We spent quite a bit of time on this passage from Stephen Crane’s Maggie in lecture on Wednesday:

Evenings during the week [Pete] took [Maggie] to see plays in
which the brain-clutching heroine was rescued from the palatial home of
her guardian, who is cruelly after her bonds, by the hero with the
beautiful sentiments. The latter spent most of his time out at soak in
pale-green snow storms, busy with a nickel-plated revolver, rescuing
aged strangers from villains.

Maggie lost herself in sympathy with the wanderers
swooning in snow storms beneath happy-hued church windows. And a choir
within singing “Joy to the World.” To Maggie and the rest of the
audience this was transcendental realism. Joy always within, and they,
like the actor, inevitably without. Viewing it, they hugged themselves
in ecstatic pity of their imagined or real condition.

The girl thought the arrogance and granite-heartedness
of the magnate of the play was very accurately drawn. She echoed the
maledictions that the occupants of the gallery showered on this
individual when his lines compelled him to expose his extreme

Shady persons in the audience revolted from the
pictured villainy of the drama. With untiring zeal they hissed vice and
applauded virtue. Unmistakably bad men evinced an apparently sincere
admiration for virtue.

The loud gallery was overwhelmingly with the
unfortunate and the oppressed. They encouraged the struggling hero with
cries, and jeered the villain, hooting and calling attention to his
whiskers. When anybody died in the pale-green snow storms, the gallery
mourned. They sought out the painted misery and hugged it as akin.

In the hero’s erratic march from poverty in the first
act, to wealth and triumph in the final one, in which he forgives all
the enemies that he has left, he was assisted by the gallery, which
applauded his generous and noble sentiments and confounded the speeches
of his opponents by making irrelevant but very sharp remarks. Those
actors who were cursed with villainy parts were confronted at every
turn by the gallery. If one of them rendered lines containing the most
subtile distinctions between right and wrong, the gallery was
immediately aware if the actor meant wickedness, and denounced him

The last act was a triumph for the hero, poor and of
the masses, the representative of the audience, over the villain and
the rich man, his pockets stuffed with bonds, his heart packed with
tyrannical purposes, imperturbable amid suffering.

Maggie always departed with raised spirits from the showing places of the melodrama. She rejoiced at the way in which the poor and virtuous eventually surmounted the wealthy and wicked. The theater made her think. She wondered if the culture and refinement she had imitated, perhaps grotesquely, by the heroine on the stage, could be acquired by a girl who lived in a tenement house and worked in a shirt factory.

I love his description of Maggie’s desire for some sort of upward mobility, though we’re painfully aware already that her hopes are most likely to be dashed. And so the scene comes to illustrate something of the false promise of consumer society. In lecture, Cyrus talked about this as related to poor folks who vote against their class interests and put Republicans in office — simply on the promise that they, too, may be rich one day, and if they were, they wouldn’t want government overtaxing them. (We’ll see if such attitudes shift once the recession we’re in really settles in. My guess is that more and more voters will come to back plans to tax the wealthy to fund things like universal health care.)

But back to the nineteenth-century city. I’m struck that Maggie’s situation is rather different than the one for middle-class theater-goers a couple decades earlier. For one, the display she’s watching isn’t simply a depiction of working-class triumph over oppression: it’s the promise that the meek will inherit all the wealth the city has to offer. It’s the promise of moving up in the world, not just having one’s virtue vindicated. It strikes me that this is rather different than what middle-class viewers get out of a play like The Poor of New York, by Dion Boucicault, popular from the late 1850s to the 70s. First staged in 1857, in the midst of an economic panic, the play was based closely on a French melodrama from the previous year, The Poor of Paris, and subsequently was staged in London and as elsewhere as The Poor of London, etc. The transportability of the play reminds us that “mysteries of the city” fiction and other peeps into urban underworlds emerged in Paris and London either in advance or around the same time they did in New York. Poe’s story “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” set in Paris, was based on a real New York murder case. Realist fiction, like the rising profession of journalism, aimed to expose what had previously remained in the city’s darkest corners.

A huge gulf separates the middle-class melodrama of The Poor of New York and Maggie, however. Unlike Boucicault, Crane is careful to show the effects of a rising culture of consumption (including the effects of melodrama like Boucicault’s) on the lowest members of society, whereas for Boucicault, the truly poor are members of the middle class who have become disinherited in the economic downturn.

Here’s what I have to say, in my piece for our Cambridge Companion, about that play and another like it, Augustin Daly’s Under the Gaslight (the play that launches Dreiser’s Sister Carrie’s ambition to become an actress at the turn of the century):

Sensation plays contained no direct assault on money or fashion. Rather, the most virtuous are uniformly shown to be deserving of wealth, even if economic misfortune has stripped them of it. The real crime in these plays lies in social cruelty, not inequality. When Laura, the heroine of Gaslight, is temporarily thought to be low-born, the ladies of New York’s old money families are “insulted by the girl’s presence” and conspire to exile her.  Her fianc