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The ‘Wicked City’ Motif on the American Stage before the Civil War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2004


By the middle of the nineteenth century, the characterization of the big city as evil incarnate – a veritable latter-day Sodom – had achieved the status of national myth in both the United States and Britain, and had become a popular theme for journalists, novelists, and playwrights alike. John Frick examines this phenomenon – what came to be known as the ‘wicked city motif’ – as it manifested itself on the antebellum American stage. Originating in the urbanization of the eighteenth-century gothic novel and the French feuilleton roman and coalescing in Eugène Sue's Les Mystères de Paris and G. W. M. Reynolds's The Mysteries of London, the city mysteries narrative successfully negotiated the unstable border between the public and private spheres to examine the depravity and danger of the modern metropolis. Disseminated through populist politics, sensationalized journalism, popular fiction, and – the focus here – dramatic renderings, the apocalyptic vision of the modern city with its inexplicable and impenetrable secrets became commonplace in the 1840s and 1850s. John Frick is Professor of Theatre and American Studies at the University of Virginia and teaches in the M.Litt. program at Mary Baldwin College. His most recent book, Theatre, Culture, and Temperance Reform in Nineteenth-Century America, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2003.

Research Article
© 2004 Cambridge University Press

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