These expectations, reasonable enough
today, are a far cry from the reality of 18th-
century London. In that time and place,
common behavior at the theater ranged from
loud gossiping over the actors, mimicking of
performances out on the floor, violent rioting, and, on particularly spirited evenings,
a communal trashing of the theater. Petty
theft, drunken brawls, and prostitution
were regular affairs.
Amid all that rabble-rousing, there was
one force of quiet composure. Enter the
Freemasons: model theater patrons, exemplars of etiquette, pillars of civility. In
18th-century London, some Masonic lodges
paraded through the streets together to
the theater, where they made an example
of watching in polite stillness. Eventually,
others followed suit. With time, their silent
example made a difference. The question is:
Would it today?
COURIERS OF CIVILITY
Inside of theaters and out, ample evidence suggests that, beginning in the 18th century, Freemasonry acted as a civilizing
influence in both Western Europe and the American colonies.
In multiple orations, in every European language, we can find
Masonic brothers praising the order for its practice of friendship
and mutual respect. An orator in Paris during the 1780s told his
brothers, “The hearts of Masons touch one another everywhere
at every point…. The happiness of one is necessarily the happiness of all.” French Freemasons of the time provided cash to
brothers or their widows who had been caught in distress or
poverty. They asked members who were doctors to assist other
ill brothers and to do so without a fee. Dutch and Belgian lodges
had similar funds.
Eighteenth-century Masonic orators declared that “every
lodge is a democracy.” British orators proclaimed, “We wish to
unite all men of an agreeable humour and enlightened understanding,” and furthermore, “All men are by nature brethren, so
consequently all men are by nature equal.” Dutch Freemasons
saw the entire world as a republic; each nation as a family; every
individual as a son.
“Whether they were combating the inequities of the financial
market or the rudeness of theater-goers, it seemed that Masons
hoped to make up for the failings of society.”