The Perfumed and Gilded Lust of Her Theaters: A Sermon from 1893

11:49 AM

In April of 1893, Rev. Dr. Frank Crane of the First Methodist Episcopol Church rose before his congregation and offered an astonishing, fire-and-brimstone tour or moral turpitude in Omaha. He castigated the city’s abundance sources of vice, including Omaha’s then-booming red light district, called the Burnt District, and drink, which Omahans always enjoyed in abundance..

But he took a dazzling, almost expressionist rhetorical turn at the world of theater. He allowed that there might be some good in it – he especially singled out Edwin Booth, a sensational American actor who once saved Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert, from getting hit by a train. Alas, this act of heroism was literally overshot by the actions of Booth’s brother, John Wilkes, who murdered Lincoln.

But Dr. Crane argues that good examples of theater only serve to camouflage the moral corruption underneath. He is especially appalled by a production of “Cleopatra” by the playwright Sardon which, as far as I can tell, never made it to Omaha, although his play “Fedora” had played at Boyd’s Opera House in 1887. In fact, Dr. Crane all but admits he has never seen any of these plays, but is instead basing his impression on their posters.

As we have seen, and will continue to see, the world of early Omaha theater was indeed beset with vice. It may not have matched Dr. Crane’s swirling, delirious fantasia, but then, what could? One wishes that local theaters had treated Dr. Crane’s words the way they would a pull quote from a drama critic and added the text to their despised posters. One play might boast “The feature is moral uncleanness!”, while another might claim that their play “is the apish attempt of society to foist on the American people the manners of the French.” I know I would want to see these plays. Nothing sells boffo box office like a whiff of moral repulsion.

Without further ado, here are Dr. Crane’s words. I have added in paragraph breaks, as he didn’t seem to consider them necessary, but otherwise the text is as he wrote it:

There are some institutions of society that are storm centers of impurity. They are all the worse because respectable people approve of them.

Take, for instance, the theater. I am not inclined to hurl diatribes at the stage. I am as fully aware as any one that the influence of some actors and plays is uplifting. No one but a bigot could accuse Jefferson or Booth, “The Old Homestead” or “Hamlet,” of an immoral tendency.

But herein is the difficultly. There are just enough of these irreproachable plays and actors to furnish a shield to hold up whenever the pruriency of the stage is attacked. As well as you know some plays are good as well you know that these are in the painful minority.

One does not have to go to them to tell that. If the billboards are any evidence of what is exhibited inside there can be but one attractive feature for the majority of plays to which the theatergoing public is drawn, and the feature is moral uncleanness.

Allowing the full justice to the merits of the stage, to its possibilities, it still remains a fact that our best people countenance moral abominations there to the very edge of disgust. What possible inducement can there be to a woman, especially a girl of refined tastes, to go to a play where the chief attraction is a woman whose nudity is clothed only in transparency?

You may say it is art or style or anything else. You may cover yourself with theater-bare retort, “Evil to him who evil thinks.” But you and I know and God knows that there is but one reason why people are attracted to and pleased by a play such as that of Camille, where the most brazen and acknowledged of prostitutes poses for the sympathy of men, or Sardon’s Cleopatra where the shimmer of gauze discloses what is not wished to be concealed, and classic literature and history are the excuse for surrounding a half-nude form with voluptuous scenery; or any of those plays whose glory is the ballet.

Society is doing its best to make such things pass. It is attending them with mothers and daughters. It is declaring that this is cultivated life. It is the apish attempt of society to foist on the American people the manners of the French. If to be cultured means to love those rank scenes I shall delight to be called a boor.

You may dress it up and blow the trumpets of fashion before it, and flash electric light upon it, and take the elite all to see it, but in the name of sound common sense and good, old fashioned manliness and womanliness, I declare unto you that the perfumed and gilded lust of her theaters is doing more to debauch the taste of Omaha than all the denizens of the burnt district twice over.

I do not speak in the name of prudery, nor of fanaticism, not of religious bigotry, but in the name of the sweet girl you love and would make your wife, my boy; in the name of the gentle mother who sits among her children awaiting your return home, my brother; in the name of good old American decency and sweetness.

There are some codfish aristocracy among us who will not be satisfied until they have foisted all the loose habits and customs of the rotten crust of Europe upon us. I appeal to the great, strong, sensible heart of the public; how can the theater as it is today have any other effect than to dull the fineness of your respect for women, teach your wives and sweethearts familiarity with the ways of the French demi-monde and altogether be the pet breeding ground of the bacteria of moral impurity?

Oh don’t you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt,
Sweet Alice, so good and so true.

If you do, Ben, stay away from the theater.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.