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Fall 2009 59 “I am not suffering any more…”1 : Tragic Potential in the Nineteenth-Century Consumptive Myth Meredith Conti It was impossible to realize that it was death that was approaching. The child felt no pain—only a tranquil, soft weakness, daily and almost insensibly increasing; and she was so beautiful, so loving, so trustful, so happy, that one could not resist the soothing influence of that air of innocence and peace which seemed to breathe around her. St. Clare in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)2 [T]he Bacillus tuberculosis of Koch must be admitted as perhaps the most powerful member of that dangerous class of microzymes which, in the form of spores, rods, and dots, more than decimate the “lords of the world.” Hugo Engel, “The Etiology of Tuberculosis” (1882)3 The paradoxical construction of consumption within overlapping social, literary, and medical spheres (particularly as manifested in the nineteenth century) has been the subject of numerous works in contemporary scholarship, most notably in Susan Sontag’s seminal text Illness as Metaphor (1977). As Sontag and other theorists and historians have convincingly argued, consumption was a seemingly kaleidoscopic phenomenon, a unique and shifting blend of fact and fiction within the collective cultural imaginations of several Western populaces (France, England, and the United States chief among them).4 The writings of poets, novelists, social commentators, and even physicians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries demonstrate that consumption was at once constructed as the disease of passionate lovers, the rich, the young, the white, the brilliant and poetic, the penitent sinner, and the chaste and innocent. Consumption’s conceptualized (and yet inseparable) bond with human sensibility and the self, as well as its mythologized capacity for bestowing painless demises upon its victims, made it an exceptionally popular Meredith Conti is a doctoral candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where she recently was named an Andrew Mellon Pre-Doctoral Fellow. Her essay on the 2006 La Mama revival of Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime was published in Journal of American Drama and Theatre (winter 2008). Conti’s book reviews have appeared in Theatre Journal, Theatre History Studies, and the New England Theatre Journal. A version of this article was presented at the Literature and Pathology Conference at the University of California, Irvine. 60 Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism literary device through the late nineteenth century. These same qualities, coupled with the iconic image of the delicate but expressive, pale but flushed consumptive body, made it an equally effective theatrical device in plays likeAlexandre Dumas fils’ adaptation of his own classic tale of love and consumption, La dame aux camélias (1852). The employment of consumption in mid-nineteenth century literature (including dramatic works) has frequently been labeled a melodramatic conceit. However, while the cultural construction of consumptive suffering undoubtedly can be read through the contextualizing lens of melodrama, such an appraisal disregards its equally, if not more prevalent, tragic tendencies. This study contends that the nineteenth-century romantic myth of consumption functioned within social, literary, and scientific imaginations as a generic bearer of tragedy.5 Indeed, as I will argue, the social standing and intellect of consumption’s mythologized victims, the reputed internality of the disease (as opposed to exterior, contagious threats like cholera), the distinctive patient/community relationship, and the dynamics of a consumptive death (including a tragic recognition) ably recommend the consumptive myth as tragic by design. The cultural linking of consumption with the ennobling genre of tragedy served a significant social purpose. In an era in which one English physician boldly calculated that one fourth of the European populace was consumptive, the disease’s tragic arch was employed to romanticize the deplorable, to rarify the commonplace, to validate the senseless, and to make legible the illogical.6 With Robert Koch’s landmark 1882 discovery of tuberculosis’s fundamental source, the airborne and contagious tubercle bacillus, the clinical tuberculosis began its prolonged supplanting of the mythologized consumption. Because of its tremendous social and aesthetic currency, the latter construction of tuberculosis resisted its ousting for decades; however, the tubercle bacillus impacted far more than the field of medicine before the most successful...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2165-2686
Print ISSN
0888-3203
Pages
pp. 59-82
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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