Implications of the Second Theater Scene in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

July 3, 2019 by Essay Writer

With the second theater scene of Stephen Crane’s novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, the plot of the selected play is used ironically to provide insight to the hopes and concerns of its audience. Because the theater is a form of escape for Maggie and those of the Bowery tenement specifically, the strife of characters is very much reflective of their reality and elicits raw, visceral reactions — to both their “imagined” and “real” condition (31). This is seen in the chosen melodrama wherein a “heroine was rescued from the palatial home of her guardian,” which is ironic in that its inevitably hopeful and happy ending both simplifies and falsifies life — setting up the idea that those above the audience are always happy and that all those less than are innocently unhappy, until they can better their circumstances (31). The plot also reflects the concerns of the audience, affirming that the “poor and virtuous” may “eventually surmount the wealthy and wicked,” giving hope to the otherwise hopeless, and playing off of their subconscious desires — although providing no real method for ascension other than random acts of heroism (32).

This unrealistic promise of heroics is ironic too, as it is what likely leads Maggie to see Pete as her only escape from predetermined reality, and gives reason for her attachment — as she believes him to be her “hero with the beautiful sentiments” (31). Crane uses this example of disillusionment as a form of commentary on the poor’s distorted understanding of social mobility, which he ultimately argues perpetuates the cycle of poverty in the tenement. Additionally, the choice of diction employed by Crane in his descriptions of the audience holds negative, monster-like connotations which serve as a more basic commentary on the ironic position of power perceived by the audience when at the theater. These “shady persons” are from the perspective of Maggie, “unmistakably bad men,” and are seen throughout the play showering “maledictions” upon similarly villainous characters, who now represent the upper classes (31). The audience is also seen vulgarly “hiss[ing] vice” but “applaud[ing] virtue” with the intent to show support for those “unfortunate and … oppressed” characters they now identify with — uncharacteristically showing a new, “sincere admiration for virtue” (31). This is very much unlike the proper etiquette of a traditional “uptown” theater, but understandable of a tenement audience entranced by the theater’s effect of “transcendental realism” and hypnotized to the teachings of its plot, which bestow upon them a new, third-person perspective and unite them under common sentiments (31). Together, they “encouraged the struggling hero with cries … jeered the villain … [and] sought out the painted misery and hugged it as akin” (31, 32). Their reactions to the play, as well as the plot itself, are reflective of their own desires, and it is only within the theater that they are provided the power to ensure these things, and the position to “confront” and “denounce” the rich — which is unsurprisingly taken full advantage of (32).

In Crane’s narration of the scene, the reader is moved between a wide, generalized perspective and a descriptive one presented through the perspective of Maggie, in order to provide insight to her psychology rather than the greater audience’s. Hence, it is Maggie who perceives the fine details of the scene; the church windows as “happy-hued,” heroine’s home as “palatial,” her guardian as “cruel,” and the hero as man of “beautiful sentiments” (31, 32). This stylistic perspective change is utilized both to share the thoughts of Maggie, and to relate the details of the melodrama back to the larger, outside themes and progression of the novella. For instance, with the hero’s “erratic march from poverty in the first act, to wealth and triumph in the final,” there again lies support for the idea of social mobility, which, the reader is shown, is not only widely praised by the audience, but leads Maggie to “think” that perhaps similar “culture and refinement…could be acquired by a girl who lived in a tenement house” (32). While this likely occurs in many minds of the audience, it is done so ironically in this instance, as Maggie eventually becomes a prostitute — the only role for which she can comparably ascend and descend the social scale.

Stephen Crane’s descriptions throughout the novel use naturalism to suggest that it is the tenement which dehumanize poor individuals, but attributes the perpetuation of their status to the distorted perception of reality shown in the plots of the Bowery’s popular melodramas. To illustrate this, irony is employed throughout the descriptions of the plays, commenting on the use of their plot for the audience’s consolation, which ultimately distracts from directed efforts to better their own positions, but leaves them “with raised spirits” (32).

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