Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Controversy over the Morality of the Theatre in Early Enlightenment France1

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Controversy over the Morality of the Theatre in Early Enlightenment France1

Article excerpt

If it is true that Bossuet gave a good summary of the controversy, which lasted for well over a hundred years in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is also true that he did not say all he had to say about the matter. He saw some great examples for supporting the theatre, but he insisted rather on the strong reasons against. What provoked Bossuet's writings on the subject was a letter written by an obscure Theatine priest, Francesco Caffaro (1650-1720), "Lettre d'un théologien ... consulté par [Edmé Boursault] pour savoir si la comédie peut être permise ou doit être absolument défendue" prefixed to Boursault's Pièces de théâtre (Paris 1694).3 The reactions that followed Caffaro's letter led to an extraordinary controversy during which major spokesmen for the Church declared, with a deplorable and intransigent violence, clearly against the theatre.4

Nevertheless, as Caffaro had stated, within the Church there existed considerable disagreement on the matter. "The scholastics," he wrote, "are in almost total agreement to accept" the theatre, while the Councils and the Church Fathers, [...] from the first to the last, have all fulminated against theatrical productions" (qtd. in Urbain and Levesque 68). Caffaro accepted the opinion of Saint Thomas of Aquinas, who believed that the Fathers "cast invectives only against the excesses of the theatre" (76), that is, they attacked not the institution but only the abuses. With Tertullian, Caffaro put plays in the category of indifferent items (84-85); and numerous saints, including Saint Cyprian, Saint Albert the Great, and Saint Antoninus, judged plays to be "good and permitted if they are accompanied by the necessary precautions and circumstances" (86).

The Councils and the Fathers, Caffaro continued, had forbidden games of chance, luxury, superb buildings, banquets, and the display of wealth, along with the theatre; but the Church no longer insisted on the clergy's leading a life of great austerity. Furthermore, popes and monks "of the most regular and austere orders" could be seen at the theatre (90), and plays were permitted even in schools; besides, the king protects the actors.5 It is perhaps noteworthy that Bossuet did not respond to these arguments (the great examples for), limiting himself to the strong reasons against.

As far as the actors are concerned, they should not be reproached for leading a lascivious lifestyle: "the theatre having become completely respectable, those who perform in it and who also lead a respectable life, should without difficulty be considered decent people" (Caffaro 94). But they must not put on sinful plays and their conduct must be irreproachable.

Here, Caffaro maintains that since the modern theatre has been reformed, the invectives of the councils and the fathers of the church cannot be applied to it; that plays in themselves are neither good nor bad; that the theatre can teach people how to live virtuously; that, if the actors choose good plays for their performances, attendance is not dangerous except in hearts that are already corrupted; and that the Church should no longer consider honest and moral actors as infamous.

Bossuet's response to Caffaro is too well known to require elaborate analysis. Summarizing his two publications on this subject, we see that in both his Lettre au père Caffaro and in his Maximes et réflexions sur la comédie (1694) he considers and rejects almost all of the Theatine's arguments. He denies that modern plays have been purified, that the actors lead moral lives, and that the Church ought to abandon the anathema they have visited upon them. He affirms that there is always a danger in going to the theatre, for the theatre is made to excite the passions. Furthermore, he states that even if love in a purified play leads to marriage, it's always a question of sensual love, that is to say of concupiscence, and this kind of love must never be presented to impressionable young people. …

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