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Address to the Actors’ Fund of America.
by Robert G. Ingersoll
New York, June 5, 1888.
MR. PRESIDENT, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: I have addressed, or annoyed, a great many audiences in my life and I have not the slightest doubt that I stand now before more ability, a greater variety of talent, and more real genius than I ever addressed in my life.
I know all about respectable stupidity, and I am perfectly acquainted with the brainless wealth and success of this life, and I know, after all, how poor the world would be without that divine thing that we call genius — what a worthless habitation, if you take from it all that genius has given.
I know also that all joy springs from a love of nature. I know that all joy is what I call Pagan. The natural man takes delight in everything that grows, in everything that shines, in everything that enjoys — he has an immense sympathy with the whole human race.
Of that feeling, of that spirit, the drama is born. People must first be in love with life before they can think it worth representing. They must have sympathy with their fellows before they can enter into their feelings and know what their heart throbs about. So, I say, back of the drama is this love of life, this love of nature. And whenever a country becomes prosperous — and this has been pointed out many times — when a wave of wealth runs over a land, — behind it you will see all the sons and daughters of genius. When a man becomes of some account he is worth painting. When by success and prosperity he gets the pose of a victor, the sculptor is inspired; and when love is really in his heart, words burst into blossom and the poet is born. When great virtues appear, when magnificent things are done by heroines and heroes, then the stage is built, and the life of a nation is compressed into a few hours, or — to use the language of the greatest — “turning the accomplishment of many years into an hour-glass”; the stage is born, and we love it because we love life — and he who loves the stage has a kind of double life.
The drama is a crystallization of history, an epitome of the human heart. The past is lived again and again, and we see upon the stage, love, sacrifice, fidelity, courage — all the virtues mingled with all the follies.
And what is the great thing that the stage does? It cultivates the imagination. And let me say now, that the imagination constitutes the great difference between human beings.
The imagination is the mother of pity, the mother of generosity, the mother of every possible virtue. It is by the imagination that you are enabled to put yourself in the place of another. Every dollar that has been paid into your treasury came from an imagination vivid enough to imagine himself or herself lying upon the lonely bed of pain, or as having fallen by the wayside of life, dying alone. It is this imagination that makes the difference in men.
Do you believe that a man would plunge the dagger into the heart of another if he had imagination enough to see him dead — imagination enough to see his widow throw her arms about the corpse and cover his face with sacred tears — imagination enough to see them digging his grave, and to see the funeral and to hear the clods fall upon the coffin and the sobs of those who stood about — do you believe he would commit the crime? Would any man be false who had imagination enough to see the woman that he once loved, in the darkness of night, when the black clouds were floating through the sky hurried by the blast as thoughts and memories were hurrying through her poor brain — if he could see the white flutter of her garment as she leaped to the eternal, blessed sleep of death — do you believe that he would be false to her? I tell you that he would be true.
So that, in my judgment, the great mission of the stage is to cultivate the human imagination. That is the reason fiction has done so much good. Compared with the stupid lies called history, how beautiful are the imagined things with painted wings. Everybody detests a thing that pretends to be true and is not; but when it says, “I am about to create,” then it is beautiful in the proportion that it is artistic, in the proportion that it is a success.
Imagination is the mother of enthusiasm. Imagination fans the little spark into a flame great enough to warm the human race; and enthusiasm is to the mind what spring is to the world.
Now I am going to say a few words because I want to, and because I have the chance.
What is known as “orthodox religion” has always been the enemy of the theater. It has been the enemy of every possible comfort, of every rational joy — that is to say, of amusement. And there is a reason for this. Because, if that religion be true, there should be no amusement. If you believe that in every moment is the peril of eternal pain — do not amuse yourself. Stop the orchestra, ring down the curtain, and be as miserable as you can. That idea puts an infinite responsibility upon the soul — an infinite responsibility — and how can there be any art, how can there be any joy, after that? You might as well pile all the Alps on one unfortunate ant, and then say, “Why don’t you play? Enjoy yourself.”
If that doctrine be true, every one should regard time as a kind of dock, a pier running out into the ocean of eternity, on which you sit on your trunk and wait for the ship of death — solemn, lugubrious, melancholy to the last degree.
And that is why I have said joy is Pagan. It comes from a love of nature, from a love of this world, from a love of this life. According to the idea of some good people, life is a kind of green- room, where you are getting ready for a “play” in some other country.
You all remember the story of “Great Expectations,” and I presume you have all had them. That is another thing about this profession of acting that I like — you do not know how it is coming out — and there is this delightful uncertainty.
You have all read the book called “Great Expectations,” written, in my judgment, by the greatest novelist that ever wrote the English language — the man who created a vast realm of joy. I love the joy-makers — not the solemn, mournful wretches. And when I think of the church asking something of the theater, I remember that story of “Great Expectations.” You remember Miss Haversham — she was to have been married some fifty or sixty years before that time — sitting there in the dankness, in all of her wedding finery, the laces having turned yellow by time, the old wedding cake crumbled, various insects having made it their palatial residence — you remember that she sent for that poor little boy Pip, and when he got there in the midst of all these horrors, she looked at him and said, “Pip, play! And if their doctrine be true, every actor is in that situation.
I have always loved the theater — loved the stage, simply because it has added to the happiness of this life. “Oh but,” they say, “is it moral?” A superstitious man suspects everything that is pleasant. It seems inbred in his nature, and in the nature of most people. You let such a man pull up a little weed and taste it, and if it is sweet and good, he says, “I’ll bet it is poison.” But if it tastes awful, so that his face becomes a mask of disgust, he says, “I’ll bet you that it is good medicine.”
Now, I believe that everything in the world that tends to make man happy, is moral. That is my definition of morality. Anything that bursts into bud and blossom, and bears the fruit of joy, is moral.
Some people expect to make the world good by destroying desire — by a kind of pious petrifaction, feeling that if you do not want anything, you will not want anything bad. In other words, you will be good and moral if you will only stop growing, stop wishing, turn all your energies in the direction of repression, and if from the tree of life you pull every leaf, and then every bud — and if an apple happens to get ripe in spite of you, don’t touch it — snakes!
I insist that happiness is the end — virtue the means — and anything that wipes a tear from the face of man is good. Everything that gives laughter to the world — laughter springing from good nature, that is the most wonderful music that has ever enriched the ears of man. And let me say that nothing can be more immoral than to waste your own life, and sour that of others.
Is the theater moral? I suppose you have had an election to-day. They had an election at the Metropolitan Opera House for bishops, and they voted forged tickets; and after the election was over, I suppose they asked the old question in the same solemn tone: “Is the theater moral?”
At last, all the intelligence of the world admits that the theater is a great, a splendid instrumentality for increasing the well-being of man. But only a few years ago our fathers were poor barbarians. They only wanted the essentials of life, and through nearly all the centuries Genius was a vagabond — Art was a servant. He was the companion of the clown. Writers, poets, actors, either sat “below the salt” or devoured the “remainder biscuit,” and drank what drunkenness happened to leave, or lived on crumbs, and they had less than the crumbs of respect. The painter had to have a patron, and then in order to pay the patron, he took the patron’s wife for Venus — and the man, he was the Apollo! So the writer had to have a patron, and he endeavored to immortalize him in a preface of obsequious lies. The writer had no courage. The painter, the sculptor — poor wretches — had “patrons.” Some of the greatest of the world were treated as servants, and yet they were the real kings of the human race.
Now the public is the patron, The public has the intelligence to see what it wants. The stage does not have to flatter any man. The actor now does not enroll himself as the servant of duke or lord. He has the great public, and if he is a great actor, he stands as high in the public estimation as any other man in any other walk of life.
And these men of genius, these “vagabonds,” these “sturdy vagrants” of the old law — and let me say one thing right here: I do not believe that there ever was a man of genius that had not a little touch of the vagabond in him somewhere — just a little touch of chaos — that is to say, he must have generosity enough now and then absolutely to forget himself — he must be generous to that degree that he starts out without thinking of the shore and without caring for the sea — and that is that touch of chaos. And yet, through all those years the poets and the actors lacked bread. Imagine the number of respectable dolts who felt above them. The men of genius lived on the bounty of the few, grudgingly given.
Now, just think what would happen, what we would be, if you could blot from this world what these men have done. If you could take from the walls the pictures; from the niches the statues; from the memory of man the songs that have been sung by “The Plowman” — take from the memory of the world what has been done by the actors and play-writers, and this great globe would be like a vast skull emptied of all thought.
And let me say one word more, and that is as to the dignity of your profession.
The greatest genius of this world has produced your literature. I am not now alluding simply to one — but there has been more genius lavished upon the stage — more real genius, more creative talent, than upon any other department of human effort. And when men and women belong to a profession that can count Shakespeare in its number, they should feel nothing but pride.
Nothing gives me more pleasure than to speak of Shakespeare — Shakespeare, in whose brain were the fruits of all thoughts past, the seeds of all to be — Shakespeare, an intellectual ocean toward which all rivers ran, and from which now the isles and continents of thought receive their dew and rain.
A profession that can boast that Shakespeare was one of its members, and that from his brain poured out that mighty intellectual cataract — that Mississippi that will enrich all coming generations — the man that belongs to that profession — should feel that no other man by reason of belonging to some other, can be his superior.
And such a man, when he dies — or the friend of such a man, when that man dies — should not imagine that it is a very generous and liberal thing for some minister to say a few words above the corpse — and I do not want to see this profession cringe before any other.
One word more. I hope that you will sustain this splendid charity. I do not believe that more generous people exist than actors. I hope you will sustain this charity, And yet, there was one little thing I saw in your report of last year, that I want to call attention to. You had “benefits” all over this country, and of the amount raised, one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars were given to religious societies and twelve thousand dollars to the Actors’ Fund — and yet they say actors are not Christians! Do you not love your enemies? After this, I hope that you will also love your friends.