Indecency On The English Stage by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Essay

[This protest was dated Jan. 1, 1891. Things are rather better now.]

I am not a young person. Nothing ever brings a blush to my cheek except the rouge-pencil or the exposure of my stealthy deeds of good I can read the Elizabethan dramatists or Rabelais with equanimity, and the only thing that mars my enjoyment of Juvenal is the occasional obscurity of the Latin. I like the immoral passages in “Mademoiselle de Maupin,” even if I do not go so far as Swinburne and call it “the holy book of beauty.” Ibsen refreshes me like a tonic, and I even believe in Zola. And yet, if I were State censor of the English stage–which fortunately I am not–I should suppress half of our plays for their indecency. The other half I should suppress for their fatuity. But that is another story.

That vice loses half its evil by losing all its grossness, is a maxim for which the world cannot be too thankful to Burke; for though the point of view be not true, an important aspect of the truth is undoubtedly exhibited. Now, what we get on the English stage is the grossness without the vice–or, to put it more accurately, the vulgarity without the open presentation of the vice. You may mean anything, so long as you say something else. Almost every farcical comedy or comic opera–to leave the music-hall alone–is vitiated by a vein of vulgar indecency which is simply despicable. The aim of the artist is not to conceal art–there is none to conceal–but to conceal his indecencies decently, and yet in the most readily discoverable manner. The successful stage-piece is too often but a symphony in blue. What the English, with their fashion of spoiling French importations, incorrectly term doubles entendres, are almost indispensable items in the fare of some London theatres of good repute. And the references to things sexual are usually as stupid as they are superfluous to the development of the plot or the characters. There is not the shadow of an excuse for their introduction. They are simply silly accretions on the play, quite unimplicated with the spirit of the scene, and losing all meaning in their effort to have two. One can enjoy the sparkle of wit and the rich halo of comedy playing around situations unaffectedly “improper”; even the farces of the Palais Royal amuse with the broad foolery of their esprit gaulois; but the English endeavour to make the best of both worlds, the English author who combines the prude and the pimp–for these one can have nothing but contempt. And the measure of one’s longing for a sane and virile view and presentation of life will be the measure of one’s abhorrence of immorality which has not even the decency to be indecent.

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The French dramatist gives us characters living in “a state of sin” (one of the United States not recognised at the Court of St. James’s). The English dramatist conveys the plot, conveys the situations which spring out of the “state of sin,” but leaves out the basis on which the whole rests. Thus, instead of situations intelligibly indecent, we get situations unintelligibly indecent. Eros, like an Indian conjuror, is left suspended from nothing. As the English playgoer does not ask for intelligible situations, he is satisfied with the residuum. The dramatist’s uneasy striving to account for the behaviour of his personages only renders the latent character of the residuum more glaring.

The truth is, that everything depends on treatment and atmosphere. Lord Houghton has treated the difficult theme of a mother’s and daughter’s love for the same man with tenderness and grace; a foreign writer would lay bare and anatomise with more of scalpel and less of sentiment. The former satisfies our aesthetic instincts; the latter would, in addition, appeal to our intellectual curiosity. To the English dramatist the whole story would be tabu; but if the Continental man had got some striking situations out of it, the Briton’s soul would hanker after those situations. So he would make the mother a maiden aunt, and give us the familiar spectacle of the aged spinster languishing for matrimony, as incarnated for the nonce in the person of her niece’s lover. Miss Sophie Larkin would play the part, and it would be intended to be a comic one. There is more suggestiveness in the conventional stage figure of the amorous old maid than in all Congreve’s comedies. And yet what figure is more certain to please, in the whole gallery of puppets? Scenes and characters of this sort you may have by the dozen; but to build a moral play upon an “immoral” basis is to court damnation. To construct a noble piece of work on the basis of “improper” relations between your chief characters is to show the cloven hoof. Once the initial scheme granted, the rest may be as bracing as an Alpine breeze; but the critics will scent brimstone. But to build an immoral play upon a “moral” basis–that way gladness lies. Critics, who would rage at the delineation of a character remotely resembling a human being’s, will pat you on the back with a good-humoured smile, and at most a laughing word of reprobation for your azure audacities. Ladies, who, whether they are married or unmarried, are in England presumed to be agnostics in sexual matters, will roar themselves hoarse over farces whose stories could only be told to the ultramarines. Ibsen may not untie a shoe-latchet in the interest of truth, while English burlesque managers may put an army of girls into tights. One dramatist may steal a horse-laugh by a tawdry vulgarity, while another may not look over an ankle. It is the same with literature. We look askance at “The Kreutzer Sonata,” but tolerate the vulgar anecdotal indecencies of the sporting journal. The artist’s eye may not see life steadily, and see it whole; but it is licensed to wink and ogle at will from behind its blinker. If the artist’s “immorality” is the artistic embodiment of a frank Paganism, or is inspired by an ethical or a scientific purpose, he is a filthy-minded fellow. Seriousness is the unpardonable sin. Coarseness can be condoned, if it is only flippant and frivolous enough. In short, the only excuse for indecency is to have none.

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Unfortunately, practical considerations are so involved with artistic that it may be imprudent to accord the artist as wide a charter as he would wish. The ideals of sincerity and honesty may in the present social environment be so potential for harm that it is for the common interest that they should not be gratified. This may be so, though I do not believe it. But whether it be so or not, of one thing I am certain,–and that is that the half-hearted dallying with things sexual is wholly an evil; that the prurient sniffing and sniggering round the subject is more fraught with peril to a community, more debasing to the emotional currency, more blighting to the higher sexual feelings of the race, than the most shameless public repudiation of all moral restraints. Evil cures itself in the sunlight; it grows and flourishes in the darkness. Vice looks fascinating in the gloaming; the morning shows up the tawdriness and the paint.

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