The Illegitimate Theater

The Antitheatrical Prejudice

by Jonas Barish
University of California Press, 499 pp., $24.50

The subject of Jonas Barish’s large book is what he calls “antitheatricality”—a state of mind that ranges from a cold dislike of the stage to a furious desire to burn every theater to the ground and dispatch all actors to the flaming underworld. “These pages… propose no polemical thesis,” Professor Barish writes, but the fact that not a single antitheatrical writer from Plato to Yvor Winters is allowed to express himself without being taken apart by Professor Barish gives a polemical flavor to every page of the book. The author half admits this when he says in his peculiar prose: “Sometimes I have temerariously engaged in debate with authors dangerous to disagree with.”

The usefulness of the professor’s book lies in his classification of objections to the theater. By way of these objections, he shows clearly the ways in which morality varies according to the culture from which it comes and makes this truism seem new by staging it, so to speak, instead of confining it to prose. When he speaks of the theater he almost always means the actors in it—they having drawn the fire, he believes, of all antitheatricalists from time immemorial—and thus has the advantage over other academic writers of a subject that is like an echo of his own words.

When Plato objects to the theater and refuses to include it in his dismal Republic, his reasons are ones that seem very strange today. They rest on his belief that there was once a world in which every man was a very decent chap, wedded, one can only suppose, to a jolly virtuous girl—all very P.G. Wodehouse but without a Jeeves. Only the basic necessities of life were demanded then, and pleasure was not one of them. But time passed, and people began to feel that a bit of fun, even gaiety, couldn’t do them any harm; so before long there was a drift toward “hunters, painters, musicians, poets, recitants, players, dancers, barbers, dressmakers, swineherds….” Even types known as “soldiers” appeared on the scene—warfare’s pros, replacing the stalwart hams of a citizens’ corps.

All such would be forbidden in tomorrow’s Utopia. The prime sin of most of them is make-believe, by way of uniforms, dresses, hairdos, false excitement, and antisocial fantasies. It is thanks to such persons that even the gods have come to seem degenerate, bursting into loud laughter, getting tight, wearing disguises, castrating father, and dining off baby. Should such things be taught to kids? God forbid! Imitation is a mighty power for good or bad, and censorship will see to it that only the very best is open to imitation.

Plato’s Republic has always seemed more like a subject for black comedy than solemn reflection; and though Professor Barish is not like God—who can discuss anything without laughing—he keeps his pen under decent control. What he might well have provided is a fuller picture of the Greek theater and …

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Letters

On Stage May 13, 1982