Staged readings: sensationalism and class in popular American literature and theatre, 1835-1875
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My dissertation is a historicist examination of the circulatory relationship among popular fiction, theatre, and related non–fiction texts in mid–nineteenth–century America. Though previous critics have acknowledged interactions between mid–century theatre and print, none have fully fleshed out the performative contexts or social consequences of this interplay. In contrast, I contend that the narrative and visual exchanges between theatre and literature are crucial to deciphering how different social classes formed and distinguished themselves. My central claim is that cultural arbiters from the print world (including activist authors and advice–text writers) and from the public amusement realm (entrepreneurial theatre producers and melodrama playwrights) poached each other's work in order to capitalize on preexisting consumer communities. By cultivating socially homogenous audiences, these arbiters became vital contributors to the consolidation of self–conscious, class–based identities in nineteenth–century America. Chapter One examines George Lippard's urban–crime novel The Quaker City; or The Monks of Monk Hall (1844). In it, I argue that Lippard reproduces apocalyptic scenes of disaster familiar to readers from spectacle–centric theatrical melodramas in order to unify a diverse working class. Chapter Two contends that W.H. Smith's temperance melodrama The Drunkard (1844) co–opts the real–life speeches of working–class temperance lecturers and reframes them as a middle–class landlord's story of redemption; through featuring this popular show at their curiosity museum theatres, proprietors Moses Kimball and P.T. Barnum established the nation's first theatrical spaces solely for middle–class audiences. Chapter Three claims that the 1860s proliferation of home theatrical guidebooks—which detailed how to construct makeshift stages, simulate special effects, and adapt well–known stage dramas—offered the emergent middle classes a viable substitute for commercial theatergoing and a key outlet to reinforce their social status. My final chapter studies Louisa May Alcott's sensation novella Behind a Mask; or, A Woman's Power (1866), a work which engages the dissertation's collective themes of theatricality, social class, and private space. By depicting a professional actress utilizing her theatrical skills to infiltrate an aristocratic family, Alcott presents the private estate as the ideal venue to gain social status and reveals performance as a critical means for upward mobility.