lost to the theatre! Gosson goes on to illustrate the behavior of the English theatrical spectator, comparing it unfavorably with that of earlier Britons.
We Englishmen could suffer watching and labor, hunger and thirst, and bear all storms with head and shoulders; they fed upon roots and barks of trees; they would stand up to the chin many days in marshes without victuals, and they had a kind of sustenance in time of need, of which they had taken but the quantity of a bean or weight of a pea they did neither gape after meat nor long for the cup a great while after.7
Though one may be tempted to dismiss this sort of complaint as Puritanical asceticism, one should keep in mind that the Puritans were not quite ascetics. They did believe in recreation and the good things of this world.8 Their objection was primarily to the dissolute entertainments, those entertainments that bore, in their eyes, a causal relationship to the descent in fortitude and virtue. And though this descent could be caused by excess of any recreation, the theatre was viewed as particularly tainted in all that it did. Even if the material it presented were of a sacred nature, as in a religious play, it was not redeemed based on content. John Northbrooke, in his “A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes,” roundly decries religious plays, citing dire results if they should be practiced. "And will God suffer them unpunished that with impure and wicked manners and doings do use and handle upon God's divine mysteries with such unreverentness and irreligiousness?"9 Though the Puritans take issue with a great deal of what is presented onstage, it is the very fact of it being onstage that causes degeneracy.
The vices that surround the theatre are decried by Prynne and Gosson, while John Northbrooke adds his voice on this count. Gosson and Prynne both point out that prostitutes would often work to drum up business in the theatres. "For they that lack customers all the week, either because their haunt is unknown, or the constables and officers of their parish watch them so narrowly that they dear not queach, to celebrate the Sabbath flock to theatres and there keep a general market of bawdry."10 And yet, other places where these ladies might ply their trade are left unmolested by antitheatrical authors. Though one cannot deny that the theatres of Elizabethan and Caroline England had their share of vice, it would seem that they have been unduly singled out for scrutiny, and there is little that can be done to satisfy their critics. The traditional practice in Shakespeare's era of female roles being played by boys raised concerns about emasculation and homosexual temptation in the theatre. Female actors, however fared no better. "When a play was staged at Black-Friars in 1629, with a French girl taking one of the women's roles, the innovation was denounced as another Italian import, and Prynne was at pains to point out that temptations to whoredom and adultery were no more tolerable than temptations to sodomy."11 As for those who went just for the shows--who sought entertainment and had no interest in lascivious pastimes-- our authors upbraid them for pride, citing biblical examples. "David (saith he) was sort hurt in beholding Bathsheba, and Thinkest thou to escape? Thou beholdest them in an open theatre, a place where the soul of the wise is snared and condemned. Art thou wiser, stronger, holier than David?"12
The Puritans also reach for historical examples, a number of them tenuous at best, which point to theatrical iniquity. The rape of the Sabines provides fodder in the first case, drawn from Tertullian and used extensively by Gosson. Tertullian, as cited by Gosson, points out that it was in a theatrical building, the Consualia, that this rape was planned.13 Nor is this sort of argumentation limited to Gosson. Northbrooke and Prynne produce similar arguments against the theatre. "How did the Benjamites overcome and take away the daughters of Israel but in watching them in a special open place where they were accustomed upon the festival days to sport and dance most idly and wantonly?"14 These arguments can be easily disposed of in and of themselves-- after all, are not churches also large open spaces of meeting? However, the arguments are mentioned here for their significance. These arguments are significant in that they demonstrate the lengths to which the Puritans and their antitheatrical allies go in order to disparage the dramatic arts. In some cases, it seems that any thing, no matter how inconsequential, can be used in order to halt the spread of the theatre. Indeed, many of these arguments come to the point of grasping for straws. The significance lies in the level of antipathy between these authors and the institution of the theatre.
The essential thrust of the Puritan argument, where it does not overlap with Plato's, is that theatre has a harmful influence upon the formerly virtuous English. Emasculation, lust, and myriad other vices are laid out as endemic to the theatre. However, as has been pointed out previously, the Puritans were not total ascetics. Even Prynne approved of plays and poetry for recreational reading, going so far as to recommend Sophocles and Menander for their excellence.15 He particularly recommends this practice for young men who are learning Latin in school. It seems strange, given his worries over theatrically-inspired licentiousness, that Prynne should approve drama for use by the very demographic that is generally considered most at risk of falling prey to decadence. Indeed, dramatic corruption of youth was the first complaint mentioned in the Lord Mayor of London's 1587 letter to the Privy Council. “They are a speaciall cause of corrupting their Youth, conteninge nothinge but vnchaste matters.”16 Thus it makes little sense that allowances should be granted for the reading of dramatic literature, regardless of how useful it may be found for the study of language. Gosson even lauds a few scripts which he views as containing virtuous materials, though one should note that he is the author of at least one of them. "And as some of the players are far from abuse, so some of their plays are without rebuke, which are easily remembered, as quickly reckoned."17 He would go on to laud them as Maximus Tyrius lauded Homer's works, as the most beautiful and worthy to be sung by gods themselves. Note that this assertion of great beauty, self-interest on the part of Gosson set aside for the moment, seems reliant on the virtuous content of the work itself as opposed to any assessment of the actual poetical form. Thus it is not written drama to which the Puritans object, but the act of performing theatre, and Gosson is even willing to allow this in certain cases, should he deem the content of the play to be sufficiently virtuous. Thus Northbrooke condemns performance regardless of content while Gosson allows for the performance of agreeable content and Prynne encourages the reading of drama for recreation. Yet, in these same treatises, drama and theatre are condemned in the the strongest language available. Indeed, Gosson calls the theatre "a whore's fair for whores."18
Despite decrying the toxicity of the dramatic arts, Plato and his antitheatrical compatriots among English Puritans readily make use of dramatic techniques for their own purposes. They find uses for it even among those who are generally considered to be most at risk of corruption by the theatre. In the same treatises, they banish, condemn, and castigate those very arts. Their opposition is cloaked in terms of philosophy, theology, and moralistic concerns for the welfare of their fellow citizens. However, though they decry and lament dramatics, they also make allowances for them and seek to use them to further their own, apparently contradictory, aims. This inconsistency strikes one as possibly careless or hypocritical on cursory examination, one finds reconciliation by tracing the complaint further back to the very nature of drama itself. Uncovering the reason for this specific concern, however, requires closer examination of theatre's most basic nature.
The Puritan and Platonic prejudice against theatre could be chalked up to either carelessness or hypocrisy. However, to level such charges at Plato, Prynne, and their associates is too simplistic an explanation. Though on the surface Plato and the Puritans oppose the theatre purely on moralistic, philosophical, and theological terms, their opposition is weakened by its internal inconsistencies such as the poetical construction of the City in Speech or Puritan allowances for dramatics among those most vulnerable to temptation. In essence, though antitheatrical writers claim wholesale rejection of dramatics, carefully parsing out the structure of their arguments reveals their resistance to be far less zealous. Also, to assume overt hypocrisy assumes a knowledge of their intentions that their readers cannot have. Other explanations for these inconsistencies must be found. Instead of being willful, these inconsistencies are an expression of profound ressentiment, where those who oppose the dramatic arts do not fully understand the nature of their complaint.
Ressentiment, defined as misapplied hostility to the cause of one's frustration, is key. Plato and other antitheatrical writers ascribe an antagonistic and degenerate nature to the poets, much like Nietzsche's lambs do to the birds from the Genealogy of Morals:
That lambs dislike great birds of prey does not seem strange: only it gives no grounds for reproaching these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs. And if the lambs say among themselves: "these birds of prey are evil.." there is no reason to find fault with this institution of an ideal, except perhaps that the birds of prey might view it a little ironically.19Nietzsche goes on to demonstrate how the ideal set out by the lambs misunderstands the real nature of the birds of prey. The birds have no interest in harming the lambs per se; they are simply doing what they must to survive. To ascribe evil, or directly malicious, behavior to the birds is to quite simply misunderstand them. Similarly, Plato and the Puritans misunderstand dramatic artists when they accuse the theatre of being an enemy to society. As Barish points out, Plato ascribes a motivation to the poets of compensation for their own deficiencies of character and compensation for their own worthlessness.20 Platonic and Puritanical inconsistencies indicate that though they might speak of the poets as insecure degenerates, they do not truly understand the real nature of their frustrations. Due to ressentiment, they simply file poetry under the heading of "evil." However, poetry actually shares many of its aims with philosophy and religion. Though philosophy, religion, and poetry all attempt to create values, poetry does so most efficiently because it is the soundest embodiment of Nietzsche's Eternal Return of the Same.
The question in each and every thing, "Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?" would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?21The concept of Eternal Return is often tied up in debates regarding metaphysics and cosmology, but it is best understood as a moral argument. Whether or not the universe actually recurs is immaterial if one recognizes the psychological and philosophical ramifications of embracing the concept as if it were true. Nietzsche does not wait for cosmological proof of the Eternal Return of the Same, but presents it to the readers as a moral hypothetical. The cultural force of this idea is immense, as pointed out by novelist Milan Kundera. "That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht)."22 That which recurs has weight, importance, and value. That which never repeats lacks weight. That which has ceased to repeat has died and fossilized. Nietzsche's notes, compiled under the title Will to Power, make the point that something coming to a final state, an end to becoming, is at its end.23 Nietzsche also alludes to this in two passages in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "On Three Metamorphoses" and "One Thousand One Goals." "Praiseworthy is whatever seems difficult to a people; whatever seems indispensable and difficult is called good."24 One repeats those actions which one considers indispensable. It is in the repetition, the eternal becoming, that value is created because one repeats that which is valuable.
Alexander Nehemas posits that fictional characters are the embodiment of Eternal Return. However, this assertion is far too broad. In his article, "Capek On Eternal Recurrence," philosopher Bas C. Van Frassen states that when addressing Eternal Return of the Same, it becomes necessary to speak of discrete, specific moments in coherent terms.25 One must ask: when does War and Peace recur? Is it whenever it is read? Whenever a reader thinks about the characters? Is it a metaphysical recurrence as the printing press rolls? To broadly define fictional characters as embodiments of Eternal Return lacks specificity. However, dramatic characters pass this test of precision. As the play is performed each night, events recur. Unlike novels, drama possesses discrete literal, chronological moments of which one can speak. Hamlet will die the same way each night. So, too, will Hedda Gabler. Their nightly sacrifices, repeated eternally, become things of value through repetition. "[The recurring moment] lives on itself: its excrements are its food."26 Because it is repeated, without change, the process becomes more important than any end product; it is Nietzsche's eternal becoming. Thus through theatre, through repetition, mankind can begin to deal effectively with that which is transcendent in its experience. The continual living drama, that which continues to be repeated, helps to form the “tablet” which each people in “One Thousand One Goals” hangs over itself.
Recurrence is how culture is made. Terry Eagleton, citing Shakespeare's Tempest, equates the process to Sebastian's swim from the foundering ship.27 The artist not only navigates the medium, but also creates the current that sustains him. Should the swimmer stop swimming, he would sink and die. This is the structural difference between Platonic philosophy and Puritan theology, and dramatic poetry. The two former practices, assuming a pursuit of absolute Truth, seek an eventual end. For this reason, they are not life-sustaining. Existence, viewed through these lenses, cannot be said to repeat eternally but happens only once. As such, both Platonic philosophy and Puritan theology are structurally opposed to the Eternal Return, and thus are less well-disposed to life. Both would trade the living of life for an ideal end.
However, this conflict, in itself, does not account for the level of hostility in the antitheatrical debate. One cannot help but note that those who lambast theatrical activity make allowances for it, or even engage in it. It is specifically the professional, dedicated dramatic art that raises the most ire. Reading ribald Menander or Plautus is considered laudable for young men learning Greek or Latin, despite despairing for the boys' virtue. Plato poetically founds a city from which he then banishes the poets. "And therefor when any of these pantomimic gentlemen, who are so clever that they can imitate anything, comes to us... we will fall down and worship him... but we must also inform him that in our State such as he are not permitted to exist."28 In the City in Speech, each person must go about their appointed task, and the structural nature of dramatic poetry dictates that the poet and player will perform a number of different types of business in the course of their profession. Further, Edmund Morgan, pointing out that the Puritan attack on the theatre was historically the most successful as well as intense and sustained, finds it interesting that this attack followed directly on the heels of the golden age of English drama, the age of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson.29 Natural economic laws such as the division of labor, particularly as outlined by thinkers like Adam Smith and Bernard Mandeville, suggest that the professionalization of the poetic arts is a natural course of events, the arguments suggest that development is not without its problematic aspects. The professional artist, through his or her talent and dedication, lays exclusive claim to the Eternal Return of the Same: the domain which is most well-disposed to life and will. As they are most capable of performing quality work in an efficient manner, the suggestion is that poetry and performance should be left to the experts. This claim is, essentially, an act of aggressive enclosure on the part of the artist, fencing off an activity that was once communal property and everyone's right. "In the history of civilization the right of authorship has slowly devolved from God and His prophets and priest to everyone."30 The poetical impulse, the creation of values through the repetition of stories, once belonged to all people. By professionalizing the art, the dedicated dramatic poet begins to build fences around this impulse. The non artist is left with only his purchasing power, the money for admission to the playhouse, to continue their engagement with the art most closely attuned to the Eternal Return. This fencing-off leads to the ressentiment of Plato and the Puritans.
Close examination of the antitheatrical rhetoric of Plato and the Puritans not only shows inconsistency on their part, but a lack of understanding regarding their own frustrations. To refer to something as vicious, degenerate, and evil does not seem a ringing endorsement of techniques that will then be used to further the thinker's own project. This ressentiment, channeled into accusations of evil and lewdness, is truly anger at the professional dramatic artist's act of enclosure around a formerly communal property. That the anger should be so intense is understandable. Dramatic poetry is capable of wielding great power, particularly in light of the value-creating process of the Eternal Return of the Same. Given the often divisive nature of debates over the dramatic arts today, particularly in terms of access and funding, it may behoove contemporary artists to keep the true nature of antitheatrical prejudice in mind, and perhaps reopen the circle to the community. After all, the fact that birds of prey don't actively hate lambs doesn't mean that the lambs don't have good reason to resent them.
1 Plato. “Republic.” The Republic and Other Works. Benjamin Jowett, trans. (New York: Anchor Books, 1973): 71.
2 Augusto Boal. “Augusto Boal at The Green Room, Manchester, 17 January 1995.” In Contact With the Gods?: Directors Talk Theatre. eds. Maria Delgado and Paul Heritage. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996): 11.
3 Plato, 288.
4 Plato, 291.
5 Plato, 104.
6 Jonas Barish. The Antitheatrical Prejudice. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981): 14.
7 Stephen Gosson. “The School of Abuse.” Dramatic Theory and Criticism. ed. Bernard F. Dukore. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1974): 163.
8 Edmund Morgan. “Puritan Hostility to the Theatre.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 110, no.5 (1966): 341.
9 John Northbrooke. “A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes.” Dramatic Theory and Criticism. ed. Bernard F. Dukore. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1974): 161.
10 Gosson, 163-164.
11 Morgan, 342.
12 Northbrooke, 160.
13 Tertullian. “On The Spectacles.” Dramatic Theory and Criticism. ed. Bernard F. Dukore. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1974): 87.
14 Northbrooke, 160.
15 Morgan, 341.
16 Richard Saltonstall. “Indicting the Theater on Four Counts.” A Source Book In Theatrical History. ed. A.M. Nagler (New York: Dover, 1952):115.
17 Gosson, 165.
18 Gosson, 162.
19 Friedrich Nietzsche. “The Genealogy of Morals.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche. (New York: Modern Library, 2000):480-481.
20 Barish, 9.
21 Friedrich Nietzsche. “The Gay Science.” The Portable Nietzsche. (New York: Viking Press, 1982): 102.
22 Milan Kundera. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990): 5.
23 Friedrich Nietzsche. The Will to Power. (New York: Vintage Books, 1968): 549.
24 Friedrich Nietzsche. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” The Portable Nietzsche. (New York: Viking Press, 1982): 170.
25 Bas C. Van Fraassen. “Capek on Eternal Recurrence.” The Journal of Philosophy 59, no. 15 (1962): 373
26 Nietzsche. The Will to Power. 548
27 Terry Eagleton. The Idea of Culture. (London: Blackwell, 2000): 3.
28 Plato, 86.
29 Morgan, 340.
30 E.L. Doctorow. “Address to the Students of the Tisch School for the Arts, New York University, September 14, 2001.” Artistic Citizenship. (New York: Routledge. 2006): 53.