The Drunkard as a Drama of the Temperance Movement

Seminar Paper 2004 19 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of contents

I. Introduction
The Drunkard as a drama of the temperance movement

II. Main part
1. The temperance movement
2. Criticism of alcohol abuse in The Drunkard
2.1. Edward’s life before he drinks alcohol
2.2. Edward slowly becomes addicted to alcohol
2.3. Edward’s life as an alcohol addict
2.4. Edward at the peak of his addiction and his rescue
2.5. Edward’s life after he signed the pledge

III. Conclusion

I. Introduction

The Drunkard by William Henry Smith was first staged at the Boston Museum in 1844 and shown 144 times within one year. Being a mass media, the theater reached a large audience and the drama was a great success. At the time the drama was staged, the temperance movement was at the peak of its popularity and success. Today the Boston Museum is regarded as the birthplace of American temperance drama. In 1850, when the play had already achieved national recognition, B. T. Barnum staged The Drunkard at the famous American Museum on lower Broadway. On October 7th 1850 the audience was able to watch the 100th consecutive performance of the play. “Barnum’s production of The Drunkard heralded the entry of temperance narratives into mainstream theatre and immediately became the standard against which all other temperance dramas were measured” (Frick 113).

In this paper I will first present a short historical survey of the temperance movement. At a time when drinking alcohol was part of every day life and the negative consequences that resulted from alcohol abuse were severe and obvious, the goal of the temperance movement was to achieve a social reform in the long term. The aim was to put an end to moral decline, crime, poverty and diseases. Alcohol addicts should be persuaded to stop drinking and supported in their effort. They should sign the pledge and abstain from alcohol.

The melodrama The Drunkard or The Fallen Saved is an excellent example of the way the theater was used as a means to present the social, moral and personal consequences of intemperance to the audience. The main focus of this paper will be on the criticism of alcohol abuse in The Drunkard. By close reading I will analyze how Edward Middleton’s and his family’s life changes due to the fact that Edward starts drinking too much alcohol and becomes an addict. But, as the title suggests, the drama also shows that alcohol addicts can be saved and rebuild their lives if they are strong enough and stop drinking. Thus, The Drunkard is a perfect example of the theatricalization of temperance propaganda. The theater was the ideal means to communicate the temperance message of abstinence, and the audience was entertained and received a moral lesson at the same time. The Drunkard was “by far the most prominent and influential […], a play destined to become one of the most popular and best-known temperance dramas of all time” (Frick 113).

1. The temperance movement

In the American colonial and early republican society drinking alcohol was part of daily family, social, commercial and political life. For instance, alcohol was served to daily meals, at town meetings, weddings, funerals, business deals and local elections. Moreover, alcohol was regarded as medicine for almost all diseases and as some sort of wonder drug to strengthen hard-working men. The tavern was a gathering place for men and the center of community life. The location served as setting for commerce, political activities and entertainment, such as gambling and boxing. In order to sell alcohol, these establishments needed a license, which was the only effort to control the consumption of alcohol. More important were informal social controls. Wives looked after their husbands, employers after their employees and parents after their children and made sure that they would not drink too much.

But during the first decades of the 19th century social control proofed to be insufficient to control intemperance. Due to the fact that in the 1820s grain was so plentiful that it was too much to consume, grain was in large part distilled. Thus, it was easier and more lucrative to transport. There was a great surplus of whisky that made distilled beverages cheap and affordable for everybody. The “annual per capita consumption of distilled spirits soared by 1820 to over five gallons, nearly triple that of today’s” (Frick 24). Public drunkenness was common and “America was rapidly becoming [¼] “a nation of drunkards”” (Frick 24). Soon intemperance was regarded as a threat to public order and as a reason for misery. In 1826 religious leaders of the country founded the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, which was later called American Temperance Society (ATS) and ““became one of the most successful reform movements in American history, whether measured by the decline of drinking in the near term or by the inculcation of temperance values in the long term”” (Frick 28). Their goal was control over drinking on a national scale. Their approach was based on two principles: they wanted to convince individuals to sign the pledge and abstain from alcohol and tried to achieve this by moral suasion, which included informal persuasion and pressure of the public opinion. The non-drinking man became the model of respectability and thus, the relation between temperance and social status was established. In the 1840s a new movement appeared which produced the Washingtonians, a temperance society that dedicated its work mainly to the lower middle-class and working­-class drinkers, who were largely ignored by the ATS. The Washingtonians’ approach was mainly based on weekly meetings for temperate and intemperate individuals, where everybody was allowed to speak and tell the others by so-called experience speeches about his or her experiences with alcohol. Thus, reclaimed drunkards could prove that it was possible to overcome alcoholism and to become temperate again. This method, which is still used today by the Alcoholics Anonymous, attracted the public’s attention and as a result, thousands decided to live without alcohol. Also women were highly involved in the temperance movement, due to their moral influence they had on men. They founded for example Martha Washington Societies, which mainly offered help to the families of drunkards. In the course of events also temperance societies for African-Americans and immigrants were established. During the civil war members of all classes and most major ethnic groups were involved in the temperance movement. In 1851 there was a first attempt for a full-scale prohibition of the manufacture of liquor, which is also known as the Maine Law, and in 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment, which created a national prohibition, was ratified. All in all, the temperance movement served as a model for other social reforms, such as the fight for women’s suffrage, and political organizations. According to Frick, “It had been, in legend and in fact, the reform that had defined and shaped the century” (Frick 46).

2. Criticism of alcohol abuse in The Drunkard

The drama The Drunkard shows the social, moral and personal consequences of alcoholism by the example of Edward Middleton and his family. The setting of the drama is the countryside outside New York in the 1840s. The protagonist Edward, who is a well drawn, round character, starts drinking alcohol at a harmless level. But in the course of events, the audience can follow his transformation to an alcohol addict. Thus, Edward is a dynamic character. He starts spending his time and his money at the tavern. He gets into fights with his friends and trusts false friends. Moreover, he shows first signs of physical addiction. Then he abandons his wife and his daughter and leaves them in misery. He goes to New York and there the downward spiral continues. His new friends are loafers and he does not do anything else besides drinking all day. He almost kills somebody because he wants more alcohol and in the end, he almost commits suicide because he is not able to stand his horrible situation any longer. But at this moment Rencelaw appears on stage and convinces Edward to sign the pledge and to stop drinking. With Rencelaw’s help, Edward is able to get his old life back. He goes back to his family and benefits from abstaining from liquor.

One could either consider Cribbs, a lawyer who always plans intrigues to serve his own interest and especially, plans to seduce Edward with alcohol, or alcohol itself as the antagonist of the play. Cribbs, as well as alcohol, both actively oppose against Edward. In a way, they both plan to destroy his life and prepare for his downfall. In this connection alcohol certainly has to be regarded on a more figurative level.

In my following comments I will have a closer look on how Edward changes in the course of events and how these changes are presented to the audience by various means, such as stage directions and soliloquies.

2.1. Edward’s life before he drinks alcohol

In the exposition of the drama Edward is characterized before he starts drinking alcohol. The character is first mentioned in Act I, scene 1, when Mary and her mother Mrs. Wilson talk about the cottage they live in. Old Mr. Middleton, Edward’s father, is dead and now Edward is the new landlord of the cottage that has been the home of the widow Mrs. Wilson and Mary for many years. They fear that they will have to leave their home because they are in arrears with the rent. Lawyer Cribbs joins their dialogue and assures them that the cottage will be sold and that they will have to leave. Mrs. Wilson remembers Edward when he was “a lad, a bright, blue-eyed boy, with flaxen hair, tall of his age” (253). But Cribbs describes Edward as he sees him today as a 23-year old: “A gay young man”, “Fond of the world, given somewhat to excess, [¼].”, “giddy, wild and reckless” (p.253). Moreover, Cribbs hints that Edward is extravagant by saying: “I would not call a blush on the cheek of modesty. But you know, the extravagance, that is, the folly ¾” (253). Later on, the audience learns that Cribbs is a forger and intriguer and always serves his own interest. This is the reason why he talks in a negative way about Edward. Mary wants to go to Edward and pay part of the money they owe him. But she does not know Edward personally at this time and believes the rumors that are spread by Cribbs. She says: “I fear this young man. He has been described so wild, so reckless. I feel a bad foreboding ¾”, “I am agitated. Oh, why do I tremble thus?” (254). In her soliloquy in scene 2 Mary communicates her opinion of Edward. She is convinced that “such a man can have no pity for the children of poverty, misfortune’s suppliants for shelter beneath the roof of his cottage” (255). But when Edward first appears on the stage, the audience learns that Edward has a good heart and that his true character is not as Cribbs described him in the previous dialogue. In his dialogue with Cribbs, Edward reveals that he will not send Mary and her mother away. He did not know that “a poor widow and her only daughter” (255) lived at the cottage and that his father “highly esteemed them” (255). But Edward is not only loyal to his father’s former tenants. He also shows respect and loyalty for Cribbs, his father’s old friend and says: “any friends of my father are always welcome” (255). But when Cribbs starts to make insinuations that Edward wants to keep Mary in the cottage for sexual reasons, Edward gets to know Cribbs real character. Cribbs says: “mother and daughter grateful; love-passion; free access to the cottage at all hours” (256). When Edward points out that Mary has not father, Cribbs answers: “That’s it; a very wild flower growing on the open heath” (255). When Edward mentions that Mary has no brother, Cribbs states: “A garden without a fence, not a stake standing. You have nothing to do but to step into it” (255). In contrast to Cribbs, Edward would never think of abusing Mary. He respects women and is shocked and upset that Cribbs talks in this way about Mary. In his opinion Cribbs is a “rascal” (257). He cannot accept Cribbs attitude and tells him that if his father “had […] heard you tell me to enter, like a wolf, this fold of innocence, and tear from her mother’s arms the hope of old age, he would have […] seized you by the throat, and dashed you prostrate to the earth, as too foul a carcass to walk erect and mock the name of man” (256). Edward tells Cribbs to leave and assures him that the “Almighty power [¼] looks with horror on [your] (his) brutal crime” (257). Mary, who overhears the dialogue between Edward and Cribbs, is very grateful and blesses Edward. In their first dialogue, when she wants to give Edward the money they owe him, he tells her to keep it as a portion of her dowry. Edward immediately falls in love with Mary. He tells her that he has seen many pretty girls but that she has a “charm of mental excellence, noble sentiment, filial piety”, and that “these are the charms which bind captive the hearts of men” (257). And even if it is their first meeting, Edward tells Mary that he wants to marry her. He acts like a gentleman, kisses her hand and compares her with an invaluable jewel. At the end of Act I Edward and Mary finally get married and are both very happy. Edward is very romantic and charming. For him “words are too poor, too weak to express the joy, the happiness that agitates [my] (his) heart” (266). At this point the audience has a very positive picture of Edward. He is described as a well-doing man with a good character and as caring husband.



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Drunkard Drama Temperance Movement




Title: The Drunkard as a Drama of the Temperance Movement