Temperance beyond Discipline: Considerations on the Functions of US Temperance Drama


  • Aleksandra Boss Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin




The essay investigates the functions of representing the near destruction of nuclear family structures and values in nineteenth-century US temperance drama. The thesis underlying this investigation postulates that the embodiment of the quasi-wilful destruction of the nuclear family on stage gives expression to socially unacceptable desires of escaping that structure in the face of its oppressive potentials in antebellum middle-class society. Taking the text of the most prominent temperance play, The Drunkard, or The Fallen Saved (1844), as a point of departure, and amplifying it with readings of Ten Nights in a Bar-Room (1858) and Fifteen Years of a Drunkard’s Life (1828), the thesis assumes further that various instances of ambiguity and irony warrant an understanding of temperance plays as more than one-dimensional, didactic cautionary tales upholding given status-quo power structures. Basing itself on theoretical approaches from Cultural Studies, this thesis departs from the established interpretations of the genre as part of an ideological apparatus in tune with hegemonic imperatives of self-discipline mandated by an economy industrializing in the context of a mainstream culture determined by an Evangelical ethos. The essay first provides a historical, socio-political contextualisation of the development of the genre. What follows is an introduction of relevant precepts of Cultural Studies as formulated by John Fiske. The special focus of this theoretical lens lies on the interface of play text and the processes of encoding and decoding, excorporation and incorporation that result in ambiguous and conflicting interpretations of encoded messages. An analysis of character constructions as well as of sensationalized scenes depicting the main character’s personal downfall and decay with the concomitant damage to his family form the main part of the investigation.

Keywords: temperance drama; antebellum literature; cultural studies; John Fiske; incorporation and excorporation; encoding and decoding

Author Biography

  • Aleksandra Boss, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

    Department of English and American Studies,

    Research Assistant/Academic Staff