Article Title

Suffering Silences, Woeful Afflictions: Physical Disability, Melodrama, and the American Charity Movement


This essay considers the cultural work of nineteenth-century American melodrama in relation to an increasingly visible community of the deaf/dumb and blind. During the first three decades of the nineteenth century, a number of what I identify as affliction melodramas circulated on American stages. In these plays, disabled characters such as blind orphans and deaf/dumb peasant girls played fundamental roles in the formulaic plots of mystery and intrigue. Affliction melodramas, I argue, offer critical insight into the attitudes toward the disabled in nineteenth-century America. Moreover, the treatment of these “unfortunate” subjects in the melodrama illuminates the complexities of a larger cultural enterprise: organized benevolence.

On stage, melodramatic performance conventions combined with visual codes generated by the bodies of afflicted characters to advance charitable fellow-feeling as the socially accepted dynamic between the able-bodied and the disabled. I demonstrate how this dramatic portrayal mediated attitudes and behaviors toward the deaf/dumb and blind outside the playhouse, subsequently enabling administrators of educational “asylums” for the disabled to invoke the same sentimental signs and meanings in their educational performances. A recuperation of these melodramas discloses new ways to understand the cultural effects of this popular theatrical genre and, most importantly, moves the disabled from the periphery of theater and social history to the fore, augmenting the American dramatic canon to include issues of physicality along with race, gender, and class.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.