James Fraser (d. 1885) had a novel idea: redeem the theatre. He saw that it portrayed ideas, displayed unwholesomeness, and evoked responses contrary to modesty, dignity, and purity. He was not alone in this sentiment. Clergy widely, strongly, and vocally opposed the theatre. However, church-goers were still attending, enjoying, and even being employed by it.
Fraser envisioned the theatre being used for good, so that it would positively influence audiences and also be a legitimate form of amusement for Christians—one that was dignified, modest, and not degrading. In his opinion, it was futile to exhort Christians to avoid the theatre altogether, because it was a popular form of amusement and he believed Christianity could effect a positive change in and through it. Therefore, redeeming the theatre was the ticket.
As the second Bishop of Manchester, Fraser was in a position to try to persuade those inside and outside the church that his idea was valid and that change was possible. He was well-liked and respected, even by Nonconformists. He was firm in his beliefs and convictions, but not dogmatic, and an advisor and peacemaker on issues outside of the church, such as labor disputes. However, in nineteenth-century England, his redeeming-the-theatre idea was radical.
The fathers of the early Church were very severe in their judgment upon stage-players—the old fathers of an ascetic turn of mind, like Tertullian and Cyprian, denounced stage plays and stage-players in all forms of the most vehement language, and the early canons of the Church refused Baptism and even Holy Communion to actors until they had renounced their trade. I admit there was a difference. The theatre in the early days of the Church was utterly corrupt and degraded. Any one who has read the picture of manners to be found in the pages of Juvenal, and in those of later writers …can easily understand how men of earnest and somewhat over-stern minds would feel, that those who could lend themselves to such degrading exhibitions as were to be witnessed in the Roman theatres and amphitheatres could have no claim, no part nor lot, in the blessed work which Christ did for the world….
Fraser went on to explain his proposal.
I think that somehow or other Christianity should penetrate into the theatre. I remember how, in the old tale in the old book, the wandering tribes of Israel in the sandy deserts of Arabia, perishing for lack of water and grievously afflicted with thirst, came to a fountain where they hoped to slake their thirst, but found the waters bitter and well-nigh poisonous, and how Moses, taught by God, bade them cut down some wood that fortunately was close by and throw it into the bitter fountain, and the waters then became sweet and wholesome. The old interpreters said that the wood typified the Cross of Christ, which alone could sweeten the bitter waters of life and make them wholesome to those who drank of them. So I think that somehow or other the power of the Cross of Christ ought to be able to reach within the walls of the theatre….
I should be quite content if the wholesome and sound moral influence of Christianity, which makes us know and feel the value of purity and modesty in word and deed, and gesture and conduct…could be found always to be the ruling principle of the Theatre Royal, Manchester, and of every theatre, whether royal or not, in the land….
I do not want to abolish the theatre; I want to purify it. I want to make it a great instrument for providing healthful and harmless recreation to those who would always be seeking recreation…. We may preach until doomsday, but as long as God has given men the faculty of laughter and amusement…they are sure to go in search of amusement, and of various forms of amusement; and I am not one of those who wish the theatre doors closed—I wish to see them open that they may present to those who go into them things that are lovely, and beautiful, and praiseworthy, and of good report…. I therefore say that the stage need not necessarily be degrading to any one, and that it may be animated and pervaded by high and worthy motives….
But we are still His Majesty’s servants, only the King whom we serve is not the King who lives in Windsor Castle or the Queen who holds drawing-rooms at Buckingham Palace, but the great King whom we have been singing about. He came into this world to redeem us and to sanctify every lawful path, and I will not say that the actor’s path is unlawful…. I hope there will enter into theatres a spirit of higher morality, and that all will feel that the great principles of purity and modesty ought never to be compromised…. all our great cities are multiplying places of dangerous amusement which to a very great extent are corrupting old and young, and therefore I want to see what I would call legitimate places of amusement which shall stand like breakwaters amongst the surging waters of vice. (p. 78-82)
Seventy-five years prior to Bishop Fraser’s address, a similar sentiment was expressed by Rev. John Clowes of Manchester. In The Life and Correspondence of John Clowes, we read that he believed theatres could “be made a means of encouraging moral virtue and discouraging vice, if not of promoting the cause of religion” (p. 115). However, Clowes did not put forth the concerted effort that Bishop Fraser did three quarters of a century later.
Unsurprisingly, Bishop Fraser received numerous letters in response to his idea. Some of these letters appear in Diggle’s biography. In one follow-up correspondence Fraser wrote, “Paul bids the Philippians ‘rejoice,’ and I am not one of those who hold that, to be religious, you must be gloomy, or forswear anything that is good and lovely in the world” (p. 87). To another he wrote, “I want to see the theatre purified. It is useless to denounce it; that is only beating the air” (p. 88).
Many responded to his plea with delight, pleasure, and support. One theatre manager took Bishop Fraser by the hand and said, “Ah, you have spoken kindly to us; if all bishops would do the same, perhaps we should be better than we are” (p. 88). An actor wrote to Bishop Fraser, “I cannot help thinking that much of the decline of the stage is due to the ‘snubbing’ many of us get because we are actors.” This actor also believed that Bishop Fraser’s efforts would “break down prejudices” and “cheer actors in their efforts to improve the tone of their profession” (p. 86).
A year later, the Dramatic Reformation Association of Manchester was organized which aimed to reform the theatre and the theatre’s audience. About eight months after Bishop Fraser’s public plea in Manchester, Stewart Headlam, a Curate in London, gave a lecture titled “Theatres & Music Halls” in which he asserted “the essential dignity of the Theatrical Profession” and claimed the theatre was extremely useful for Christians and all of society. Shortly afterward, Headlam received a letter from the Bishop of London expressing thoughts that he had erred in admitting him to the ministry. Headlam was subsequently relieved of his Curacy, so in 1879 he organized the Church and Stage Guild to combat what he thought were “unchristian prejudices” against the theatre.
Discussion on the topic of theatre reform in Manchester in 1880 is recorded in Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science. Rev. F. C. Woodhouse said that “drama was a mighty power for good…. If the devil ought not to have all the good tunes, why should he have all the popular amusements?” Woodhouse viewed the theatre as having an “advantage over the pulpit” because “it employed the eyes as well as the ears.” Hermann Vezin said, “The theatre is neither moral nor immoral. For want of a better word let us call it neutral.” Rev. William Vincent said, “Where many a sermon failed to do its desired work a scene on the stage would do it. The drama was intended to be a good work of God, and not a work of the devil.” Rev. J Freeston said, “if the drama was a moral power religious teachers could not afford to neglect it” (p. 759-768).
A movement of sorts was taking place. Ministers were becoming less antagonistic and more accepting of the theatre. Theatre workers and attendees were cheered by this change in sentiment. However, the theatre did not change; it had not been redeemed as Bishop Fraser, and John Cowles before him, had hoped. Shortly before Bishop Fraser died in 1885, he confessed “that he had been sadly disappointed in his efforts” to purify the theatre. Thomas Hughes, a friend and biographer of Bishop Fraser, revealed this confession in the Forum in 1896.
Although no reform in the theatre had occurred, reform of a different kind did take place. In Hughes’ article “The Stage from a Clergyman’s Standpoint” he wrote, “Forty years ago the pulpit very strongly condemned the stage…. The whole trend of the pulpit was against the stage…. But a remarkable change has taken place in the attitude of Christian preachers toward the stage.” This change was “very slow although very perceptible” as “the theatre has gradually been tolerated by religious teachers.” Hughes deduced, “Very much of this change of feeling, I think, must be attributed to the action taken by the late Bishop Fraser, of Manchester, England, who, twenty-five years ago, attempted to reform the stage.” Richard Foulkes, in Church and Stage in Victorian England, agrees with Hughes’ deduction (p. 68).
Hughes admitted that the push to redeem the theatre succeeded in changing attitudes about the theatre without actually redeeming it. Hughes observed that formerly if clergy “had been seen within the walls of a theatre, their ministerial popularity would have been extinguished…. Now, clergymen are frequently seen in New York theatres, and no apology for their presence is demanded” even though the theatre had not been redeemed. The intent was to redeem the theatre, but the end result was a changed attitude about the theatre, not a changed theatre.
* In The Lancashire Life, the speech is recorded as a single paragraph. It is broken up here for easier reading.