The economics of social amusement

The history of mankind’s social amusements and recreational activities corresponds closely with and can only be explained from the development of economic life and of successive forms of society.

Man is a gregarious creature, and to be at one with his herd—with a multitude of his kind when it is surging with a common emotion and to be feeling, thinking and expressing his feeling in unison with his fellows is one of the most stirring and pleasurable things he can experience. This psychological factor is strikingly manifest in all organised play and entertainment, but to explain the forms of recreation prevailing at any time we must consider the conditions of economic and social life in which they have their roots.

Primitive man must have had little opportunity for pure play of a systematic and organised kind, but with increased productiveness came relief from strictly useful employment and various forms of true social amusements came into being—often by the modification of more serious occupations.

The savage hunting tribe indulges in strange dancing and singing that is quite mystifying to the uninitiated observer. He may explain these—to him—weird performances as forms of diversion and relaxation ; but to the savage they have a very serious and practical significance. They are magical rites by which he believes he can influence the rainfall or the supply of animals or bring luck to the tribe in its hunting. They are, therefore, to him a necessary part of his economic life.

Even later, when agriculture is practised and patriarchal organisation has grown up ritual dances and seasonal festivals exist which are intimately connected with the fertility of the soil, the sowing of the seed and the reaping of the crops.

These ceremonial practices, serious as were their objects, undoubtedly generated in the people who took part in them a high degree of emotional excitement and pleasure and contained the germs of the true public amusements of the future. In that very interesting book, “Ancient Art and Ritual,” Jane Harrison describes for us the evolution among the Greeks from the spring festival of Dionysos—the spirit of vegetation—to the genuine dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles—from the dromena or rite to the drama or play.

With the institution of slavery came also a leisured class and, thus stimulated, the arts of pleasure reached a high pitch of variety, refinement and extravagance.

In Greece and Rome the enormous population of slaves had, in the main, little or no leisure nor amusement, but in the lives of the free citizens, both rich and poor, the public games, theatres and festivals came to play an increasingly important role. To all citizens admission to the arena and the theatres was free, or the fee only nominal. They were publicly organised by the State or the city authorities, were held usually at the religious festivals and continued to have vital social importance and some degree of religious significance throughout the entire period of their history. * They acted as a social bond, emphasising the common tradition and stimulating the sentiments of patriotism and citizenship. Thus they were a factor of considerable importance in welding all grades of freemen into a solid mass in opposition to the numerically overwhelming but unorganised and politically impotent slaves. Moreover as, particularly in the Roman dominions, slaves were used in the public games in great numbers and without the slightest regard either for their feelings or their lives, the arena became a means of widening the gulf twixt slave and free, increasing class contempt, arrogance and hatred, developing even further the callousness and cruelty of the free class and yet inspiring them with an increasingly intense fear of widespread revolt amongst the chained, suffering mass in the underworld.

When Roman civilisation reached its zenith the slave-system was so extensive and the supply of slaves so well organised that free-labour became economically unprofitable whilst morally it came to be regarded as the contemptible badge of servility and beneath the dignity of free citizens. In the cities an ever-growing multitude of workless and propertyless free-men became dependent upon the free distribution of corn by the State. Then came the clamour for amusement and more and more of it, and the wealthy slave-owners and politicians who dominated the State were compelled to yield to the insistent demands of the reckless horde of state-fed citizens.

The so-called “games” had now become a political necessity, and they assumed extraordinary proportions, and became ever more extravagant and terrible spectacles. At the great Roman circuses wild beasts from every part of the Empire were matched in combat, and thousands of slaves fought to the death for the diversion and excitement of immense throngs of citizens. In such a debauch ended ancient civilisation, based on the first primary form of exploitation—chattel-slavery.

Under the mediaeval feudal system which retained the village community and much of patriarchal society, the public games and entertainments were again markedly social, traditional and religious in character, but they strongly reflected the hard and fixed system of class differentiation characteristic of feudalism. The serfs and peasants had their own Maypole and other semi-ritual festivals connected with cultivation; and these, though they had a veneer of Christianity, were hoary with an antiquity going back far into barbarism—as we have previously noted. The Church, ever on the watch for subtle means of maintaining its hold upon society, held its Mystery and Morality plays which were often performed within the walls of the Churches and monasteries. These religious plays were, of course, intended to foster belief and provide religious instruction rather than amusement, but there is evidence that they were amusing enough and they were certainly the nearest thing to the true drama that the Mediaeval period evolved. The nobility, a class closely marked off from the rest of the population, had its own peculiar institution—the tournament, which fostered the veneration for rank and the warlike virtues so necessary to a class owing its existence and its sanction to the sword.

Economic evolution undermined the feudal system and killed it. With the growth of trade and commercial relations of production, the disappearance of serfdom and the rise of the wages system, the old social order of things, with all its ideas, its sentiments and its customs, lost its economic basis and slowly and tardily passed away.

The village community was broken up, the common lands disappeared and the population concentrated into the towns; social and personal ties were replaced by monetary relations—in the language of the jurists “status” gave place to “contract.” The rigid stratification of social orders with fixed rights and duties was dissolved and in its stead arose a system wherein the possession of money alone formed the class division and which knew as a regulating force only the balance of the market—the impersonal, non-traditional pressure of “economic law.” It was the new era of “liberty, equality and fraternity”—capitalism.

As it expanded itself the new economy cut the social soil from under the feudal forms of amusement and new forms began to appear. The mountebank and strolling player (the primitive actor, dancer, singer and clown) even under feudalism was the counterpart of the earliest travelling merchant, the pedlar moving from village to village with his wares. But the nerve-centre of the new system was in the towns, there the merchant was established, and the new classes—capitalist and proletarian—were arising, and there developed the new habits of thought and the new amusements—among them, the theatre. The first public theatre in England was opened in Blackfriars, London, in 1576, and others were soon established and were performing the works of Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan dramatists.

The new theatre was from the first free from the feudal tradition. It was commercial in its aim and methods, had no connection with the Church, which indeed opposed it, and it voiced the new dawning spirit of individualism. Since its birth the bourgeois theatre has flourished, and it is perhaps the most typical social amusement of the bourgeois era.

The only set-back in the history of the modern theatre took place under the freakish domination of the Puritans, to which we can here only briefly refer. The Puritans were a section of the lower bourgeoisie who developed to an extreme degree a religion and philosophy of life involving excessive reverence for the petty-capitalist virtues of industry, thrift and accumulation and who frowned upon all amusement and frivolity as sinful. During their short period of political rule in England and America they attempted with partial success the suppression of all forms of social entertainment. Their social influence unfortunately long outlasted their actual rule in both countries.

The subject matter of the drama is not here our prime concern, but it may be noted that with the rise of bourgeois relations of life and of individualism in outlook, traditional, mystical, symbolic and heroic themes tended to be supplanted by studies of individual character and of personal problems, especially sexual ones, that the individual in society is compelled to face. In these plays bourgeois morality, ideals of conduct and theories control the plot and action.

On the other hand, since capitalism has entered on its decadent phase and its insoluble difficulties have become chronically manifest, the satirist and social critic has increasingly used the medium of the drama and plays denouncing the evils and ridiculing the inconsistencies of the social order have appeared. The Ibsens, Shaws and Galsworthys are products of this phase. This class of drama is, however, as yet appreciated and supported by only a comparatively small section of theatregoers, and even these are largely tolerant members of the bourgeoisie.

* The Bull-fight in the Spanish countries—a relic of Roman domination—is a modern survival of this phase.

(End of Part I.)


(Socialist Standard, Jnuary 1925)

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