Why Actors Are Scum

Right up front: I totally disagree with the title. But that has been a long-held belief by those not in entertainment. And so, as a follow-up to my last blog post, I wanted to delve a little more into why actors and theatre people have often been, according to an Ordinance by the British Parliament in 1647, “Declared to be, and are, and shall be taken to be rogues.” Note that I am taking these comments from my discussion of this topic when I taught Medieval Theatre as a part of my Introduction to Theatre course.

When the Christian Church took over after the fall of the Roman empire, they ended two sinful practices of the Romans. One, of course, was bathing (made licentious by behavior in the Roman baths), which led to the practice of only bathing on Saturday nights before the Sunday morning church service. The second sinful practice was theatre.

Why were actors perceived as rogues and scalawags? There were a number of reasons for this:

1. Acting is like demonic possession. You are no longer who you are supposed to be, and by taking on the role of an Other, you are performing an activity that is no different than being taken over by an evil spirit. (And there is the story that, during one performance of a Medieval play, there was suddenly “one devil too many,” as a real demon conjured himself and joined the actors costumed as devils onstage.)

2. Actors travel and spread disease and ideas. There was a good reason they closed the theaters down during the time of the Black Death or bubonic plague; as we learned during the Covid pandemic, large gatherings of people meant a wider spread of disease. Also, how are you going to control your children after they’ve seen these cool actors coming to town, having a great time, and living a wonderful life, traveling from town to town instead of being stuck in some rural hamlet doing back-breaking work? As the old song says, “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm/After they’ve seen Paree [Paris]?” Is this where the idea of running off to join the circus came from? (Not to mention the number of women who joined the clergy, like Pope Joan, to escape forever being the chief cook, bottle washer, and baby machine—check out AC Episode #8…)

3. All actors are men and boys. First, this gives rise to cross-dressing, and not acting or being the gender you were born as—doesn’t that sound like a still-continuing argument? Also, since love scenes were enacted by men with young unbearded boys playing females, actors were thought be be homosexuals and pedophiles. This is also a stereotype that continues with us today.

4. “Actors will sleep with anybody” is a line that stuck with me from the Blackadder III episode, “Sense and Senility.” This too is a common and recurring idea. It doesn’t help the situation when star-struck men and women are throwing themselves at actors. In #2 above, those actors having a grand time might result in a few extra babies being born in a town. And can you say truthfully that you would turn down free sex? I have to say no, and I’ll just leave it at that. This is a theatre history lesson and a personal blog, not a confessional. Well, not yet anyway; as I grow older I find myself talking more freely about my life.

So you can see, actors have always had a bad reputation. And like suicides, they were not to be buried in consecrated ground, and instead were dumped in paupers’ graves outside the city gates. Oh, and that reminds me of another stereotype: “the starving actor.” How many times have we heard, “You will never make a living as an actor, or artist, or theatre person!” But I’ve spent my entire career proving that wrong.

Published by stephenschrum

Associate Professor of Theatre Arts; interested in virtual worlds, playwrighting, and filmmaking. Now creating a podcast called "Audio Chimera."

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