Sunday Theatres

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 2, 1910

“Ethical And Moral Plays”

 Charles Frohman, a manager of travelling theatrical troupes, has lately come forward with the proposal that the theatres of our large cities be thrown open on Sundays for the performance of “ethical and moral plays.” Just what difference there may be between an ethical play and a moral one Frohman does not explain, and neither does the New York Dramatic Mirror, which quotes him with applause, but the thing he is driving at is, perhaps, plain enough. What he wants to do, in brief, is to revive the ancient morality play. If sinners won’t give ear to sermons preached from the pulpit, then let us try them with sermons preached from the stage. That plan was employed with great success in the Middle Ages.

It is Frohman’s argument that, in the large cities at least, the churches have demonstrated their inability to hold the interest of the majority of folk, even for one day a week. In the average American town of more than 25,000 population not more than 40 per cent of the inhabitants are regular attendants at religious services, and most of these confine themselves to one visit to church on Sunday. The result is that the devil has to find work for the idle. He performs his duty, as we all know, with characteristic assiduity and good will. There is more drinking on Sunday, in the average large city, than on any other day of the week, saving only Saturday. It is the big day, during the summer, at all of the suburban resorts and particularly at “wet” ones; and during the winter all saloons with side doors do a land-office business. Other forms of vice also flourish on the Sabbath, as everyone familiar with the darker side of city life is well aware.

To Revive The Morality

Why not try to save the American people from Sunday ennui and debauch? Why not reach out for those who refuse, despite the best efforts of the churches, to devote any considerable part of the day to devotional exercises? Why not enlist their interest in plays which point to better things, and so inoculate them, perhaps against their will, with the ethical ideals they seem disinclined to take from the pulpit? Such seems to be the notion at the bottom of Frohman’s proposal. He is sternly against Sunday farces, musical comedies and burlesque shows, and even against Sunday melodramas, but he believes that enough sober and uplifting dramas are being written to provide a varied and interesting Sabbatical repertoire. He projects, in brief, a revival of the hortatory function of the stage—a function in abeyance for 300 years.

The trouble with this plan is that it takes no account whatever of popular taste. If it were true that a thirst for ethical teaching or discussion inflamed the majority of folk, it must be plain that they would be more regular patrons of the ethical teachers who now bid for their attention—to wit, the reverend clergy. The fact that they stay away from church today must be taken as an indication that they are disinclined to hear preaching, and that disinclination, it is obvious, would work against the success of the “ethical and moral” theatre just as effectively as it now works against the larger usefulness of the churches. It is difficult, in a word, to charm by homiletics when the public yearning is for amusement. The average man, when the mood for relaxation is upon him, considers the science of ethics the most forbidding thing imaginable. And unfortunately enough, that mood is often upon him on Sundays.

But truth lingers, after all, in the plea that there is room for a radical reform in Sunday diversions. Under the laws now in force in Baltimore, for example, practically all normal recreations are prohibited on the Sabbath. The result is that one part of the population (and no inconsiderable part, at that) falls into the habit of chronic law-breaking, while another part languishes in painful boredom. The typical Baltimorean of the first class spends the day at penuchle or devotes himself to outlaw baseball in the suburbs or to the invasion of hospitable side doors. The typical Baltimorean of the second class visits his relatives or potters about the house or yields himself to the somnolence in the air.

Baltimore On Sunday

Few Americans would welcome the so-called Continental Sabbath, with its exhausting diversions and attendant labor. Even on the Continent it has begun to fall into disfavor. But it should be possible all the same to make our Sabbath just a bit less depressing. The stranger who is forced to remain in Baltimore over Sunday is a man sincerely to be pitied. There is nothing whatever for him to do. The theatres are dark; there are no sports; the fiddles are stilled in the concert halls; all libraries save one are closed, and that one is open but a few hours. He walks about the quiet streets for an hour and devotes another to the yellow journals. Then he goes to sleep. When he arises Monday morning it is with the firm determination to spend no more Sundays in Baltimore. New York is but four hours away, and in New York, at least, it is not a crime to hear Beethoven on Sunday afternoon.

One of the Jameses of England, faring through Lancashire, found the magistrates enforcing home-made blue laws of the Baltimore pattern. The good king was ill pleased. “By what right,” he demanded of them, “are you prohibiting and unlawfully punishing our good people for using their lawful recreations and honest exercise upon Sundayes and other Holy Dayes, after the afternoon Sermon?” The magistrates, in their defense, argued that Sunday should be a day of solemnity and gloom, but the king would not hear them. “He prudently considered that, if their Pastimes were taken from His people, the meaner sort, who labor hard all the week, should have no Recreations at all to refresh their Spirits. In place thereof they do set up filthy Tipplings and Drunkennesse, which breeds a number of idle and discontented speeches in their Ale-houses. For when shall the Common People have leave to exercise, if not upon Sundales and Holy Dales, seeing they must apply their Labor and win their living in all working daies?”

Enactment promptly followed preamble. It was ordained that all honest and harmless sports, and particularly “Dauncing, whether men or women; Archery for men, leaping, vaulting or any other such Recreation; May games, Whitsun Ales and Morris Daunces, and the setting up of May poles” should be forever lawful on Sundays. O wise King! The English people became merry once more—merry, but not vicious! Would that our latter-day moralists might learn the difference between innocent recreation and vice.

(Source: University of North Texas microfilm collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.