Theatre of poverty
Popular illegalism on the nineteenth-century stage
in Foucault’s theatres
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This chapter draws on Foucault’s pioneering work on the early political economy and his analysis of working-class ‘illegalism’ to understand how images of poverty were discursively constructed during the nineteenth century. It shows how the poor were both captured and made visible by a vast ‘theatre of poverty’, central to the emergence of what Foucault termed ‘societies of moralisation’. It argues that the theatre of poverty was rendered explicit on the stage through ‘poor plays’, such as Dion Boucicault’s melodrama, The Poor of New York (1857) – adapted as The Streets of London in 1864 – in which moralising discourse represented the poor either as the deserving victims of circumstance or as perpetrators of ‘popular illegalisms’ (from habitual drunkenness to machine wrecking). The chapter shows that although these plays were driven by an agenda of social reform, they remained indebted to the political economy’s theatre of poverty, particularly in their depiction of improvident indigence. It concludes by examining the contemporary influence of the theatre of poverty on the way today’s poor are represented, arguing that the theatre of poverty makes the poor visible, but determines the way they appear according to the circumscribed spaces made available to them by discourse’s modes of representation.

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