Rousseau’s Arguments against the Theatre and Modern Celebrity Culture

It might be hard in today’s world to speak negatively about theatre, as most of us depend on it for entertainment, information, fashion and art. In his letter to d’Alembert, Rousseau completely rejects the idea proposed by d’Alembert saying that “Geneva would be an even better city if simply it didn’t have laws prohibition theatre”[1]. In his responses Rousseau pointed out different effects that theatre might have in Geneva and how he believed it will affect the public in general and political. First, Rousseau demonstrated to d’Alembert that theatre causes inequality and it will not be good for Geneva. Second, he argued that theatre is a threat to democracy because it enslave public by making them in poor shape for military discipline and force them to pursue false glory and approval of others, as it is done in today world where actors and actresses focus more on the fans and popularity than their civil right and their role as citizens, this for Rousseau is a treat to the democratic republic, Third Rousseau rejected the idea of theatre in Geneva due to its consequences on Geneva’s tradition life, and its effect on the national economy, As a result, Rousseau believed theatre in Geneva will be a form of revolution. The above argument will demonstrate why Rousseau might be critical of the modern celebrity culture.

In the article Geneva d’Alembert explains that “the city of Geneva is situated on two hills at the end of the lake which today bears its name but which was formerly called Lake Leman. The city is agreeable; on one side the lakes is to be seen, on the other, the Rhone.” [2] At the moment d’Alembert wrote this article Geneva had an estimation of twenty-four thousand people. In his response to d’Alembert, Rousseau’s rejection to the plan of having a theatre in Geneva due to his believes that having theatre in this small city of twenty-five thousand people will cause problems of alienation and inequality. To support his argument, he stressed

… from these new reflections, it follows evidently, I believe, that the modern theatre, which can only be attended for money, tends all over to endorse and boost the disparity of fortunes, less noticeably, it is true, in the capitals than in little city like our own. If grants that this inequality, carried to a certain point, can have its advantages, you will certainly also grants that it ought to have limits, above all in a little state, above all in a republic…[3].

Moreover, Rousseau understood that the creation of theatre in Geneva might be a burden to the poor who depend greatly on their manual labour with less money to spend on leisure

…Considered, if it succeeds, as a sort of tax which, although voluntary, is nonetheless onerous for the people in that it provides a continual occasion for expenditure which it cannot resist. This tax is a bad one, not only because none of it comes back to the sovereign, but especially because its distribution, far from being proportional, burdens the poor beyond their strength and relieves the rich in rich in taking the place of more costly amusements which they would provide for themselves for want of this one[4]

For those who could afford it, once in theatre, inequality still persist due to the price of seats as pointed out by Rousseau,” the poor, are forced to throw away three quarters of what they spend in taxes, whereas, since the same necessities are only the least part of the expenditure of the rich, the tax is practically unnoticeable to them”[5]. In this way, he argued “he who has little pays much, and he who has much pays little, I do not see what great justice can be found in that”[6] as the result he believed that “this very amusement which provides a means of economy for the rich, doubly weakens the poor, either by a real increase in expenses or by less zeal for work.”[7]

Additionally, Rousseau argued that theatre can be a source of political inequality in Geneva; as he specified “the candidates for office will be seen intriguing for their favour in order to obtain suffrages; the elections will take place in actresses’ dressing rooms, and the leaders of a free people will be the creatures of a band of historians.”[8] The worse thing of theatre for Rousseau is that, theatre “tends to encourage and augment the disparity of fortunes”[9] since it activates a host of false requirements. In addition to the above, there is on the other hand one additional reason that made Rousseau disapproves theatre. As he believed it, excludes the audience straight involvement with what is being represented. It seems that, the passiveness of the audience and the nature on how theatre is sate has impact on moral. As Rousseau argued, “people think they come together in the theatre, and it is there that they are isolated, it is there that they got forget their friends, neighbours, and relations in order to cry for the misfortunes of themselves with fables…” [10]and these result in alienation and isolation, which for Rousseau believed should be prevented.

However, one will reject Rousseau point of view being that Geneva population was not equal, as it was revealed by d’Alembert;

There are four orders of persons in Geneva: the citizens, who are the sons of townsmen and are born in the city; they alone can enter the magistracy; the townsmen, who are sons of townsmen or citizens but are born in foreign countries or foreign who have acquired the right to be townsmen. The inhabitants are foreigners who have permission from magistrates to live in the city but who can do nothing else in it. Finally, the natives are sons of the inhabitants; they have some more privileges than their fathers but they are excluded from the government.[11]

This division of population categories itself create inequality that one will say Rousseau overlooked while focusing on the cause and effect of theatre.

Understanding the effect of theatre on Geneva economy and social life, Rousseau continues by explaining how useless theatre is and how it can affect political and moral life of people. For Rousseau, “good qualities lived only in societies whose people knew how to put apart egotism for the sake of the entire community”.[12] He furthered his argument of morality and theatre by explaining that theatre makes virtuous men be hated on the stage.” [13] Besides, Rousseau argued that there is nothing that people can learn from theatre, by pointing out that “the sole function of theatre, is entertainment and the nature of this entertainment is such that neither morality nor even true social feeling has any part in it”[14]. Theatre, he continues, not only provokes the passions of the audience but also foments its prejudices and superstitions; and since the sole ambition of both dramatists and actors is monetary profit and public approval, they deem it perfectly justifiable to exploit the collective passions of the audience rather than correct and improve it. He concluded his argument by mentioning that “man is born with an innate sense of morality, which civilization corrupts”[15]. To support these arguments Rousseau demonstrated that there is nothing to learn in theatre. He explains that theatre cannot contribute to people’s morals but tends to destroy the decent sense of the spectators by offering a fictitious object of sympathy with which they readily identify and by so doing perform their honest duties on a purely imaginary plane.

Likewise, Rousseau discussed more issues related to the establishment of theatre in Geneva, He argued that, theatre will affect the economy of republic by pointing out that, “Geneva’s labours will cease to be their amusements and that, as soon as they have a new enjoyment, it will undermine their taste for old ones. Enthusiasm will no longer furnish so much leisure nor the same inventions”[16]. Furthermore, he argued that with theatre in “Geneva people will lose time from work when going to theatre, and those attending theatre will not return to work, since their thoughts will be full of what they have just seen”[17]. They will talk about it and think about it. In addition to that, people have to pay at the door. It is still an expense that was not previously made. It will cost more if someone goes with their family. Besides, when going to the theatre people will not be wearing their work clothes. He argued “they must put on their Sunday best clothes, some makes up and other things that will cost them money”.[18] This increases expenses. Also; Rousseau explains that by leaving home going to the theatre people will work less with more expenses, which leads to less productivity and at the end if the day this will decrease in trade.[19] Additionally, he demonstrated that the up and down movements of people from mountains to downtown theatres will increase traffic and the need for road maintenance and construction which will lead to an increase in taxes and government expenses that never existed[20] .

Finally, Rousseau demonstrated to d’Alembert that theatre will create a sense of completion in dress among women which he believes will ruin their men, and might create a luxury. As he pointed out “the wives of mountaineers, going first to see and to be seen, will want to be dressed and dressed with distinction… out of this will soon emerge a completion in dress which will ruin the husbands.” [21]

Likewise, Rousseau demonstrated that there are negative representations of women in theatre and he believed that would have a negative effect on the Geneva population. He stated that “going to the theatre obliterates women diffidence and change it with pride”[22]. He went further by explaining how ironic women are represented in a play, by indicating that “contrary to society expectation, in fact, in civilization they do not know something, even if they arbitrator all, but in theatre, learned in the learning of men an philosophers, sex is crushed with its own flairs, and the imbecile spectators go exactly ahead and study from women what they got efforts to order to them by authors” [23]

Furthermore, Rousseau discussion on actors and actresses is one of the most confusion topics in today political debate. First he believed that actors can bet the cause of bad morals in Geneva, as he cited In general “the manor of the artist is one of accredit and bad principles; that the men are set to mess; that the women lived a disgraceful life”[24]; that both, avaricious and spend thrift at the same, always overwhelmed by debts and always spending money in torrents”[25]. Rousseau’s second criticism on actor is by explaining “that in every country their profession is one that dishonours, that those who exercise it excommunicated or not, are everywhere despised”[26]. Besides, Rousseau argued that “no less important, is that this disdain is stronger everywhere the morals are purer, and there are innocent and simple countries where the actor’s profession almost horrifies. Actors make themselves contemptible because they are held in contempt”[27]. Rousseau third’s observation of actors is furthered by his critics saying that act is the art of imitating, himself, of placing on another personality than himself, of materializing dissimilar than he is, of flattering zealous in chilly blood, of saying what he does not believe as obviously as if he actually did consider it, and, at last, of ignoring his own place by indentation of captivating someone’s [28] .

Their profession says Rousseau is a deal in which he presents for money, surrenders himself to the humiliation and the efforts that others purchase the right to offer him, and put his human being openly on auction[29]. Moreover, actors on “theatre, exhibiting different emotion, aphorising simply what he is prepared to say, often demonstrating a chimerical organism, eradicates himself, as it was, as is lost in his hero”[30]. In short, the above role of actors seems to give evidence of how critical was Rousseau on actors. And it demonstrates his observation that actors are not really special as the theatre make them look, as he cited, “all these seems to give evidence of a not very respectable profession, the dissoluteness of the actresses should be seen as another source of bad morals which compels and carries in its wake dissoluteness in actors.” [31] In addition, the most common objection to theatre was that actors and actresses are immoral and dissolute and set a bad example. Which is the problem we are facing in today’s society, where actors are expected to be role models while they are confused themselves of who they are. As Rousseau argued that once a theatre is in Geneva, “you would want them to be forced to be decent men”[32]. This arguments by Rousseau, gives us an open gate to discuss our society today where actors and actresses are expected to be the point of reference to our youth. With hundreds of shows on Televisions and thousand of movies every year, Hollywood is becoming our daily bible. People depend on it for fashion, news, life, entertainment and education. Shows like TMZ that focus on stars lives, what they are doing, and where they are a simple example on how theatre viewed by the public. Looking at other shows in United States of America and Canada, one will agree with Rousseau that the purpose of theatre is just to make money, and actors should not be expected to be e role models.

The last example, which one can give on today’s theatre and actors, is Tiger Wood issues on unfaithfulness, as he said himself on his public statement; “I stopped living by the centre principles that I was trained to deem in. I knew my behaviours were incorrect, but I influenced myself that standard rules didn’t apply. I never considered regarding who I was affecting. As an alternative, I thought simply about me. I ran directly through the limits that a wedded couple ought to live by. I thought I might get away with anything I sought to”[33]

People were unhappy with what he did due to their expectation that he should be an example. But Rousseau will tell them that actors are not good role model.

In short, in his letter to d’Alembert, Rousseau completely rejected the idea that theatre will be useful to the city of Geneva and its population. He believed that everything proposed by d’Alembert is problematic to Geneva’s democratic politics by pointing out that, Theatre will cause inequality. It will form alienation among people who are accustomed to working and living together as a community. In other word Rousseau argued that the creation of theatre in Geneva will be a form of “revolution”. Speaking of actors and actresses, Rousseau had a very negative analysis about these people. He pointed out that they are ones “of license and bad morals”; he cited again that actors and actresses put their “person publicly on sale”, and moreover, actors as Rousseau said “overlooking his own place by hollow of intriguing another’s”. These are the reason Rousseau rejected d’Alembert advice on the advantage of theatre in Geneva. The same arguments can be drawn in today society where we seem to be depending on theatre and Hollywood stars to tell us how to live our lives. By imitating their dressing styles, relationships, these demonstrate how young people in our society look to actors as role model and life savers while those actors themselves are not aware of whom there are. Someone like Tiger Wood, who in his statement to the public said; “I stopped living by the centre morals that I was trained to trust in. I knew my actions were incorrect, but I persuaded myself that typical regulations didn’t apply”. Based on the above argument one will conclude that Rousseau’s assessment on modern celebrity culture would be critical and negative, as the book editor argued, “the most common objection to the theatre was that actors and actresses are immoral and dissolute and set a bad example”[34]

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