05 May 2009

Family-friendly theater

In the middle of the front row of the dress circle on the rare occasion of the first performance of an original English play sits a young lady of fifteen. She is a very charming girl—gentle, modest, sensitive—carefully educated and delicately nurtured—very easily flurried and perhaps a little too apt to take alarm when no occasion for alarm exists—but, nevertheless, an excellent specimen of a well-bred young English gentlewoman; and it is with reference to its suitability to the eyes and ears of this young lady that the moral fitness of every original English play is gauged on the occasion of its production. It must contain no allusions that cannot be fully and satisfactorily explained to this young lady; it must contain no incident, no dialogue, that can, by any chance, summon a blush to this young lady’s innocent face.

Well, gentlemen, I have no objection to this young lady. I think, on the contrary, that the presence of this young lady has exercised a most wholesome restrictive influence on the character of our few original plays, and I shall be sorry indeed if the day ever comes when her parents and guardians will find it advisable to prohibit her attendance on the occasions I have described. I look upon her presence at my own “first nights” as a direct and most gratifying personal compliment—the more so, as I happen to know that, on no account whatever, would she be permitted to be present at a première of M. Victorien Sardou or M. Alexandre Dumas.

But when a comparison is instituted between our original English drama, such as it is, and the drama of France, such as that is, I think that the restrictive influence exercised—and most properly and wholesomely exercised—by this admirable girl should be fully, freely, and frankly admitted. And it is a never-ending source of wonder to me that, with the whole gamut of human emotion to play upon; with no restraining influence of any kind whatever; and with the dead certainty that no innocent girl of fifteen will ever run a chance of being affected by their improprieties, the dramatists of France can only ring out threadbare variations of that dirty old theme—the cheated husband, the faithless wife, and the triumphant lover.

(reprinted in The Era, Feb. 21, 1885, p. 14 from a speech by W.S. Gilbert)

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