23 AUGUST 1856, Page 13


WEEN, a few weeks ago, we published a short paper drawing at- tention to the laxity of morals and degradation of taste indicated • by the production of the opera La Traviata at Her Majesty's Theatre, and its continued popularity throughout the season with that fashionable audience, largely composed of the ladies of the highest English society, we studied to avoid exaggeration of the scandal, or any vehemence of language that might give unneces- sary and unmerited pain to the parties concerned in the transac- tion we were censuring. Indeed, the blame belongs in pretty equal degrees to the dramatist, the composer, the performers, the manager, the audience, the press, and the general English publio. If the patrons of the opera were nice in their appreciation of the morals of art, managers and actors would be more scrupulous. If the press did not too often forget to censure, or even abstain from welcoming with enthusiastic praise, displays of histrionic and lyrical talent by which propriety is violat4 the patrons of the opera would be awakened to a sense of their public responsibility as influential directors of the most refined amusement of English society. And if the general public were sufficiently alive to the importance of preserving a genial and healthy tone in literature and art, the social amusements of the aristocracy would not long, in our age, be an exception to the pervading national spirit and culture. In recurring to the subject, we have no intention of fixing opprobrium on any particular person or sets of persons, but

simply to offer some remarks upon the leading principles which have been urged in various quarters since the publication of our paper, as justifying or palliating the exhibition of the opera in question, and which appear to us to betray the prevalence of very serious errors on a by no means unimportant branch of public morals.

It has been said that the stage is the mirror of life ; that there- fore no feature of life can be excluded from the stage • and that the class of women to which the heroine of Traviata belongs is a large and characteristic class of modern society, without a know- ledge of whom much that goes on in society would be unin- telligible. The large claim thus asserted for the licence of the theatre obviously requires some limitation. There are hideous diseases of society, exceptional degradation on the part of in- dividual members of society, which the imagination cannot even contemplate without taint. It is necessary that such foul possi- bilities of human nature should be known in order that they may be guarded against and extirpated. A sense of practical duty will carry a man into regions of life which revolt all his sensibilities, and will bring him out of them wiser and sadder : the minister of religion, the physician, and the statesman, may explore the plague-spots of humanity, upheld and shielded by their lofty and generous purpose. But who can think without a shook of asso- ciating such scenes and characters with the amusements of our leisure hours ; of bringing them into connexion with music and singing and acting—with the brilliant decorations of thee

the joyous and festive charm of polished society—of beautiful young women and accomplished men assembled to spend the even-

ing in pleasure and excitement ? If any one disputes whether prostitution is among these hideous blots upon our civilization which are not to be associated with our amusements—on which, when we look, it should be as upon something that disgraces us and demands to be remedied—we leave him to his opinion. Or if he thinks that the remedy is to be found in familiarizing the minds of virtuous young women with the career and character of abandoned women, not as a subject of pity and terror, but in- vested with all the fascinations that the charming and talented actress who played Violetta threw round the character, we con- fidently appeal against him to the instinctive good sense and right feeling of women upon such a subject—to the English ladies when their reflection has returned to them, and they are no longer under the spell of Piccolomini or the contagious influence of an excited crowd.

We can give as little weight to the plea that, though Traviata is avowedly founded upon a licentious novel, and though the cha- racter of the heroine is undisguisedly that of a courtesan, yet the opera is not either indelicate or licentious. The recklessness of all decency which allows a playwright to choose his heroine from a notorious novel of the worst character, though by the necessities of public opinion in this country he is compelled to throw a veil over her licentiousness, appears to us by itself reprehensible. And we deny that a play which presents to the audience a courtesan in

the midst of her impure career, invested with all the grace and fascination which engaging manners, a charming person, and a

birdlike voice, lent to the Violetta of the opera, can be pro-

nounced free /tem that most dangerous licentiousness which con- sists not in indecent expressions or indecent actions, but in exhi- biting vice with all its hideous repulsiveness carefully eliminated or thrown into the background, while its ordinary allurements are heightened by elaborate art and quite exceptional attractions are liberally expended upon it.

An analogy has been attempted to be established between works of fiction of acknowledged excellence and good moral tendency and this opera. We confess ourselves unable to perceive in what respects La Traviata can be compared, except by way of complete contrast, to Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield, which Mr. Lumley brings to his support. But, apart from the justness of this par- ticular comparison, we contend that a very much wider range is permitted to novels intended to be read than to plays intended to be acted. We have no partiality for the morbid anatomy of vice even in books of fiction ; and the class of novels for which young Dumas has become notorious are not works we should wish to find in a gentleman's library, much less on a lady's drawingroom-

table. But the complete realization of a scene presented by 'skil- ful actors on a modern stage exerts far greater power over the

sympathies of an audience, rendered excitable by all the accom- paniments of theatrical illusion, and by the contagion of a crowd all sharing the same emotion, than the most powerful writer can exert over his solitary reader. Moreover, whatever is pleasant and alluring in vice can be exhibited on ihe stage with full and even exaggerated effect, while the consequences of vice, the moral by the light of which a profligate career may be studied by properly trained persons with profit, must of necessity be deprived of most of their sting in real life before they can be presented to the audience at a theatre. The poison is administered with con-

centrated virulence ; the antidote must be carefully diluted ; and in this very opera of Traviata, the heroine's penalty for her life of profligacy is, to be prevented from marrying the man she is attached to,—a misfortune the young ladies who fill the boxes of the London Operahouse must be very familiar with ; for to repre- sent death by consumption to an English audience as any parti- cular consequence of a dissipated career, is to give the he to the common experience. The contrary of all this is true in re- spect to a book. The fascination of immoral pleasure is not so piquantly felt by the reader ; and the writer, from the fainter realization he is able to attain, as well as from many other causes,

is not under the same necessity of throwing a veil over the stern moral of vice ' • while he can in his own person indicate the lesson, so far as he shrinks from directly presenting it in narrative or drama. For these reasons, we would not impose upon literature precisely the same limits that are binding upon stage representa- tions ; though we do not approve of seeking the main element of literary interest in the brothels, because by a miracle instances of a certain sort of goodness and disinterested affection may occa- sionally be found there.

We come to an argument that, if we could believe it was honestly urged, would merit and receive all respect. The exhi- bition of La Trariata has been defended on the ground that women of the heroine's class are not deserving of the harsh feel- ings and harsh treatment they generally meet with from those of their own sex who have not fallen ; and that the representation on the stage of the character and story of Violetta is calculated, and was designed by the manager of the Operahouse, to induce gentler feelings and more practical benevolence towards their outcast sisters in the minds and conduct of the female, portion of the audience. With the manager's motives he is best acquainted ; but what concerns the public is the actual tendency of the repre- sentation. It is, we trust, needless for us to express our entire concurrence in the sentiment, that however low women have fallen, they are not outcasts from pity and sympathy, and such practical aid as experience shows is needed to reclaim them from their vice and misery. But we doubt—or rather we emphatically deny—that opera representations of interesting prostitutes as the heroines of romantic dramas are the properest or likely means of exciting the right kind of sympathy and practical encouragement towards fallen women. In the first place, Violetta is the object of admiration rather than of pity, least of all of that pity founded on stern disapproval of her vices, which is the true feeling of practical benevolence towards women of her class. A young lady of weak principle and fully-developed vanity is much more likely to envy the grace, gayety, and fascination of the triumphant lorette—and, as Alphonse Barr says of the Parisian ladies, jealous of the homage paid to certain notorious living actresses, 10s'en- nuyer de son metier de femme du monde "—than than to learn a wise thankfulness for having been herself freed from all outward temptation to a life of vice, and a wise humanity towards women less fortunate in this respect than herself. And in women whose principles are firmly rooted, the predominant feeling excited by the opera must be admiring sympathy with the heroine, without the slightest mixture of abhorrence at her vice except what an English lady would in almost all cases bring with her to the opera, for certainly no such feeling could be produced by the performance of Mademoiselle Piecolomuu. And m the next place, so far as the sympathies excited by the opera act at all upon practical life, this representation would give an entirely false notion of the actual character and condition of the class to which Violetta belongs, but of which she is not a repre- sentative. A lady who was inspired by seeing Piccolomini in La Traviata to attempt to evoke and foster the spark of good that lurks in the hearts of fallen, women, would only be the more dis- gusted at the startling contrast between the stage heroine and the prostitute of actual life. And such would ever be the result upon practical experience of the artistic presentation of those excep- tional moral anomalies which are such favourite subjects with a certain class of modern writers of fiction. So far as they influ- ence the practice at all, it is to make ordinary experience un- palatable, to direct sympathy wrongly, to invest vice with a ro- mantic interest, and to divert attention from the stern truths exemplified in the ordinary and regular operation of the moral laws of society. Such cases are dangerous even when treated in books by writers of profound love for truth and profound re- verence for goodness ; but in books exceptions can be treated as exceptions, and their causes explained. The necessities of the stage allow of no such explanation ; and the audience of theatri cal representations is neither the sort of audience nor in the mood of mind to give weight to such modifying circum- stances as the writer of a play can bring before them. In the opera of Traviata all that the spectators see is that a life of pro- fligacy is consistent with the attractions and the qualities most admired in women : if the heroine is thwarted in her marriage by the prejudices of society, it is what happens within their own experience every season ; and if she dies of consumption, it is a fate from which the loveliest and purest of themselves is not exempt. The lesson that lies plain and palpable on the surface is the lesson that a theatrical audience imbibes ; the atmosphere is not favourable to reflection and subtile moral distinctions ; and an opera which on the face of it confounds or weakens the dis- tinction between right and wrong, and teaches the young ladies of English society that a woman may be a prostitute and yet retain all the charms and all the graces of heart and mind which dis- tinguish virtuous women, cannot compensate for the mischief it must do by the faint chance of its awakening true charity in the hearts of those in whom the New Testament and the Prayer-book have failed to arouse any such feeling. When we formerly touched upon this subject, we did not Think it necessary to express any opinion of the morality of other operas eommonly performed here ; but as precedent has been urged in defence of La Traviata, we may say that it is the last straw that breaks the camel's back. There comes a crisis in moral declination at which people begin to reflect wherethey are going. La Traviata appears to us to be a stronger trial of the public toleration than any recent instance ; and if the discussion raised upon it have the effect of making persons concerned with opera- management more careful for the future, we are not very nice about reconciling newborn purity with past corruption. We claim for the most refined amusement of society a divorce from the foulest vices of that society ; we claim for English ladies that they shall not under the mask of music be habituated to a licentious literature from which they would shrink with horror in its undis- guised form; we claim for music itself, and for art in general, a nobler inspiration than can be caught from the regions of sensual profligacy and moral degradation ; we claim in the name of the nation that the theatre which is the especial resort of the aris- tocracy, and which bears the sanction of the Queen's name, should set an example of refinement and purity to all other theatres of this metropolis. No human power can prevent the private vices of individuals, or the existence of degraded classes who live and trade on those vices ; but there is the widest difference between the private practice of vice and its public sanction; and if the homage which vice pays to virtue be called hypocrisy, may it be long before the English nation ceases to be hypocritical, and. to maintain a standard which shall be higher not merely than the vices but than the commonplace virtues of society.