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Theater, Imitation, Sin, and Plato

Jonas Barish's wonderful The Antitheatrical Prejudice probes deeply into the dislike of theater, theatricality, and acting, in the West but also deep within humanity. One passage is especially striking: how self-deception and theatricality intersect with Christian notions of original sin.

François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, saw that all of life is a case of theatricism, and it is pretty much always pernicious. Plato's concepts of imitation are more positive than La Rochefoucauld, for La Rochefoucauld introduces the notion of sin and that we will always bend towards the bad, forsaking the good. The passage from Barish reads:

“But for La Rochefoucauld, who applies a systematic method of close scrutiny, there are really no good examples [of good acting, where we become something good via imitation and acting]. In examples, as in living men, the virtues break down into compounds of vices. Moreover, even when genuine they border on neighboring vices so closely, across such a tenuous boundary, that the lynx-eyed observer can distinguish them. The result is that most imitation of the good simply caricatures it. The imitator ends by culling the bad and ignoring the genuinely good. The imitative impulse, deformed by self-interest, distorted by self-love, unscrupulous in catering to our weaknesses, will find in the most exemplary of heroes some unsuspecting encouragement to vice.… Since men, then, are incapable of sifting the wheat from the chaff, since our malign souls lead us almost inevitably to prefer the chaff, it would be best if we could give up imitating altogether. And this is a conclusion, or an inference, that even Plato would have hesitated to draw, convinced as he was that for all its dangers imitation had a key role to play in the formation of good citizens."

— Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 219.

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