Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Ludere Cum Sacris: Methodism, Mimicry, and Samuel Foote's the Minor

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Ludere Cum Sacris: Methodism, Mimicry, and Samuel Foote's the Minor

Article excerpt

In the prologue to Samuel Foote's The Minor (1760), three characters, including Foote himself, discuss the proper object of comedy. After asserting that affectation is "the true comic object," Foote proposes bringing "one of those itinerant field orators [a Methodist preacher]" onto the stage, to which one of his companions responds, "Have a care. Dangerous ground. Ludere Cum Sacris, you know" - do not toy with the sacred. Foote dismisses the warning, "Now I look upon it in a different manner. I consider these gentlemen in light of public performers, like myself; and whether we exhibit at Tottenham-court [the site of George Whitefield's London tabernacle], or the Hay-market, our purpose is the same, and the place immaterial" (Introduction, 8-9). According to Foote, Methodist preachers are actors and, therefore, competitors in the marketplace, pedaling entertainment for profit in the guise of religion. The Methodists' practice of open-air preaching, coupled with the theatrical preaching style of some of its preachers, most notably Whitefield, certainly contributed to such an attitude.

The Methodists further provoked Foote and his counterparts by routinely condemning plays and play-going. The Methodists, in fact, not only fired back at Foote and the theater, they often fired first, representing the most outspoken opponents of the English stage since Jeremy Collier. Whitefield, who was a theater enthusiast during his youth and actually considered a career on the stage, waged war on London playhouses, sometimes preaching against the stage in the heart of the theater district, which he declared "Nurseries of Debauchery" Folly 13). John Wesley, who tended to be more moderate in his attitudes toward drama and believed the theater, if regulated, might facilitate social reform (see Shepherd 167-68 and 182; McGovern 159-60), considered the English stage "the sink of all profaneness and debauchery" ("More Excellent" 518) and successfully lobbied to stop construction on a theater in Bristol in 1764. Besides promoting immorality, plays, like other earthly pleasures, drew one's attention from God.

On the surface, the conflict between the Methodists and the theater seems a mere carry-over from Collier's clash with the theater in the late seventeenth century and, by extension, from the sixteenth century, when religious, mostly Puritan, authorities first questioned the morality of plays and play-going, and playwrights mockingly responded through their dramatic medium. We might recall Shakespeare's Malvolio, whose dislike of merriment and whose hypocrisy both draw comparisons to the Puritans, or Ben Jonson's merciless treatment of Puritans in The Alchemist. Whitefield did feel a kinship with the early opponents of the stage, writing in one letter, "Formerly it was 'You are a Puritan,' now it is, 'You are a Methodist'" Works 2:263). In many respects, Whitefield was right: the dynamics of the argument, on both sides, does not change much between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. While the Methodists decried the immorality of the theater, dramatists accused them of self-righteousness and hypocrisy.

Potentially lost in the conventionality of this conflict are the unique features of Methodism's clash with the theater in the eighteenth century. By casting the Methodists as competitors in the marketplace, Foote indicates that much more was at stake than moral arguments. On one level, the Methodists and the theater were competing for patrons - for the public's attention, the public's imagination, and, in some respects, the public's money. On another level, they were competing for the right or authority to "perform" for an impressionable public. The Methodists accused the theater of abusing its authority as an authorized cultural institution at the same time the Methodists were criticized for operating outside the purview of the established church. And finally, the Methodists and the theater were competing over contested notions of "the sacred" and right religion. …

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