Response to D'Alessandro's "George Lippard's 'Theatre of Hell':Apocalyptic Melodrama and Working-Class Spectatorship in the Quaker City"
What a delight to be writing one of the inaugural Letters for J19, and an especial pleasure to be writing it about Michael D'Alessandro's terrific essay "George Lippard's 'Theatre of Hell': Apocalyptic Melodrama and Working-Class Spectatorship in the Quaker City" (Fall 2017). For me, one of the major achievements of this essay is that it bridges what has long been a major gap in nineteenth-century American literary and cultural studies—that between scholarship on the printed word and work on the theater. That's not to say that there's no overlap within the work of specific scholars: Robin Bernstein, Brigitte Fielder, Laura Mielke, and others move elegantly between genres. But there are rarely attempts to put the two genres in conversation with each other. Indeed, for a field that pulls into its orbit a congeries of genres (sermons, autobiographical narratives, ledger books, diaries, primers, promotional pamphlets, scientific dissertations, letters, religious scriptures of all kinds), as well as a wide variety of nonliterary entities (animals both wild and domestic, rocks, medical instruments, clothing, dolls, food, blood, fingerprints), it is surprising how little nineteenth-century US literary studies has put dramatic texts and theatrical productions on the one hand, and novels and other literary texts on the other, in conversation with each other.
D'Alessandro's essay does that important work with brio. He recognizes that for working-class men in the middle third of the nineteenth [End Page 233] century, the theater was a central site of imagination and sociality. While the novel was the guide for bourgeois (and bourgeois-aspiring) readers, the stage, as I've argued elsewhere, was the conduct manual for the white working class, teaching men how to act, how to relate to each other, and how to understand the machinations of power. Moreover, in the 1830s, theaters went from being mixed-class (though working-class dominated) to separating into elite houses such as the Chestnut Street Theatre and the Astor Opera House, and "low houses" like the Bowery and the Walnut Street Theatres. D'Alessandro brings a nuanced and detailed knowledge of this literary and theatrical history to his reading of George Lippard's Quaker City.
Lippard wanted laborers to read his novel, and he wanted them in their reading to identify with it and understand the mechanisms of oppression under which they suffered. His main obstacle was that it was serial fiction, not a genre that typically appealed to working people. As D'Alessandro meticulously shows, Lippard scattered theatrical allusions and set-pieces throughout the novel as a way to both appeal to working audiences and signal his awareness of their cultural milieu. The program from the Walnut Street Theatre, the leading playhouse frequented by working men; the liberal borrowing of the tropes of melodrama; the repeated references to Monk Hall as a theater and Devil Bug as its primary audience member: all of these functioned as a kind of masonic handshake between Lippard and his readers. As D'Alessandro argues, "By composing a novel that acknowledges and often imitates a local, working-class melodrama, Lippard attempts to reproduce theaters' physical separation of workers from the social elite" (213), thereby constructing Quaker City as a seemingly paradoxical text: a novel for working people.
Despite these strengths, there are a few elements that, for me, fall short. Drawing on Bruce McConachie's field-defining work on the antebellum melodrama, D'Alessandro claims that by invoking the tropes of what McConachie calls "apocalyptic melodrama" (sensationalist plays that end in epic disasters such as the explosion of Vesuvius or floods or military invasion, all fully represented on stage), Lippard wants to "instruct [his] working-class followers that their shared experiences of oppression with others can carry rebellious power" (219). I'm not altogether convinced by this. McConachie himself is, in the final analysis, pessimistic about the power of the theater to foster meaningful solidarity among its working-class audiences; he ends Melodramatic Formations with the glum acknowledgment that working people were increasingly edged out of theatrical spaces and ended up finding their entertainment in vaudeville [End Page 234] houses and minstrel shows. And it's not just the audiences that changed. The rise of the star system (glancingly referenced by D'Alessandro in his name-check of Edwin Forrest) reproduced in microcosm the displacement of artisanal models of production with capitalist frameworks, in which the rich got richer and the poor got ever-shrinking supporting roles. Even as audiences cheered Forrest as the Jacksonian Democrat's beau ideal, he was putting small, independently run playhouses out of business with his exorbitant appearance fees.
My main critique is of a more systemic issue, though—D'Alessandro's naming as "the working class" a very specific (although admittedly large) subset of that group: working-class white men. He mentions in passing the series of racist attacks on black Philadelphians in the 1830s and 1840s that were euphemized as "race riots" but does not connect those riots to a tendency within all classes of white Philadelphians toward white supremacy. Indeed, white racism united divergent class interests far more than pointing up the contradictions in the consolidation of capitalism. The elite lawmakers of the Pennsylvania state legislature, like their New York and New Jersey counterparts before them, cemented the expansion of the white male franchise by effectively disfranchising black male voters in its constitutional revision of 1838, the same year that anti-abolitionist mobs attacked Pennsylvania Hall, where prominent abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Angelina Grimké were speaking, smashed the windows, and ultimately burned the building to the ground. Lippard may have imagined an interracial working class in his invocation of apocalyptic melodrama, the "slaves of the city, white and black" (218), but it's unlikely that most of his desired readers shared that vision.
Moreover, by echoing melodramatic topoi, Lippard reproduces the figure of the heroic workingman entering into homosocial contest with the elite villain over the (often supine) body of a victimized woman. Like the historical dramas working-class audiences flocked to in the 1820s and 1830s, the sensationalist dramas of the late 1830s and 1840s were aimed at working men who looked to the stage to understand their rapidly changing place in an economically volatile world. While that's not the focus of his analysis, I would have liked to see D'Alessandro at the very least acknowledge that African American men and all women did not see these plays in the same way as their male counterparts; indeed, they were actively excluded from that shared vision. [End Page 235]
Sarah E. Chinn teaches in and is the chair of the English department at Hunter College, CUNY. Her most recent book is Spectacular Men: Race, Gender, and Nation on the Early American Stage (Oxford University Press, 2017).