This past Sunday, Barry Gaines, UNM Professor Emeritus, delivered a prelude to the production of Macbeth that would occupy our stage that afternoon. He reminded me of an historical fact that lived just outside the perimeter of my awareness: 26 years after the death of Shakespeare — perhaps the world’s greatest dramatist — England closed all its theaters, a move led by the Puritans of the day.
A few decades earlier, Elizabethan England supported several companies performing the works of Shakespeare and other great dramatists. Theaters were considered by many as great places to explore new ideas, and to witness history and tradition.
Others at that time considered theaters dens of iniquity. Theaters were built outside the city’s jurisdiction; so were the houses of ill repute. Theaters and bawdy houses became neighbors. To some degree, theaters suffered from the reputations of their neighborhood.
Puritans had no love of theaters, regardless of their environs. Actors were considered liars (what else is acting but a form of deceit?) and promoters of infidelity, both to God and family. Certainly they feared that decent people would be lured away from church and the teachings of the Bible.
There is at least a kernel of truth in their arguments, of course. They understood and feared the persuasive power of theater. Now we can prove they had good reason to do so. Researchers in the last half-century have found that TV and radio (kissing cousins to the narrative art form staged in theaters) can have an affect on our behaviors.
A new study published less than a month ago by Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts now concludes that musical theater has the power to change people’s attitude, in this case specifically about hunting.
The American Folklore Theater in Wisconsin staged an original musical called Guys & Does, which puts an ethical hunter at the center of a story that brings forth the ancient and noble roots of hunting. By the end of the evening, researchers recorded a substantial shift in attitude: more of the audience held a more favorable attitude toward hunting after the show than before seeing it. The study concluded that musical theater bore investigation as a method of education. (Perhaps Professor Gaines should have been signing and dancing to teach us about Shakespeare and Macbeth.)
There were other considerations for closing English theaters in 1642, of course. A civil war and constant recurrences of The Plague were significant obstacles to any form of social revelry, but closing down a chief “rival” of the word of the church was objective enough for Puritans.
What they knew without benefit of scientific studies has been borne out many times in history. South Pacific, first performed in 1949 and now regarded as a safely conservative choice on anyone’s season, was considered by conservatives of the day an anti-American show because it advocated equality among races. La Cage aux Folles, which first opened on Broadway in 1983, leads us to empathize with the homosexual couple at the center of the comedy.
Most interesting to me is that neither the Puritans nor the researchers found any substantiation that theater supports many beliefs already held. Theater doesn’t often seem to affirm conventional wisdom. Theater apparently challenges us: to feel, to empathize, to think. Personally, I believe that makes work in the theater a very noble profession.
Terry S. Davis
Photo: Professor Barry Gaines speaks to Popejoy patrons before the production of Macbeth this past Sunday.