the play’s the thing

From the Sydney Morning Herald of 6 September 1902 by an unnamed correspondent comes a considered article about the fun of games and recreation spoiled by the imposition of too many rules.

It’s a reminder that recreation or play is actually an activity that we are meant to enjoy.

Business of recreation

Of the mistaken impression it is apt to produce upon the foreigner, a curious example is given by Mr Herbert Spencer in a letter he wrote to the    ” Times ” recently. In his book entitled ” Facts and Comments,” he spoke of the excess to which athleticism has been carried in England of late years. “How extreme,” he wrote, “is this predominance of athleticism is shown by the fact that Sir Michael Foster, when a candidate for the representation of the University of London, was described as specially fitted because he was a good cricketer. ‘All cricketers will of course vote for him,’ wrote in the ‘ Times ‘ a B.A. who had played in the same eleven with him.” Of course Mr. Spencer’s object in quoting the letter was to show the absurd lengths to which the devotee of athleticism may be carried. He did not mean to suggest that the choice of Sir Michael Foster was determined by other consideration than his high distinction as a man of science. In a review of Mr. Spencer’s book in the “Revue des Deux Mondes,” the writer says : ” The University of London has chosen to represent it in Parliament the candidate who played the best cricket.” If such a misconception appears in a periodical of high standing, it is not surprising that similarly inaccurate statements are to be found in journals of less pretensions, and that on the strength of them the English character is misunderstood and disliked by the foreigner. Such misconceptions however, are not peculiar to athletics, nor are they to be found only in the foreign estimate of British character and customs. The Englishman is probably quite as in accurate in his estimate of his Continental neighbours.

The objection is not so much to making a business of recreation as to the extreme lengths to which this is pushed, with the consequent introduction of the commercial element.

All recreation in which two or more persons are engaged must of necessity be made a business to this extent, that it must be governed by certain rules, if only for the purpose of preventing waste of time and loss of temper. If, for example, whist is not played in conformity with well-known and generally recognised rules it descends to what the late Mr. Proctor called ” bumble puppy ” whist. The same thing holds good with all those classes of recreation that may be grouped under the general head of athletics, whether played indoors or in the open air. The misfortune is that the tendency always is to multiply the rules and make them more rigid, so that the recreation becomes a serious  business, and all but the experts shrink from engaging in it in the presence of others. They are like the man who declared that he would never be able to put his boots on until he had worn them for some time. Fifty years ago the tyro was not afraid or ashamed to take part in a friendly cricket match on the village green in the rural districts of England. There was no attempt made to bring the pitch to a perfect level. In facing the bowling one never got the impression that one was the target for a ball fired from the cannon’s mouth.

The play seldom reached a high pitch of perfection, and disputed points were settled in a friendly manner, and not always according to the strict rules of evidence. Now that cricket has come to be a strictly scientific game, of national and international importance, the recreation has grown into a serious enterprise requiring for its successful conduct a combination of technical proficiency and commercial skill, and as much forethought and careful calculation as are necessary in the management of a large business enterprise. With the growing practice of discriminating between the amateur and the professional in all branches of athletics the commercial element becomes stronger and threatens to be paramount. In describing the annual contest of one of the principal gun clubs in the United States some of the papers gave elaborate calculations, showing the cost of the birds, and the amount for which they sold, the main point being that the affair was a profitable speculation to the enterprising manager who had control of the business.

We do not know that we have any reason to complain of this. It is no new thing that when recreation in the form of athletic sport is indulged in on a large scale the business and commercial elements intrude. At the greatest of the Greek national festivals religion, athletics, commerce, and literature all played a part. The spectators, numerous as they were, were attracted not merely by the contests, but because of the opportunity the festival afforded them of carrying on commercial transactions with visitors from distant places. The literary and artistic men of the day, when there were no printing presses and no publishers, seized the opportunity of reciting or exhibiting their products to the vast concourse gathered together. But while the tendency to make a business of recreation or to combine business with it is not now, it is to be regretted that the mania for laying down rigid rules for playing different games frequently destroys the pleasure they would otherwise give. Even table tennis has not escaped. When the children of two generations ago indulged in a game of shuttlecock and battledore, and when even those of maturer years took part in it, there were no special rules to fetter the freedom of action or to create a guilty feeling that the game was not being played scientifically. It was so when the new game was first introduced. Now that we have clubs and tournaments and strict codes of law the player is beginning to have the serious and determined look of the professional, and the amateur is almost afraid to be seen playing it in public.

The safeguard for the individual is to be found in the constant remembrance of the true purpose of recreation. If the game does not help to recreate if it is played under conditions and in the midst of surroundings that render this impossible, it is not recreation properly so called. One of the dangers of modern life is that we are prone to let others lay down certain rules for our guidance. We are so much concerned with what we shall eat; and drink and what we shall wear, what form of physical culture we shall practice, what games we shall play, and according to what rules, that life tends to become a never-ceasing round of drudgery performed according to strict specifications. When this is the case recreation has so far become a business that it ceases to be beneficial, and is positively injurious.