The cinema as a moral leveller

George Bernard Shaw on the role of the cinema

From the New Statesman 27 June 1914

The dramatist George Bernard Shaw was one of the founders of the New Statesman. For a brief period in its early years he was a regular contributor to its pages, although most of his articles were published anonymously. However, this characteristically pungent piece appeared under his own byline in June 1914. In it, Shaw argued that the popularity of the recently arrived cinema promised to create a sense of common morality transcending class divisions.

Selected by Robert Taylor

The cinema is a much more momentous invention than printing was. Before printing could affect you, you had to learn to read; and until 1870 you mostly had not learned to read. But even when you had, reading was not really a practical business for a manual laborer. Ask any man who has done eight or ten hours’ heavy manual labor what happens to him when he takes up a book. He will tell you that he falls asleep in less than two minutes. Now, the cinema tells its story to the illiterate as well as to the literate; and it keeps its victim (if you like to call him so) not only awake but fascinated as if by a serpent’s eye. And that is why the cinema is going to produce effects that all the cheap books in the world could never produce.

The cinema is cheap. For a halfpenny a boy is allowed to enter and sit out three films. For a penny he can stay the whole way through the entertainment. Not, of course, at the fashionable West End cinemas, but in the poorer districts, where all cinemas fill up their vacant seats in this fashion. The penny is often very well spent indeed. Take the not uncommon case of a child whose mother is out at work until late in the evening. To keep him out of mischief whilst she is away, she can either lock him in or lock him out. Usually she locks him out, preferring that the risk of his doing mischief and stealing food should be borne by other people. To a boy so situated the hospitality of a warm picture theatre with an exciting entertainment is priceless; and the work of begging the necessary penny is an occupation whilst the condition of pennilessness lasts. The people who are agitating to have children excluded from these theatres (they have actually succeeded in some towns in Germany) should be executed without pity. As to the magistrates who bind boys over not to go to the cinema, an intelligent Home Secretary would ask them whether it had ever occurred to them to consider the alternatives open to the boy: loafing at the street corner, for instance. As it is—

Nevertheless these people are not wrong in regarding the question of the morality inculcated by the cinema as enormously important. The cinema is going to form the mind of England. The national conscience, the national ideals and tests of conduct, will be those of the film. And the way in which the question is being tackled is very characteristic of our public life. Certain people who have never been inside a picture palace are alarmed at the hideous immorality of the film plays, and are calling out for a censorship and for the exclusion of children under sixteen. Certain others, who, like myself, frequent the cinemas, testify to their desolating romantic morality, and ridicule the moral scare. And between the ignorant meddlesomeness of the one party and the laissez-faire of the other nothing sensible is likely to be done.

What neither of them sees is that the danger of the cinema is not the danger of immorality, but of morality. The cinema must be not merely ordinarily and locally moral, but extraordinarily and internationally moral. A film must go round the world unchallenged if the maximum of profit is to be made from it. Ordinary theatres in London and Paris can specialize in pornographic farce because the relatively small class which tolerates and likes this sort of entertainment is numerous enough in huge cities to support one theatre. Such farces, if they go to the provinces, have to be bowdlerized either by omitting the objectionable passages or slurring them over. But a film cannot be bowdlerized: it must be as suitable for Clapham and Canterbury as for Leicester Square.

The result may be studied at any picture palace. You have what an agricultural laborer thinks right and what an old-fashioned governess thinks properly sentimental. The melodramas are more platitudinous than melodrama has ever been before. The farces, more crudely knockabout than any harlequinade ever enacted by living performers, are redeemed only by the fantastic impossibilities which the trickery of the film makes practicable. There is no comedy, no wit, no criticism of morals by ridicule or otherwise, no exposure of the unpleasant consequences of romantic sentimentality and reckless tomfoolery in real life, nothing that could give a disagreeable shock to the stupid or shake the self-complacency of the smug. In the early days of the cinematograph, when it was a scarce and expensive curiosity, some of the films were clever and witty. All that is gone now. The levelling down has been thoroughly accomplished. The London boy is given the morality of the mining camp; and the Chinese pirate has to accept with reverence the proprieties of our cathedral towns.

Now levelling, though excellent in income, is disastrous in morals. The moment you allow one man to receive a larger income than another you are on the road to ruin. But the moment you prevent one man having a more advanced morality than another you are on the same road. And here we are not concerned with the question of teaching the London boy the criticisms of current morality made by Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Strindberg, by Barker, Brieux, Galsworthy, Hankin, and self (pardon the popular phrase), nor the philosophy of Bergson. These authors would not be popular with children in any case. But it is quite a mistake to suppose that conventional morality is all of one piece the world over. London cannot live on the morals of the Italian peasant or the Australian sheep farmer. What is more, high civilization is not compatible with the romance of the pioneer communities of Canada. Yet Commercialism forces such morals on the cinema.

The moral is, of course, that the State should endow the cinema, as it should endow all forms of art to the extent necessary to place its highest forms above the need for competition. The highest forms, like the lowest, are necessarily immoral because the morals of the community are simply its habits, good and bad; and the highest habits, like the lowest, are not attained to by enough people to make them general and therefore moral. Morality, in fact, is only popularity; and popular notions of virtuous conduct will no more keep a nation in the front rank of humanity than popular notions of science and art will keep it in the front rank of culture. Ragtimes are more moral than Beethoven’s Symphonies; the Marriage of Kitty is more moral than any masterpiece of Euripides or Ibsen; Millais is more moral than Mantegna: that is why there is comparatively no money in Beethoven and Ibsen and Mantegna. The London boy can hear a little Beethoven occasionally from an L.C.C. band, and may see Mantegna’s work in the National Gallery. Ibsen is to be heard cheaply (in Yiddish) at the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel. But the nameless exponents of a world-wide vulgarity (vulgarity is another of the names of morality) have complete possession of the cinema.

Already there is a cry, if not a very loud one, for educational films, meaning, as far as my experience goes, something ending with a fight between an octopus and a lobster. I suggest that what is wanted is the endowment, either public or private, of a cinema theatre devoted wholly to the castigation by ridicule of current morality. Otherwise the next generation of Englishmen will no longer be English: they will represent a world-average of character and conduct, which means that they will have rather less virtue than is needed to run Lapland. I shall be happy to contribute a few sample scenarios.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was an Irish playwright and the co-founder of the London School of Economics.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state