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MR. SAMUEL SMITH, M.P., ON…

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MR. SAMUEL SMITH, M.P., ON IMMORAL PLAYS. SPEECH IN PARLIAMENT. SEVERE STRICTURES. In the House of Commons, on Tuesday right, )lr. Samuel Smith, the member of Flintshire, brought before the House the question of theatrical productions. He said I am well aware that I am attempting a difficult task in bringing the question of theatrical performances before the House yet I believe that few sub- jects attract greater attention at the present time, and that a great body of opinion, both inside and outside this House, is in sympathy "vvith the resolution which I now submit to the House, viz.. -"That this House regrets th growing tendency to put upon the stage plays of a demoralising character, and considers that a stricter supervision of theatrical performances is needed alike in the interests of the public and the theatrical profession." Some of the first theatrical critics have been deploring for years past the decadent character of the drama, and in the opinio;; of some it has reached a lower stage than at any time since the Restoration. While in many departments of national life great progress has been registered during the Victorian era, it will not be denied that a class of plays is now acted which would have been prohibited fifty year ago as grossly immoral. I am sure that the House will agree with me that this is no light matter. The moral stand. ard of a country is largely affected by the diama. Multitudes of youn.; men and young women form their ideas of what is right and wrong in no small degree from what they witness on the stage and when they see the purest and holiest things of life turned into derision, and disgust. ing licentiousness treated as the normal rule of life, is it likely that their own moral standard will remain high ? Is it not certain that the same effects will follow in London as in Paris that a decadent drama, and, what always accom- panies it, a decadent literature, will produce r decadent nation ? Now, I will rightly be asked for proof of these statements, and I will confine mjself almost entirely to competent theatrical critics, sp that no one may ride off on the plea that I am bringing merely puritanical objections against the stage. I freely acknowledge that the drama holds a great field in human educa- tion. The Attic Stage was a great educator of an illustrious people, and the best plays of Shakespeare fathom the depths of the human soul. What I wish to bring before the House is not the 'egitimate drama, but foul and corrupt- ing plays that no good actor or actress should touch with a pitch-fork, and which no youth can witness without taint. By permission ol Mr. Clement Scott, one of the oldest and best theatiical critics, I quote from a recent utter- ance of his in New York. Speaking of these degrading plays, he said: "Why should we not frankly call them heathen plays or plays desti- tute of any moral sfnse, plays artfully contrived to attract sympathy for vice plays that cover detestable selfishness with a glamour of icmante end sickly sentiment; plays that bring the power and allurement ot good acting, or show. or spectacle, or personal charm, to dtoden our moral force and moral fibre ? That is where the danger lies." Again he says: We may ascribe it to the change of tone and thought at our public schools and universities, to our God- less method of education, to the comparative failure of religion as an influence, to this, that, or the other. But there it :s. We cannot get away from it. Society has accepted the satire and our diamatists of the first class have one after the other broken away rom the beautiful, the helpful, and the ideal, and coquetted with õhe distorted, the tjinted, and the poisonous in life. Any appeal to them in the name of art is vain. According to their utilitarian creed all must be good that pays, and so for the moment cur theatres are crowded to excess to see snap- shot society dramas,' with their proncunced vulgarity, their hideous presentments of men and women, and their cheap satire." I believe that fhe majority of this House ?nd the major- ity of the nation knix that these words are true, and many of our best actors and actresses wish it were not so. But they cannot or dare not speak out, for to do so is to be boycotted by the profession. There is a false code of honour in all professions, which makes the honourable members hesitate to denounce the dishonour- able. But I am certain the sympathy of many of them is with those who wcrk to reform the stage. But I will be asked to give specific proof. I will comply. The most popular and by far the ablest of these corrupting plays is "The Gay Lord Quex," by Mr. A. W. Pinero. ■I leave the House to judge of this from the description given by th "Daily Telegraph. one of the chief admirers of Mr. Pinero. It said at the first appearance of lhe play "Seld0ffi has an act so bold in conception, so daring in execution, been presented as that which follows. That Mrs. Grundy will raise her voice against it may be expected that the world of fashion will flock to see it is no less certain. In the Princess and the Butterfly Mr. Pinero broke :n upon the sanctity of a lady's afternoon toilet. In The Gay Lord Quex he goes a step further, and introduces us to the duchess's boudoir, with bedroom attached, on the stroke of midnight. Here the farewell meeting between her an 1 Quex is to take place. On a little table stand a box of -Argyropulo; cigarettes, a bottle of champagne, felix l'oubelle, Carte d'Or,' and a couple of glasses. It is hardly to be denied that in sever- al passages of this brilliant and extraordinarily Z!1 ingenious act the very brink of unnecessary -riskiness is reached. Words and phrases fall from the mouths of the artistes which make the listener catch his breath and move uneasily in his place." The Westminster Gazette said A little while ago Mr. John Hare was champ- ioning the cause of propriety on the English stage, and denouncing indignantly the wicked- ness of Ibsen, and yet in The Gay Lord Quex he presents a piece with a wealth of indelicate detail as great in quantity as could be collected from all the Ibsen plays offered to the Britisn public.. What becomes of poor Nora's remarks about her stockings when compared with the scene where the beautiful duchess in her dress- ing-gown at midnight wonders with Lord Quex, who is with her in her bedroom, at what moment in their guilty intrigue he acquired from her the silk garter with diamond buckle which she ex- hibits to the audience ?" I am told that fine ladies who were horrified at the first night of this play can now see nothing indelicate in it, and take their young daughters to initiate them into fast life. I can only say that if wealth and rank admire such things, they are below the breeding of the average costermonger. I note that the author of this play made a speech at Birmingham a fortnight ago, in which he ridi- culed the Lord Chancellor and Sir Edward Clarke for having courageously attacked these ccrrupting plays. The Lord Chancellor used these words: On all sides intellectual devel. opment was visible, yet there were dark features in respect to our iiterary tsste. Familiar public amusements, plays, and so on, were tainted with what, with all reverence, he might call the spirit of those who made a mock of sin. And to his mind it hid become a serious auestion whether, seeing some of the plays now being -eracted, there was any great advantage in find- ing somebody to act as censor, and to prevent them from being played. If some of the plays T.ow before the public might, be played he did not know what might not be played." The majority of this House will, I believe, agree with the Lord Chancellor, and I may add, with Sir Edward Clarke, who spoke to the same effect, and not with Mr. Pinero, who accused them of a prudish view of life and being unable to understand that the real decadent drama and the real decadent literature were the drama and the literature which presented a flattering but false conception of human conduct." And (concluded lr. Pinero) they must not accuse us of discourtesy if we make bold to warn them of the danger of evil association with those people who, under the pretence of being moralists, are nothing but moral-mongers." The success of Lord Quex has produced a crop of imitations even viler. I take from The Era," a leading theatrical paper, a critique of Zaza" recently produced in London from Am- erica. It says "One of the most unpleasant plays that we have seen in London for some time past is Zaza. It is a disgraceful libel on the dramatic profession, and the story is developed with so much base and sordid realism, the seamy side of an illicit connection is shown with such perverse and persistent giovelling in the mud that the effect created is repellant and depressing. Zaza gets Dufresne into her dressing-room and there plies him with all the brazen wiles of the pavement. The scene in which Zaza attempts to allure Dufresne is frankly and unblushingly animal and gross, indeej the whole of this first act reeks with the vile odours of cheap dissipa- tion. No attempt is made to disguise the mere- ly physical attraction which Dufresne possesses for Zaza, and her overtures to him are of the most womanly and immodest order. The scene in which she edges up against him, and places her face close to his, is one of the most audacious and startling exhibitions ever seen on the stage, and the exuberance of Mrs. Leslie Carter's huggings and kissings through- out the performance is repellent in its sensual exaggeration. As for the picture of life behind the scenes, it is simply disgusting, and the re- presentation of such vulgar ribaldry and loose living is in itself an offence against good taste. Whatever value Zaza may possess as a drama is not in the least added to by these pictures of vile debauchery behind the scenes of a Fiench Variety Theatre; and the English play- going public must indeed have fallen low if the best passport to their approval be the presenta- tion, in elaborate detail, of foreign vice and continental lewdness Mrs. Leslie Carter, the representative of Zaza, made the part even more displeasing than was absolutely necessary. Details which might have been tcned down were insisted upon with almost perverse tactlessness. Crude and mean as the French authors 2nd American adapter have made the play, Mrs. Carter accen- tuates its crudeness and meanness by her read- ing of the principal part and Zaza only seems to us a sensual, irritable, and vulgar creature, without the redeeming qualities of grr ce, charm, and sweetness." In another paragraph the same paper says: Playgoers who really love the dramatic profession will irdeed feel "ad after witnessing the first act cf Zaza' now being performed at the Garrick Theatre. We have never seen the profession dragged through the mud so shamelessly. It is a great grief to us to find American actors and actresses taking part in such a disgraceful libel of their own calling, and trying to bring their class to contempt, giving enemies of the drama an opportunity of pointing to evidence of the stage itself as to its inner life. It must be a bad bird that fouls its own nest." I will give but one more criticism, from the pen of Ir. William Archer (" Morning Leader," 9th April, 1900): uTake such a piece as 'The Belle of New York' for example-probably the greatest success of recent years. What was it but one long glorification of the vulgarest order of debauchery ? In so far as it meant anything at all, it meant approval and admiration for drun- kenness and all the other diversions of a reck- lessly fast' life. But was it the vicious or e' en the congenitally, fundamentally vulga- section of society that kept it running to full houses for eighteen months ? Not at all. This section, of course, contributed its full quota to the devotees of the Belle' but she also attracted in their thousands people of education and breeding, of decent life and presentable manners. Some of them fully realised the clotted vulgarity of the entertainment, and revelled in the sense of superiority involved in that very realisation. Vulgar entertainments there will always be so long as there are people of vulgar tastes to be catered for. But their popularity, in England, at any late, would be much less overwhelming if people of culture and refinement did not affect and even parade in regard to the theatre a vulgarity of taste which they would blush to own in regard to any other department of art or of life. Many Oxford and Cambridge men, for example-not merely irresponsible undergraduates, but dons and dignitaries-when they run up to town for a few days, rush eagerly to The Gaiety Girl' or 'The Circus Girl' or 'The Belle of New York,' and can scarcely be dragged to any high- er form of entertainment." I must apologise to the House for dragging it through these sicken- ing details. My object is to show what a farce the present form of censorship is. The Lord Chamberlain is the Earl of Hopetoun, and his deputy is Mr. Spencer Ponsonby-Fane, and he has an examiner of plays, Mr. Redford, and on his advice the Lord Chamberlain gives his license. And now they go from London through the provinces, tainting the atmosphere wherever they go. All the higher and nobler attributes of human nature wither and perish in such an atmosphere. But the public is helpless, and weak-minded people say it must be all right, because the censor has allowed it. Is it any wonder that the Lord Chancellor asks for the abolition of the censorship ? I am sure we should be far better off without it. Anyhow, it is an archaic survival of a time when only two patent theatres existed in London, and when the plays were performed by His Majesty's actors, and a Court official superintended them. It was altogether a Court affair. Now there is free trade in theatres, and a far more dangerous tiade than public-houses is without any control at all. I am a strong believer in local govern- ment. Wherever municipal bodies have powers they use them for the good of the community. The Music Halls in London were once as bad, or worse than, the theatres since they were placed under the County Council they have wonderfully improved. Everyone tells me the change is astonishing. The same would happen if the ^1C^tres were placed under municipal bodies. u ic opinion would steadily act on the theatrical profession through these bodies. There would be kicking and restiveness for a time; but at last the theatres would fall into line, and after some of the worst had been re- fused their licenses the others would find it necessary to consult the moral sense of the community. There has been a marvellous change effected in the city of Liverpool in my lifetime through the action of the police direc- ted against certain moral evils by a reforming Watch Committee and an intelligent bench of magistrates. The one department which re- mains hopelessly bad is the theatre, because it is not subject to local control except as regards structural arrangements and the sale of refresh. ments. I feel sure that if the licensing of plays was given either to the municipality or the bench of magistrates, the improvement that would take place would astonish everyone. I do not believe in the judgment of experts but I do believe in the average common-sense and the average morality of the ordinary householder. I have always found that his instincts are soun- der than those of London society, which is invariably on the wrong side whenever there is a battle between good and evil. In conclusion,. I will say that I advocate this change in the interests of the theatrical profession itself. It is cruel to put modest women to play the part of harlots. It is very difficult to see how a woman can keep any refinement of soul when playing such disgraceful parts. What did Clement Scott say a year or two ago in a famous interview reported in Great Thoughts" It is nearly impossible for a woman to remain pure who adopts the stage as a profession. Everything is against her. The freedom of life, of speech, of gesture, which is the rule behind the curtain, renders it almost impossible for a woman to preserve that simplicity of manner which is after all her greatest charm. The whole life is artificial and unnatural to the last degree, and, therefore, an unhealthy life to live. But there are far more serious evils to b en. countered than these. These drawbacks are the things that render it impossible for a lady to remain a lady. But what is infinitely more to be deplored is that a woman who endeavours to keep her purity is almost of necessity fore- doomed to failure in her career. It is an awful thing to say, and it is still more terrible that it is true, but no one who knows the life of the green room will deny it. Nor do I see how a woman is to escape contamination in one form or another. Temptation surrounds her in every shape on every side her prospects frequently depend upon. the nature and extent of her com- pliance, and, after all, human nature is verv weak." I am glad to know that later on in the same interview he added Two things I want to be made clear—(1) That it is quite possible to lead a good life on the stage. Thousands do. M iss for instance, is as good a woman I as ever lived. But the fact that many do lead good lives does not remove the great tempta- tions from the weaker brethren." I need say no more on this painful topic. The better part of the theatrical profession will be most thank- ful if some check can be put on the frghtful temptations that surround the stage. One reas- on for the failure of the censorship must be cbvious to everyone. The written words of a play do not really show its moral tendency that depends on dress, gestures, and suggestive act. ing. It is for this reason that I believe no real control can be exercised over theatres except by the power of refusing licenses, on the ground that the management has been on the whole bad and depraving. I have found by a long experience in Liverpool that this principle applied by an intellgent bench of magistrates to the licensing of public-houses has effected an astonishing revolution in the order and decency of those places. The same would hold gcod of theatres. A few examples made of notorious offenders would lift up the whole moral level of the stage. Let me add that there are many related evils which we cannot grapple with so long as extreme license is allowed to the stage. One of the worst of these is that of depraving pictures,' drawn from the most in- decent exhibitions in theatres, which are sold to youths. The worst scenes are photographed and collected into books, and sold to boys or published in the low illustrated paper, which is one of the deadliest evils of the day. You can- not prosecute these obscene pictures with any chance of success while you tolerate their pres- entation in theatres. It cannot be denied that the glorification of harlotry, which is thought by some to be a sign of high art, is undermining that wholesome repugnance to vice which used to be a mark of English society. Only on that gtound can I explain the following quotation from Mr. Lecky's "Map of Life": "A more recognised though probably not really pernic- ious example of false ideals is to be found in the glorification of the demi-monde, which is so conspicuous in some societies and literatures. In a healthy state of opinion, the public, os- tentatious, appearance of such persons, without any concealment of their character in the great concourse of fashion and among the notabilities of the state, would appear an intolerable scandal, and becomes much worse when centres and models of large and by no means undistinguished sections of Society. The evils they give the tone of fashion and become the class are immeasureably greater than the evils arising from its existence. The standard of popular morals is debased. Temptation in its most seductive form is forced upon inflammable natures and the most pernicious of all lessons is taught to poor, honest, hard-workng, wo- men." The senuous and indelicate modes of dressing so common in London Society and which scandalise our American and Colonial friends are also an outcome of the low morals of the theatre. The people who gloat over "Lord ()uex" and "Zaza" have already reached a level which mere accident alone keeps them from leading such lives themselves. I cannot too strongly express my conviction that a decad- ent drama and a decadent literature mark a stage in national decline. All the great empires of antiquity perished of internal corruption. The moral law of God is inexorable. "The Mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small." The congestion of idle, dissolute wealth we have in London is the great danger in this country. Let me appeal to the strong spirit of Imperialism that now exists and which has led to noble self-sacrifice. Would it not be the highest patriotism to keep the heart of this great Empire sound ? Is it not lamentable to find that our Colonial and Indian fellow-sub- jects when they visit the Metropolis of the Empire are often staggered at the orgies of vice they witness ? If we wish to maintain the loy- alty of this great Empire we must keep a stand- ard at home which will command its respect. Is not this a favourable moment to attempt moral reforms ? Many families are in mourn- ing. London society has lost its usual gaiety. Many are saying: Oh for the touch of a vanished hand, and the sound of a voice that is still Is this not the voice of God calling the nation to repentance? Let this House. strike a true keynote to-night, and it will awake a res- ponse it little dreams of. t;: t

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