My thanks to a new friend who told me about the Letter to D’Alembert on the Theatre, written by J.-J. Rousseau in 1758. It seems that Jean D’Alembert wrote an article about Rousseau’s hometown of Geneva in which he talked about why the city needed a theatre, Rousseau struck back with alacrity on the effects of culture on morals and politics. It’s good stuff. A sample:
[partisans of the theatre say,] “Tragedy certainly intends that all the passions which it portrays moves us; but it does not always want our emotion to be the same as that of the character tormented by passion. More often, on the contrary, its purpose is to excite sentiments in us opposed to those it lends its character.” They say, moreover, that if Authors abuse their power of moving hearts to excite an inappropriate interest, this fault ought to be attributed to the ignorance and depravity of the Artists and not the art. They say, finally, that the faithful depiction of the passions and of the sufferings which accompany them suffices in itself to make us avoid them with all the care of which we are capaable.
To become aware of the bad faith of all these responses, one need only consult his own heart at the end of a tragedy. Do the emotion, the disturbance, and the softening which are felt within oneself and which continue after the play give indication of an immediate disposition to master and regulate our passions? Are the lively and touching impressions to which we become accustomed and which return so often, quite the means moderate our sentiments in the case of need? Why should the image of the sufferings born of the passions efface that of the transports of pleasure and joy which are also seen to be born of them and which the Authors are careful to adorn even more in order to render their plays more enjoyable? Do we not know that all the passions are sisters and that one alone suffices for arousing a thousand, and that to combat one by the other is only the way to make the heart more sensitive to them all? The only instrument which serves to purge them is reason, and I have already said that reason has no effect in the theater. It is true that we do not share the feelings of all characters; for, since their interests are opposed, the Author must indeed make us prefer one of them; otherwise we would have no contact at all with the play. But far from choosing, for that reason, the passions which he wants to make us like, he is forced to choose those which we like already.