Rakes & Libertines

Jeremy Collier [from]
 A Short View of the Immorality, and Profaneness of the English Stage
(London, 1698)

The business of plays is to recommend virtue, and discountenance vice; to show the uncertainty of human greatness, the sudden turns of fate, and the unhappy conclusions of violence and injustice: it is to expose the singularities of pride and fancy, to make folly and falsehood contemptible, and to bring every thing that is ill under infamy, and neglect. This design has been oddly pursued by the English stage. Our poets write with a different view, and are gone into another interest. ’Tis true, were their intentions fair, they might be serviceable to this purpose. They have in a great measure the springs of thought and inclination in their power. Show, music, action, and rhetoric, are moving entertainments; and rightly employed would be very significant. But force and motion are things indifferent, and the use lies chiefly in the application. These advantages are now, in the enemy’s hand, and under a very dangerous management. Like cannon seized they are pointed the wrong way, and by the strength of the defence the mischief is made the greater. That this complaint is not unreasonable I shall endeavour to prove by showing the misbehaviour of the stage with respect to morality, and religion. Their liberties in the following particulars are intolerable. viz. Their smuttiness of expression; their swearing, profaneness, and lewd application of scripture; their abuse of the clergy; their making their top-characters libertines, and giving them success in their debauchery.

[on immodesty] It wears almost all sorts of dresses to engage the fancy, and fasten upon the memory, and keep up the charm from languishing. Sometimes you have it in image and description; sometimes by way of allusion; sometimes in disguise; and sometimes without it. And what can be the meaning of such a representation, unless it be to tincture the audience, to extinguish shame, and make lewdness a diversion?…
 I grant the abuse of a thing is no argument against the use of it. However young people particularly, should not entertain themselves with a lewd picture; especially when it is drawn by a masterly hand. For such a liberty may probably raise those passions which can neither be discharged without trouble, nor satisfied without a crime: it is not safe for a man to trust his virtue too far, for fear it should give him the slip! But the danger of such entertainment is but part of the objection: it is all scandal and meanness into the bargain: it does in effect degrade human nature, sinks reason into appetite, and breaks down the distinctions between man and beast. Goats and monkeys if they could speak, would express their brutality in such language as this…
 Obscenity in any company is a rustic uncreditable talent; but among women it is particularly rude. Such talk would be very affrontive in conversation, and not to be endured by any lady of reputation. Whence then comes it to pass that those liberties which disoblige so much in conversation, should entertain upon the stage.  Do women leave all the regards of decency and conscience behind them when they come to the play-house? Or does the place transform their inclinations, and turn their former aversions into pleasure? Or were their pretenses to sobriety elsewhere nothing but hypocrisy and grimace? Such suppositions as these are all satire and invective; they are rude imputations upon the whole sex. To treat the ladies with such stuff is no better than taking their money to abuse them. It supposes their imagination vicious, and their memories ill furnished: that they are practiced in the language of the stews, and pleased with the scenes of brutishness. When at the same time the customs of education, and the laws of decency, are so very cautious, and reserved in regard to women; I say so very reserved, that it is almost a fault for them to understand they are ill used.

What is more frequent than their wishes of hell, and confusion, devils and diseases, all the plagues of this world, and the next, to each other? And as for swearing; it is used by all persons, and upon all occasions… At some times, and with some poets swearing is no ordinary relief. It stands up in the room of sense, gives spirit to a flat expression, and makes a period musical and round. In short, it is almost all the rhetoric, and reason some people are masters of…
 A second branch of the profaness of the stage is their abuse of religion, and holy scripture. And here sometimes they don’t stop short of blasphemy. To cite all that might be collected of this kind would be tedious…

[ch iv]
The lines of virtue and vice are struck out by nature in very legible distinctions; they tend to a different point of view, and in the greater instances the space between them is easily perceived. Nothing can be more unlike than the original forms of these qualities: the first has all the sweetness, charms, and graces imaginable; the other has the air of a post ill carved into a monster, and looks both foolish and frightful together. These are the native appearances of good and evil: and they that endeavour to blot the distinctions, to rub out the colours, or change the marks, are extremely to blame. ’Tis confessed as long as the mind is awake, and conscience goes true, there’s  no fear of being imposed on. But when vice is varnished over with pleasure, and comes in the shape of convenience, the case grows somewhat dangerous; for then the Fancy may be gained, and the guards corrupted, and reason suborned against it self. And thus a disguise often passes when the person would otherwise be stopped. To put lewdness into a thriving condition, to give it an equipage of quality, and to treat it with ceremony and respect, is the way to confound the understanding, to fortify the charm, and to make the mischief invincible. Innocence is often owing to fear, and appetite is kept under by shame; but when these restraints are once taken off, when profit and liberty lie on the same side, and a man can debauch himself into credit, what can be expected in such a case, but that pleasure should grow absolute, and madness carry all before it? The stage seems eager to bring matters to this issue; they have made a considerable progress, and are still pushing their point with all the vigour imaginable. If this be not their aim why is lewdness so much considered in character and success? why are their favourites atheistical, and their fine gentlemen debauched? To what purpose is vice thus preferred, thus ornamented, and thus caressed, unless for imitation?…
 To sum up the evidence. A fine gentleman, is a fine whoring, swearing, smutty, atheistical man. These qualities it seems complete the idea of honour. they are the top-improvements of fortune, and the distinguishing glories of birth and breeding! This is the stage-test for quality, and those that can’t stand it, ought to be disclaimed. The restraints of conscience and the pedantry of virtue are unbecoming a cavalier: future securities, and reaching beyond life, are vulgar provisions: if he falls a thinking at this rate, he forfeits his honour; for his head was only made to run against a post! Here you have a man of breeding, and figure that burlesques the Bible, swears, and talks smut to ladies, speaks ill of his friend behind his back, and betrays his interest. A fine gentleman that has neither honesty, nor honour, conscience, nor manners, good nature, nor civil hypocrisy. Fine, only in the insignificancy of life, the abuse of religion and the scandals of conversation. These worshipful things are the poets favourites: they appear at the head of the fashion; and shine in character, and equipage. If there is any sense stirring, they must have it, though the rest of the stage suffer never so much by the partiality. And what can be the meaning of this wretched distribution of honour? Is it not to give credit and countenance to vice, and to shame young people out of all pretences to conscience, and regularity? They seem forced to turn lewd in their own defence: they can’t otherwise justify themselves to the fashion, not keep up the character of gentlemen: thus people not well furnished with thought, and experience, are debauched both in practice and principle. And thus religion grows uncreditable, and passes for ill education. The stage seldom gives quarter to any thing that’s serviceable or significant, but persecutes worth, and goodness under every appearance. He that would be safe from their satire must take care to disguise himself in vice, and hang out the colours of debauchery. How often is learning, industry, and frugality, ridiculed in comedy? The rich citizens are often misers, and cuckolds, and the universities, schools of pedantry upon this score. In short; libertinism and profaness, dressing, idleness, and gallantry, are the only valuable qualities. As if people were not apt enough of themselves to be lazy, lewd, and extravagant, unless they were pricked forward, and provoked by glory, and reputation. Thus the marks of honour, and infamy are misapplied, and the ideas of virtue and vice confounded. This monstrousness goes for proportion, and the blemishes of human nature, make up the beauties of it.
 The fine ladies are of the same cut as the gentlemen…

And after all the jest on it is, these men would make us believe their design is virtue and reformation. In good time! They are likely to combat vice with success, who destroy the principles of good and evil! Take them at their best, and they do no more than expose a little humour, and formality. But then, as the matter is managed, the correction is much worse than the fault. they laugh at pedantry, and teach atheism, cure a pimple, and give the plague. I heartily wish they would have let us alone. to exchange virtue for behaviour is a hard bargain. Is not plain honesty much better than hypocrisy well dressed? What’s sight good for without substance? What is a well bred libertine but a well bred knave? One that can’t prefer conscience to pleasure, without calling himself fool: and will sell his friend, or his father, if need be, for his convenience.
 In short: nothing can be more disserviceable to probity and religion, than the management of the stage. It cherishes those passions, and rewards those vices, which it is the business of reason to discountenance. It strikes at the root of principle, draws off the inclinations from virtue, and spoils good education; it is the most effectual means to baffle the force of discipline, to emasculate people’s spirits, and debauch their manners. How many of the unwary have these sirens devoured? And how often has the best blood been tainted, with this infection? What disappointment of parents, what confusion in families, and what beggary in estates have been hence occasioned? And which is still worse, the mischief spreads daily, and the malignity grows more envenomed.

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This page by Stephen Bending
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