It is of considerable significance that the profession considered most sinful in classical, medieval, and even early modern European society was the actor, that theater was consistently denounced by both civil and religious authorities, and that actors were not considered citizens in France until the great turning point of 1789. Even following this legal inclusion, actors continued to be excluded from polite society. Before the 1940s, appearing on stage was the surest way to destroy your good graces, and returning to society required renouncing one’s past as a performer; but since the 1960s, newspapers have eliminated their “society pages” entirely and replaced them with coverage solely of actors and singers, with the effect that the society of gentlemen has been totally exchanged for a society of performers, with few even noticing the world-upending magnitude of this transformation.
The prohibition on stage performance has now vanished from society, except among the dwindling readership of the Social Register and surviving members of the European aristocracy. What is surprising is how long the taboo against acting held out: even episodes of I Love Lucy, and films through the early 1950s, exhibit this disdain for “show business”. It is equally surprising how completely the taboo is forgotten today, considering its universality up until the 20th century. It is as if actors have always been worshipped, but throughout written history the reverse is standard.
In Rome, acting was the ars ludicra, basically implying a pointless and irreverent burlesque, and equivalent to prostitution. The state did not grant any legal rights to the actors, who were also forbidden from entering the military. In the Lex Julia, masters were forbidden from forcing their slaves to become gladiators, prostitutes, or actors. Likewise, senators and emperors were forbidden from marrying into families of slaves, prostitutes, and actors. Cornelius Nepos, examining the culture of Greece, reported that “to appear on the stage and exhibit oneself to the people” appeared to be almost honorable. But in Nepos’ wording we see the key Roman criticism of acting: that it degrades one’s virtue by creating a spectacle with the self at the center, drawing in not only friends and neighbors but that unfamiliar mass, “the people”.
St. Augustine, denouncing theater as a distraction from higher callings, suggested that actors be forbidden Communion, citizenship, and the ability to hold public office. The Decretum Gratani shows that actors were forbidden even from filing suit. In France they could not be buried alongside Christians. In Germany, the Mirror of the Swabians (Schwabenspiegel) and the Mirror of the Saxons both rendered actors outcast, since “wandering minstrels and professional fighters … were described as taking goods for honor, indeed as giving up their personhood for money.”
The use of “personhood” here is striking, and recalls Evola’s explanation of the etymology of “person”. To reinforce how Evola is far from alone in his opinions, here is Hobbes on the same subject:
The word person is Latin: instead whereof the Greeks have προσωπον, which signifies the face, as persona in Latin signifies the disguise or outward appearance of a man, counterfeited on the stage … and from the stage hath been translated to any representer of speech and action, as well in tribunals as theatres.
Acting in its very language is the essence of becoming. The subject of a becoming is an actor, and to become is to act. A Brahmin may be the village patriarch, or he may act as the patriarch; he may be a permanent institution, or play a role in an impermanent arrangement. In the modernist mindset there is basically no being, only becoming, which is why human beings do not exist as high and low, men and women, but are rather said to “perform” an “act” in “social roles” and “gender roles”. It is shocking to realize that many of these theatrical metaphors, now so common that the underlying metaphor is vestigial, scarcely even existed in English before the year 1900.
Personhood is the ability to represent a being, either oneself or another, and should properly be employed honorably, facing towards virtuous things and ultimately towards the divine. In a setting of initiates these representations can take on great value. The self is something that should be minimized so that greater things can be maximized. To perform on the secular stage is to face away from virtue and towards “the people”, beautifying the self, and exhibiting oneself for fame and material gain. It is thus a metaphysically degrading profession, as is prostitution and democratic politics. Having written these words, we begin reading an essay by the American Founding Father John Witherspoon on “play-actors”, and we discover that he is in complete agreement:
All powers and talents whatever, though excellent in themselves, when they are applied to the single purpose of answering the idle, vain, or vicious part of society, become contemptible… Music has always been esteemed one of the finest arts, and was originally used in the worship of God, and the praise of heroes. Yet when music is applied to the purposes of amusement only, it becomes wholly contemptible. And I believe, the public performers, from the men-singers and the women-singers of Solomon, to the singers in the present theatres, are considered as in a disgraceful calling. [Emphasis added --AHM]
The example of the gladiator or professional fighter, with whom the actor is often twinned in these sources, should provide a useful analogy. A Christian or Muslim may flagellate his own body as a demonstration of his submission and selflessness. The only audience of his action is God, and indeed modern groups which practice mortification, such as Opus Dei, do so privately. A fighter, on the other hand, aims to attract a large, paying audience to see him batter the body of another and be battered himself. The Roman gladiator lacked a monetary incentive, but the direction of the activity was the same: facing away from the sources of virtue, and towards “the people”.
The traditional attitude towards this variety of degradation is a subject which deserves more historical study, as do the changes which produced modernity. What we find consistently in the few accounts we have assembled is that actors are banned from any role in hierarchy, as above, but they are still granted basic privileges. In the Ancien Régime, actors could get married under clearly symbolic conditions: they would renounce their profession, marry, and then quickly be reinvited to their profession by the valets de chambre. This was one of the institutions eliminated by the French Revolution, and the consequent dispute over the social rank of actors can be seen as one of the first battles of the occult war, albeit one that is completely forgotten today, and part of the process by which tradition became limited to the religious sphere in the West.
One example will suffice to show how closely this battle resembles modern battles over similar issues. In December 1870, an actor named George Holland died in New York City. An Episcopal reverend named W.T. Sabine was called upon by a comedian friend of Holland’s to perform the funeral. Rev. Sabine initially agreed to it, but then the comedian remembered that not all clergymen were fond of actors, and informed Sabine of the deceased’s profession. Rev. Sabine responded that he would not permit a funeral for an actor in his house of worship, but that he would officiate at a home funeral if need be, and that there was a “little church around the corner” which would be more likely to accommodate him. This simple commitment by a single reverend to his values caused a national uproar, with newspapers around the country commenting on it, and Mark Twain dubbing the reverend a “crawling, slimy, sanctimonious, self-righteous reptile”. The “little church around the corner” held the funeral and became famous for doing so, and still retains that nickname today. The news media did not speak a word in Rev. Sabine’s favor, while those who approved did so privately, behind the closed doors of gentlemen’s clubs and parlor rooms.
We must consider, not the “right thing to do” in this situation, but what metaphysics was incarnated in Reverend Sabine. For this man of God, the Church existed for worship and submission. By making a living on the popular stage, which is quite a different activity from acting as religious service, the actor failed to concern himself with the realization of his innate capacity for worship, which we call faith. Like every populist throughout history, his executor demanded the benefits of Christendom without fulfilling any of the responsibilities incurred by being a Christian. The Reverend followed his conscience to deem the actor a sinner; the doctrine of mercy could allow him a home funeral, but holding one in the church would do an injustice to the ancient standards of the body of Christ, dating back to St. Augustine. But the Reverend had unfortunately been born into modernity, where the people dictate their own laws and choose their own gods.
Metaphysics in the sense of Guénon and Evola can often be confusing, but if you understand its rhythms it is easy to recognize its human forms. When we speak of Tradition, we mean to suggest to you the instructions Reverend Sabine was following when he refused the actor a church funeral. We aim to dispel the emotional clouding of populism which caused Twain to dub the Reverend a “reptile”, and to give the reader a clear and unclouded window into the beautiful structure of the Reverend’s universe, the same beauty that is reflected when the modern church refuses marriage to homosexuals. Tradition is not a confusing relic of the past, but a permanent structure that gives access to divinity; and while it is almost vanished in the present day, it still exists for anyone with the courage to recognize its forms and appreciate them.
The New York incident was the end of official discrimination between actors and Christians. Unofficially, though, high society remained outside and above show business for many decades more. Newspapers continued to print denunciations of theater up until roughly 1900. In the private spaces of those clubs and parlors, which were quite influential in that era, marriage to an actor or singer was anathema through roughly 1940, as we have said. Following the mass production of film, however, the cult of the actor grew in America to such an extent that an unholy marriage between acting and nobility was produced, and birthed “celebrity”. The pugilist, to be sure, is still not welcome at a party, for the degrading nature of his work remains clear; but the player has become the star of the show, so to speak. The private aristocrat is no longer interesting to the common people, except when it is time to hate him. The public actor, on the other hand, shares with the common people an open desire for mindless entertainment and vanity, and is thus beloved.
The ennobling of the traditional outcaste of actors must be seen as a key step in the transition from tradition to modernity. As an outcaste, actors formally play no role in the traditional metaphysics. This enables them to create their own, rivaling metaphysics and ridicule the values of the traditional system. When actors are exclusively male and employed by a patron or an institution, as was the case in Greece, on Shakespeare’s stage, and in the Catholic passion plays, they may work as a visionary force within tradition. Left to their own devices, though, actors and actresses will display themselves to the world for money and fame, and this celebration of vanity is destructive to tradition.
John Witherspoon. A Serious Inquiry Into the Nature and Effects of the Stage: And a Letter Respecting Play Actors. 1812.
Cleveland Amory. Who Killed Society? Harper, 1960.
Jonas A. Barish. The Antitheatrical Prejudice. University of California Press, 1985.
Kathy Stuart. Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts: Honor and Ritual Pollution in Early Modern Germany. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
“Pharisaical Delicacy.” New York Times, 29 December 1870.
Recommended further reading:
Claudia Durst Johnson. Church and Stage: The Theatre As Target of Religious Condemnation in Nineteenth Century America. McFarland, 2007.
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