An Apology for Actors
Not the one written by Thomas Heywood, but an apocryphal apology for actors and theatre, in the context of a conversation on 16th-century London, put in Shakespeare's mouth by Christopher Rush, in his novel Will (2007).
Whores and actors are not so far apart—both faking it for cash, and both die and rise again. But the Puritans accepted the whores as they could never accept the actors. Whores descended from Eve, theology sound as Genesis. The prostitue was easy to understand and to embrace. She was recognizable—her feet go down to death, her steps take hold on hell, her cunt is a cauldron of unholy lusts, and there is no whore without Eve. No Eve, no sin; no sin, no damnation; no damnation, no redemption—no Christ, no Church, no Pope. And no Pope, no Reformation, no Puritan to oppose the Great Whore herself, Babylon the great. The whores of London, kept the Puritan in his post, gave him his living. The Puritan could not exist without the whore. Whoredom was as needful to his church as it was to fallen man, fornicating his life away in London.
'And the players?'
With the players it was the contrary. Actors descend from neither Adam nor Eve but from Satan, who came onto the world's stage disguised as a serpent. It was the first costume and the devil the original actor, and a good one too. His tongue dropped honey and Eve was taken in. She fell down and worshipped him and her suddenly naked navel became the entrance to the theatre. That's why Puritans and players could never live together. Our false idols lined the route to hell—Dick Tarleton, Ned Alleyn, Bill Kempe popular as primroses—and so the player was far more damnable than the whore.
Your whore can take only one man at a time. If a dozen a day go through her she's doing well by doing ill. But a single player, he could command an entire theatre of spectators in one speech. In one world.
'Why, they would hang on him—'
As if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on. One word? I tell you even a word was not necessary. Windy suspiration of forcèd breath, a sweeping gesture, your fingers on your lips I pray, yes, even silence. Even the very thought of silence. To die: to sleep; no more.
And that's how it was done. Nailed them to the ground and galleries and kept them from the pulpits, lured them to the theatres instead, to applaud the actors to the very echo that should applaud again, to wait breathless in the London afternoon for the next word, for the very next syllable. Oh yes, the player could do all this, all this and more. He was the god of the groundlings, idol of the aristocrats. The Puritan, though he played the orator as well as Nestor, could never sermonise an audience into such submission. Even the silver-tongued friar who made the fields his pulpit—the audiences walked over his ghost, trampling him into daisies, and streamed straight into the theatres. Fear had been the weapon up till now. But now seduction was stronger than fear, and seduction was in the air—no, it was in the air, the very air we breathed. And all the Puritan could do was rage.
'Conscience, morality, divine reason?'
It was the theatres that brought men's humanity out of chests and closets and whispering chambers and placed it up on stage, where a handful of poor players, with four or five most vile and ragged foils, right ill disposed in brawl ridiculous, blazoned it to the world. As for right reason, the fear of God, wisdom, understanding, the knowledge of the holy—ah, these are not the stuff as dreams are made on, these are but pale shadoes of people beside the player's ability to be a walking mirror to everyman, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure, to make every spectator in that wooden circle see himself standing up there, standing up in the world for exactly what he is: man, tragical-comical, historical-pastoral, aspiring-despairing, delighted-deluded, in love, in hate, in heaven, in hell, a thing of darkness and of light, a lover, a tyrant, a madman, a poet, a dragon, a worm. So the poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage was rich in that one enormous regard, his ability to see himself and present himself in the round and inside out by a species of sorcery that left the Puritan gaping.
For the player was the man who showed you life as it is, not as it ought to be, who said what he felt, not what he ought to say.
'Truth's a dog must to kennel, I remember from somewhere.'
But a man's occulted guilt can itself unkennel in one speech, and guilty creatures sitting at a play are struck so to the soul that suddenly their spirits are off the leash and barking out the theatre, howling through the world. Did the spectator leave the theatre a purged and purer person? Or did he leave it corrupted? All a player can say is that he sent the theatre-goer out more human than he'd come in—which is the end of art and no bad boast: to make us more ourselves, not less ourselves, as the Puritans would have had it, by plucking us out of the murk and mire of humankind.
Whatever the truth, the Puritan feared the player. And he feared the play, which staged several players, and the playhouse, which put out many plays. Theatres were outposts of hell, Satan's garrisons. Hell was an occupying force in England and its legions were in London, where the traffic of the stage took two thousand to hell in two hours. A frightening figure. Worse—with half a dozen plays running on any given afternoon the theatres were capable of ushering the entire cast of London into hell in ten days flat—which ought to have pleased your Puritan. So many souls bound straight for hell, with damnèd speeches buzzing in their ears, surely all the greater space for the elect and élite of God in their silent white heaven. But that perhaps is what they feared most—being with themselves.
'So you hated them, Will.'
The very name's a lie. Puritan. To the Puritan all things were impure. They could find no good in man, nor any god in man, and they lashed man himself and his eternal companion and corrupter, woman, for all evils. Even the queen was not spared. And puritan Stubbes, who pamphleteered against her, had his offending hand cut off. But in all their accusations they never accused themselves, though within their snow-broth blood there bubbled the same old cauldron of unholy appetites. Your Puritan wants to fuck the thing he fears and then to kill the thing he fucks—or, if he cannot have it, he must kill it to ease his fury. What was he really? At best he was a boil on the bum, spoiling your seat in the theatre: at worst a wild beast in the bowels. The ultimate revenge is to put him in the play, show him sick of self-love and laugh him to scorn—or stop the laughter and make the people hate him for what he is: ambassador of death, killer of laughter, a syphilis in the soul, a negation of all that is human and lovely and of good report.
'And graven images—?'
Are what we want—and what the players give us. We long for imitation. We long to be happy. Only the gods are bored. And the Puritans wanted us to be as gods. So I gave them instead unregenerate man, incapable of their Jesus: the poor wild Bedlam who ate the old rat in the fury of his heart, and the darkness that was Caliban. I gave them not their strait and narrow gateway to God, but the broad primrose way, the playhouse way. For the theatre was the only place in London you could go to outside the ale-house to hear an honest comment on our lives, uncolored by fear of God or the grave. Here the players were indeed the only men. Their theatres were islands of art rising out of the crude sea of corruption that surrounded them on all sides. They were the clear bright bells of London, beating loudly and sweetly over the sodden city.
(Christopher Rush, Will, Beautiful Books, 2007, pp. 200-204).