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London on Stage: The Urban Melodrama of George Sims

Richard Higgins


The playwright and journalist George Sims, whose interests mirrored other late Victorian social investigators, such as Charles Booth, W.T. Stead, Stephen Reynolds, Andrew Mearns, and Jack London, has seldom been the subject of critical study. A symptom, perhaps, of the opportunistic and derivative nature of this very prolific man’s writing, the lack of interest in Sims is belied by his contemporary popularity. Sims was interested in giving his audience what they wanted. Responding to The Idler’s questions in 1897 about the middlebrow nature of his work, Sims asked, “Mercenary? And who works for art’s sake?” (Calder-Marshall 1). What his audience most wanted was London. In plays, novels, and prose collections, such as Lights o’ London (1881), The Gay City (1881), Horrible London (1889), In London Town (1899), In London’s Heart (1900), Living London (1902), and The Mysteries of Modern London (1906), Sims returns again and again to this popular and very lucrative subject. His work as a journalist, playwright, novelist, poet, and social investigator make him at the same time both an extraordinarily banal purveyor of social spectatorship and an exemplary figure for exploring the preoccupations of late Victorian audiences. As I argue below, a good part of his work’s popularity is due to his ability to render London legible for a middle class hungry for the assurance of legibility he provided. In particular, Sims uses melodrama to impose coherence on contemporary urban conditions. By creating the illusion that audiences were transported into the midst of urban destitution, melodrama collapses the distance between audience and the city’s spectacle while simultaneously ensuring that spectators could travel back to the refuge of their West End and suburban homes. Social investigators and authors such as Sims utilized melodrama to reveal and expose the poverty that was unsettling to middle-class urbanites at the same time they could sentimentalize a mostly East End underclass into figures of helpless victimization and paralysis.

Social Panoramas and the Detail

If I am suggesting that George Sims’s career was based upon trying to render the city of London legible, then we can presume that its inhabitants felt uneasy about being able to read it by themselves. In his classic essay on Engels’sThe Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, “Reading the Illegible,” Steven Marcus claims that “One of the chief components of the distress commonly felt by many people in modern cities is their sense that the city is unintelligible and illegible. The city is experienced as estrangement because it is not perceived as a coherent system of signs, as an environment communicating to us in a language that we know” (257). While Marcus rightly celebrates Engels’s solution to this estrangment — the location of a deep structure that maps out a coherent view of Manchester — I think Deborah Nord’s description of nineteenth-century methods of reading the city is more persuasive. In Walking the Victorian Streets (1995), Nord identifies two consistently popular ways of representing London: the panoramic, topographic, “birds-eye” perspective; and the “sudden, instructive encounter with a solitary figure” (19-21). She claims that “These two modes, panoramic and episodic, though radically different in structure and content, convey an essentially coherent and consistent interpretation of urban experience” (22). In the following discussion, I suggest that Sims’s drama and prose recuperates both of these representational strategies to render the city coherent.

Sims’s fascination with the theatre, which preceded his own playwriting, is entirely consistent with his use of the panoramic. Indeed, as Nord contends, the panoramic is essentially a theatrical phenomenon. “The image of theatre is crucial to urban representation in the early nineteenth century, for it suggests not only entertainment and performance but also a relationship of distance and tentativeness between spectator and the action on the stage. The urban spectator of this period, whether writer or imagined subject, experienced the sights and people of the street as passing shows or as monuments to be glimpsed briefly or from afar” (Walking 20). While Nord identifies this as a Regency phenomenon, a process that resulted in the rebuilding of London on a scale that emphasized the city’s theatrical monumentalism,[1] the persistence of this representational strategy is undeniable. It is the guiding principle behind a series of magazine articles edited and in many cases written by Sims that were published as a multi-volume collection entitled Living London. In his prologue to the collection, Sims writes:

If I have chosen the metaphor of the theatre, it is because in these pages there is to be enacted for us a great panorama of Living London. Panorama is hardly the word — cinematograph would be a better one, for it is not a London of bricks and mortar that will pass before our eyes, but a London of flesh and blood. All forms and phases of London life, from the highest to the lowest, will be brought before us. For us the gates of the palace and the prison will fly open, and the West and the East will alike deliver up their mysteries. We shall see the people at their work and at their play; we shall mingle with the coroneted crowd at the Court of the King; we shall stand among the tattered outcasts who wait for admission at the workhouse gates; we shall stroll through the great world of London as it wakes to life with the dawn; we shall wander through its highways and its byways at the darkest hour of night. When the pulse of the City beats quickest, and the streets and the parks are thronged, we shall see life in the twentieth century Babylon in a hundred aspects. (1: 3)

In this introductory peroration, Sims connects a number of features that concern us. While seemingly contradictory, it is the broad sweep of the eye, the ability to be in many places simultaneously, that will render a view of “flesh and blood” possible. Paradoxically, the wide-sweep of the panoramic gives the reader and viewer access to the details of living individuals, as though distance and proximity are mutually supportive. This is a totalizing gesture: the wider the vision the more interpretable the detail becomes to the viewer’s eye, and thereby the more coherence is imposed on what might otherwise be experienced as a flood of incoherent signs.

Although the use of the panoramic in Sims’s writing is palpable, Nord does assert that its utility seems to wane later in the century. Clearly, skepticism toward panorama’s representational power increased during the nineteenth century. As Judith Walkowitz notes, “Social investigation, serious fiction, and ‘shilling shockers’ of the 1880s all bear witness to a growing skepticism among men of letters about their capacity to read the city and to sustain a coherent vision of a structured public landscape. They expressed this unease by constructing a mental map of London marked by fragmentation, complexity, and introspection, all of which imperiled the flâneur’s ability to experience the city as a totalizing whole” (39). Undercutting the totalizing view of urban spectatorship was the “contested terrain,” as Walkowitz calls it, of an increasingly diverse city: women, for example, had become social actors and were challenging patriarchal power; the swell (or clerk) had begun to undermine the strict boundaries of the gentleman and conventional modes of masculinity; workers were actively protesting labor conditions, and taking these protests to the West End in events like the matchgirls’ strike or the Trafalgar Square action in 1887 that would become known as “Bloody Sunday.” However, I would argue, and Sims’s work suggests, that the pressure of skepticism made the creation of coherent visions of the city all the more urgent.

Indeed, what is most striking about the panoramic perspective in Sims’s prologue to Living London, and what I think enables him to encompass the city’s increasing complexity, is its appeal to a theatrical mode of spectatorship that suppresses much of the fragmentation to which Walkowitz refers.[2] This may be part of the reason why the city became a more frequent subject in West End theatres. Michael Booth describes how drama and melodrama about London and city life were primarily performed on East End stages during the first half of the nineteenth century. Later in the century, however, at the same time that middle-class theatres began to overtake the East End in providing the bulk of theatrical entertainment, “the increasing taste for visual realism” in West End theatres “brought forth more and more ponderous reconstructions of the urban landscapes,” even as the East End dramatized “urban themes … in much the same way as in the 1840s” (Booth, Victorian City 224). Curiously, while these reconstructions may have been ponderous, Booth also claims that “From whatever social class they came, London audiences liked their stage London to look like real London and their stage Londoners to act like people they knew; in this wish they were satisfied” (Booth, Victorian City 221).

In the case of Sims’s play Lights o’ London, I would contend that it was not so much a London the audience was familiar with nor the people Londoners knew, but rather a familiarity with predictable tableaux and types they had already consumed in the literature and writing of urban investigation. The urban and underclass characters we see in Lights o’ London are figures that its middle-class audience expected to see: Harold, the vagrant or tramp (slyly made palatable in the figure of the tragically fallen aristocrat); Bess, the poor, begging female tramp, who later squeezes out a living alone in London as a seamstress; the Jarvises, who carry the signs signifying migrant labor (but who are also made palatable as provincial players); Jack, the costermonger; the police and detectives; and, of course, the country gentleman, Clifford, who relocates to the city.[3] I would like to suggest that these images are comfortably consumed because they are subject to the predictability and control of the theatrical form. As Nord asserts, it is the gap between the stage and audience, or the urban poor and the middle class, that made a realistic city so appealing in the theatre. In other words, while on the ground, outside in the actual city, middle-class audiences may have experienced the skepticism that Walkowitz identifies; an immersive panoramic perspective, on the other hand, and, more specifically, a play like Lights o’ London, enabled an audience to assert a totalizing gaze and render the city legible.

Consider, for example, the much vaunted realism of Lights o’ London, particularly the celebrated first scene of Act Five. As produced in 1881, the scene attempted to recreate the market environment in Southwark on a Saturday night. Booth describes the production in his introduction to Lights o’ London, borrowing details from the accounts of Wilson Barrett, manager of the Princess Theatre:

Great care was taken to ensure the duplication on stage of a street market and the shops behind. Eight costermongers’ barrows were set out and stocked with goods such as vegetables, fruit, haddock, bloaters, whelks, and oysters. There were also ‘scales and weights to those barrows requiring them. Lighted candles in the glass shades to each barrow. An ice-cream and baked potato barrow combined with hot potatoes in can and cornflour boiled to represent ice, 2 colours. Glasses, wooden spoons. Piano organ. Walnut basket and walnuts.’ In the greengrocer’s shop, ‘plenty of greengrocery in bushel baskets. Heap of coals in one corner of shop. Coal scales, shovel, etc.’ (xxiii)

“It is a marvellous example of stage realism,” the contemporary critic Clement Scott gushed, “complete in every possible detail. … If anything, it is all too real, too painful, too smeared with the dirt and degradation of London Life, where drunkenness, debauchery, and depravity are shown in all their naked hideousness” (Theatre, October 1881). And elsewhere, Scott wrote, “This scene of the Saturday night marketing in the Borough, with its hundreds of varied supernumeraries, men, women, and children; its grim squalor and hideous depravity, its drunkenness and its dirt, its fierce unbridled animal passion and wild-beast fighting, its street row and police-court melee is realism out-realised” (Illustrated London News, 17 Sept. 1881). Scott’s reviews show us how the production emphasized the “perfect” recreation of an East End, “inner city” scene: a panoramic, hyper-real view of the entire market.

The power of the detail is what makes the panoramic so helpful as a mode of spectatorship.[4] In Scott’s reviews, the physical details are instantaneously interpreted through descriptive terms — “depravity,” “unbridled passion,” “wild-beast,” “degradation” — that betray an audience’s value judgments. It is my suggestion that the reality of the production Scott describes is exactly what enabled middle-class audiences to read and experience the city within the safety of the theatre. It was necessary that this be “realism out-realised” because the actual city was in so many ways unreal and disconcerting to a middle-class audience. The attraction Scott evidently has for the scene, as witnessed in his vivid prose, is matched only by his disavowal that it is too real. The aggregation of detail creates a “reality effect,” in which details are significant only insofar as they produce an illusion of realism.[5] Thus, the realistic details in Light o’ London’s production are signs that only refer to what a middle-class audience expected an East End market scene to contain. Of course, there were costermongers in the market, but the details of the stage production signify their beastiality, for example, rather than the act of making a living or the tastiness of their product. The Borough market becomes a microcosm of all that the East End, and the “city of vice,” represents to the audience; at the same time, the fearsomeness of the market is safely contained and appropriately interpreted within the panorama of the stage.[6]

This effect is correspondingly apparent in the pile of details a reader gets from Sims’s social investigative journalism. In his series of articles collected under the title How the Poor Live (1889), Sims offers repeated visual cues of what an East End environment is supposed to contain. In one apartment, for example, Sims first notes that it is an “attic that is almost bare,” but his description implies that it is filled with all the signs of poverty: “in a broken fireplace are some smouldering embers; a log of wood lies in front like a fender. There is a broken chair trying to steady itself against a wall black with the dirt of ages. In one corner, on a shelf, is a battered saucepan and a piece of dry bread. On the scrap of mantel still remaining embedded in the wall is a rag; on a bit of cord hung across the room are more rags — garments of some sort, possibly; a broken flower-pot props open a crazy window-frame … and at one side of the room is a sack of Heaven knows what — it is a dirty, filthy sack, greasy, black and evil looking” (8). These visual cues constitute a panoramic view through details that are meant to contain meaning and provide interpretation within themselves. The sack’s meaning, for example, moves from being “dirty” and “filthy” to “evil looking.” The details are meant to stand alone as a way of reading urban poverty. They become legible through an exhaustive visual inventory. Moreover, like the tableaux in the last two scenes of Lights o’ London, these descriptions of East End life show the affinity of the panoramic with photographic technologies. Indeed, much of Sims’s journalistic writing was accompanied by photographs, and he himself suggests that the panorama of Living London is analogous to the cinematograph. While the overt rationale for the exposing rhetoric of these social investigations is articulated as a means to achieve social reform, after so many years of this very same kind of rhetoric, on the model, for example, of Dickens, James Greenwood, and Henry Mayhew, it is the hyper-realism and sheer number of details that create the effect of legibility.

The Solitary Encounter and Melodrama

Like the late-century emergence of the flaneur, social investigation was imbued with the solitary encounter whereby the investigator would infiltrate the inner city to achieve personal encounters with those in society he or she hoped to help. In narratives of flâneurie, the flâneur would often happen upon a stranger who would provide some kind of lesson or knowledge related to the mysteries of the city — like Baudelaire’s use of encounters with prostitutes. The social investigator may have left less to chance than the flâneur, but the logic of the solitary encounter permeates social investigative literature. As Walkowitz comments, “Urban investigators not only distanced themselves from their objects of study as we see with the panoramic; they also felt compelled to possess a comprehensive knowledge of the Other, even to the point of cultural immersion, social masquerade, and intrapsychic incorporation” (20). Sims’s methods were similar, and, as Walkowitz suggests, he combined the panoramic with the solitary encounter.

As a late-Victorian flâneur, Sims had moved his base of operations from the street to the interior dwellings of the London poor, shedding light on a domestic life that lacked the necessary accoutrements for privacy and ‘decency.’ Masquerading as a board-school visitor, Sims gained entrance to the homes of the poor by putting ‘a statistical question,’ yet he conveyed his experience through the descriptive language of moral environmentalism, in which he sensationally condensed images of poverty, dirt, immorality, and disease into a shocking picture of abject destitution. His ‘intimate’ portraits of the poor were visual and specular, accompanied by little or no dialogue. (27)

These solitary encounters, represented in such a way as to confront the reader or viewer with the subject’s plight, are saturated with the melodramatic, either through an appeal to sentiment or through the dramatization of an emotional response. They follow a pattern whereby, as Elaine Hadley suggests about the late Victorian journalism of reform, subjects became “public vehicles that transformed private individuals into public spectacles in order to render them interpretively visible in society” (Hadley 204). By means of this transformation, the solitary encounter, which begins in many senses as a private act, therefore produces many of the signs that constitute and help form the interpretability of the panoramic, and, hence, a public gaze.

In The Melodramatic Imagination (1976), Peter Brooks writes that melodrama “serves to assure us, again and again, that the universe is in fact morally intelligible” (43). Urban melodrama was one way of illustrating the social dilemmas arising from harsh social conditions in terms that were easily assimilated. Indeed, social reformist writing was not inconsistent with the melodramatic. For those interested in a reformist social agenda, “Melodrama became a customary and familiar form of storytelling … in good part because the melodramatic representation of power and virtue was entirely compatible with the democratic, antiaristocratic, and antistatist traditions of popular radicalism” (Walkowitz 87). Both Walkowitz and Hadley document, for example, Josephine Butler’s use of melodrama in her agitation against the Contagious Diseases Acts, the parliamentary actions which sought to regulate women and their mobility within the city.

By claiming a legacy from his Chartist grandfather (his father was a successful industrialist), Sims saw himself and his work as part of a radical, social reformist project, albeit one that paid well (My Life 135; Calder-Marshall 7). In the “Alien-Land” chapter of Off the Track in London (1911), for example, Sims connects his “travels” into the heart of the city to a developing social conscience:[7]

It is many a long year since I first began to find delight in wandering through the least-known districts of the capital, in visiting strange quarters inhabited by strange people, in penetrating dim, mysterious regions where thousands of our fellow-citizens live, cut off from the rest of the populace by a network of streets and slums into which it is nobody’s business but the inhabitants to enter, and where a visitor from beyond is rarely seen. At first my travels were undertaken solely to gratify my own curiosity. Later on, when there came to me an opportunity of exploring with a less selfish end in view, many circumstances combined to give me an insight into the life of the people which I could never have gained as a mere onlooker. (11)

The difference Sims experiences as he becomes more socially conscious is the transition from being a “mere onlooker” to gaining “insight,” which is specifically a transition from voyeurism to modes of feeling produced by a melodramatic mode. Through this passage we can track how consumption and specular desire is translated into a socially responsible acts. Throughout Sims’s work, insight is coded as sympathy or sadness. Thus, this incisive mode of feeling, whose roots can be traced to an eighteenth-century model of sentiment and sympathy, produces an ability to find the “sameness in difference” that defines the melodramatically nuanced solitary encounter (Hadley 17). In other words, it is through the solitary encounter that “sameness,” or the “common humanity,” for example, between all persons, translates into the seeming intimacy of melodramatic sentiment. Coupled with a reformist agenda, the melodramatic encounter could seem to bridge conditions that appeared insurmountable in their material form.

Not surprisingly, it was an actual solitary encounter that led to the creation of the melodramatic Lights o’ London. The play was based on Sims’s poem “The Lights of London Town,” which was inspired by a solitary encounter Sims claims to have experienced with a tramping couple making their way to London. Sims himself was tramping when he met the couple who inspired the poem. In his narration of the event it is clear how the conjunction of travel and his mode of social investigation enabled him to produce the solitary encounter. On the day of the encounter, Sims had taken an early morning mail train twenty-five miles out of London for the adventure of tramping back. On his way, he came upon a husband and wife who were walking out of necessity, and, as they approached London at dusk, the man said “‘Look Liz … the City ‘paved with gold.’ ‘Yonder are the lights o’ London’” (Sims, Life, 83).[8] The lesson we draw from Sims’s account is underscored by the resulting poem. He was so overcome by sentiment that he had to commit that feeling to poetry, a form of consumption that Sims formalized in his collection of ballads.

Solitary encounters based upon this model are scattered throughout Lights o’ London. The Jarvises’ first encounter with Harold, for example, leads to their being filled with emotion and fellow feeling. After Harold tells them his life story, Mr. Jarvis responds: “Dangit all, man, don’t take on like that! Here, I’ll help you. Lord love you!” (2.2, 51-52). Mrs. Jarvis, who is at first reluctant to admit him into their van, also responds emotionally to Harold’s story: “Look here, young man, if you don’t want to make me cry, drop it. I never did have a h’icicle in my h’eye, and I don’t want one now” (2.2, 88-90). A counterpoint to the Jarvises’ melodramatic response occurs when two “Gentlemen” encounter Harold and Bess as they wander through Regent’s Park (4.2, 170-195). The Gentlemen’s cruelty is characterized by the failure to respond sentimentally and underscores the melodramatic demand of the play’s implied reformist agenda. Contrasted to the “Gentlemen” is the policeman who is called on to shoo Harold and Bess away. Although the policeman at first responds in the gruff, unsentimental way we would expect, he takes pity on them. “Poor devils,” he says in an aside, and provides them both with some warming brandy (4.2, 215).

Like the response of this policeman, one of the most vivid manifestations of the solitary encounter is modeled by the detective, who is often represented during this period as an analog to the social investigator (Nord, Walking 238). The detective embodies the ability both to engage in the solitary encounter and to map the city in a panorama. Moreover, like the tramping Sims, the detective’s mobility and movement throughout the city helps him realize a coherent view of it. In this sense, the prevalence of the police and the detective in Lights o’ London gives further credence to the view that the play replicates a social investigatory logic in its attempts to read the city. Detectives play a role in much of Sims’s work, including a play, Romany Rye (1882), and two of his novels, In London’s Heart and Dorcas Dene, Detective (1898). As Sims writes of his main characters in In London’s Heart, Sergeant Gennatt and Sergeant Verity, both CID detectives, “No two men knew better than they did the black spots in London’s heart.” Even with this intimacy, though, Verity remains a sentimentalist, for “a life-long association with criminals had not killed [his] faith in the better side of human nature” (37-38). Detectives provide a model whereby the spectator can move from the intimate encounter to the distanced panoramic perspective with ease.

Spatial Melodrama

In addition to adding affect to the panoramic and managing the emotional response of the solitary encounter, another function of melodrama is to create binaries that can be easily read and comprehended. Instead of the moral contrasts of traditional melodrama between hero and villain, however, Lights o’ London presents contrasts that are more thoroughly spatial and economic. We have already seen how Harold and Bess’s vagabond status contrasts sharply to the country house from which they are banished. Other contrasts, such as vagabonds and costermongers wandering around Regent’s Park in the West End, are similarly stark. But the primary contrast set up as a frame for the play is between country and city. Although Lights o’ London does seem to follow the conventional pattern of melodrama by beginning in the country, in what Brooks calls the “topoi of melodrama” — the “setting of the enclosed garden, the space of innocence, surrounded by walls” that the villain invades (Brooks 29) — the serene country, the Armytage Lodge, has already been despoiled before the play begins. But in Sims’s portrayal of working-class migration, the country/city contrast can work in either direction, with the ideal city becoming the corrupt city and back again, all in one play. Indeed, the stereotypical city of light is one of the central ironies in Sims’s writing. For example, in Off the Track in London, he claims, “There is no sadder chapter in the story of London than that of the light-hearted country folk who come to it full of courage and hope, and gradually sink down under the evil influence of a slum to which their poverty has driven them, until they themselves are as criminal and as vicious as their neighbors” (42). A similar risk besets Gypsy Jack, the lead character in Romany Rye, who must leave pastoral gypsy encampments to become a hero in and around the docks of the East End. Although the city may be the repository of ideals and potential opportunity, it simultaneously symbolizes corruption and evil.

This ambiguity may reflect Sims’s late century skepticism, but the contrast is more overdetermined than it would first appear. The country/city motif also provides a way of reading the contrasts within the city in coherent binary terms. This contrast represents a working out of the actual contradictions that dominated so much discourse on the city. In this sense, the city and country contrast might be seen as the displaced disjunction between the West and East Ends. During this period, it was not only a cliché to describe the city as beckoning with a modern streetlight glow, but the West End itself was seen as a place of light. As Raymond Williams remarks in The Country and the City (1973), “light was an obvious image for the impressive civilisation of the capital, visibly growing in wealth and in conscious public effect. Whatever was happening in the East End, and often in conscious relation to it, the West End was being newly designed and improved: Trafalgar Square, a new palace, new Houses of Parliament, new parks and highways” (228).

In How the Poor Live, Sims suggests that “It is to increased wealth and to increased civilization that we owe the wide gulf which to-day separates well-to-do citizens from the masses. It is the increased wealth of this mighty city which has driven the poor back inch by inch” (3). The paradoxical and threateningly incoherent nature of this phenomenon — that increased prosperity was leading to more poverty — threatened to disable the city’s legibility for the middle class. Sims thematizes this paradox by showing the interpenetration of the West End by elements of the East End, not only in Lights o’ London but in Living London and The Mysteries of Modern London as well. But the metaphorical coding of the city into the distinction between light and dark helped simplify the terms by which the contradictory developments of prosperity and poverty could be read. Indeed, “What had long been an actual physical contrast between the prosperous West End and the more solidly working-class East End was,” Nord writes about the late nineteenth century, “turned into what Raymond Williams calls an ‘interpretative image’: the West represented all that was bright, open, dazzling, and enlightened; the East all that was dark, labyrinthine, threatening, and benighted” (“The Social Explorer” 119). Sims is not concerned so much, then, with idealizing the country as exploring the compromised ideals of the city. In Lights o’ London, the country operates like a straw man that can be utilized to reduce the divisions of the city to a simple matter of binary logic. Compared to Shaw’s Widower’s House (1892) a decade later, which explores the structural and socio-political causes of spatial and economic stratification in London, Sims’s reduction of the city’s problematic into light and dark contrasts compensates for the reluctance to confront what was clearly perceived as an intractable circumstance.

The contrasts, moreover, give the represented images of the city, including the destitution and degradation that Clement Scott found so fascinating, a vehicle for the play’s middle-class consumption. Indeed, images such as these may have been crucial for providing a foundation of middle-class urban identity. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White’s analysis of bourgeois identity formation suggests the centrality of a reaction like Scott’s. By coding the East End, with its underclass and immigrant population, as dirty and blighted, the middle class could make the West End all the more bright, and their civilizing motives and habits all the more enlightening. Perhaps more importantly, Stallybrass and White show how the exclusion of what they call the “grotesque,” the underclass, for example, actually institutes a simultaneous desire for that “grotesque” as a preeminent feature in popular representations (191-93). I have suggested that Lights o’ London is consistent with what Booth identifies as a trend in the demand for realistic portrayals of the city. And during this period of inflamed social investigation, realism usually implied ever more detailed representations of the poor. The stark contrasts of a production like Lights o’ London help to validate a middle-class identity founded upon the maintenance of subject/object distinctions. The attraction of these images, however, as we see in Scott’s reaction, is only matched by the discomfort they simultaneously cause. That Harold and most of Sims’s melodramatic heroes are only temporarily poor, much like the disguised social investigator, implies the affective power of transcending the menace of destitution.

The representational strategies of rendering a legible city are based upon the same portable quality. In his autobiography, Sims relates how he conceived of “The Lights of London Town” in a hot bath far removed from the tramping couple who were supposed to have inspired the poem. While the solitary encounter brings the investigator/spectator into close proximity with the disturbing Other, it is simultaneously predicated on being able to go back to the comfort of one’s own milieu once the melodramatic illusion of sameness has been extracted — a dynamic reinforced by Sims’s use of the travel metaphor to describe his method. Similarly, the panoramic brings into sharp focus what is safely separated and distanced from the spectator’s gaze. Although Lights o’ London is more engaged with conflicting discourses of urban poverty than one would first imagine, I would argue that the play’s popularity exemplifies the ameliorative role of melodrama in making the city legible through the simultaneous operation of proximity and distance in a theatrical space. Through the play, audiences could experience the readable phenomena of a threatening city while suspending the action of the world outside the theatre doors. Urban signs such as Jack the costermonger, for example, who finds the Armytage bracelet outside a theatre, can be translated into generic figures of coherent interpretation through this suspension. Lights o’ London, therefore, enables images like the figure of Jack to be interpreted within the frames of a panoramic gaze and a sentimentally melodramatic encounter, and thus disables their threat on the actual street. By experiencing the legibility (and “realism”) of the city through melodrama, the middle classes could then claim the city as their own.


[1] See especially Nord’s discussion of the development of Regent’s Park, which plays a dramatic spatial role in Lights o’ London (25-29).

[2] One of the features of late nineteenth-century melodrama is the ability to produce this suppression. For a different perspective on increasing fragmentation, see Franco Moretti’s discussion of the way in which temporality in the novel was enhanced by rendering the city as fragmentary (109-129).

[3] My research indicates that Lights o’ London was played primarily for middle class audiences. There is also considerable evidence that Sims wrote the play from a thoroughly middle-class perspective, which I shall discuss in greater length below.

[4] See Vanessa Schwartz for a discussion of both early and late century panorama (149-176). Panorama is notable for immersing its observers in a visual field that lacks points of reference.

[5] Reality effect is, of course, Roland Barthes’s phrase. Schwartz has a rather more optimistic reading of reality effects. She suggests that these effects collapse class distinctions to produce “the urban mob happily assembled as a new collective in front of the spectacle of the real” (44). Schwartz’s unalienated urban identity may have been, in part, the goal of the middle-class consumption of urban melodrama.

[6] Readers familiar with dramatic criticism should take note how interrelated the “pictorial” acting style might be to social investigation and the “urban gaze.”

[7] One of the primary rhetorical methods that Sims uses to frame his “solitary encounters” is through the metaphor of travel. For example, at the beginning of How the Poor Live, Sims writes, “I commence … a book of travel. … In these pages I propose to record the result of a journey into a region which lies at our doors — into a dark continent that is within easy walking distance of the General Post Office.” What is remarkable about this description of travel is that it almost immediately lends itself to melodramatic sentiment: “No man who has seen ‘How the Poor Live’ can return from the journey with aught but an aching heart … He may be pained before we part company, but he shall not be disgusted. He may occasionally feel a choking in his throat, but he shall smile now and again. Among the poor there is humour as well as pathos, there is food for laughter as well as for tears” (1-2). Thus, at the very beginning of this particular text, Sims stipulates that his readers respond melodramatically.

[8] Migration from the country to the city was a well-known phenomenon and would have been familiar to contemporary audiences (see Banks), and trampers constituted a migratory pool of temporary labor who slept outside in van encampments or in the workhouse while in the city (see Samuel). The dream of economic advantage that we see in Sims’s poem was the common sentiment projected onto rural-country migration, and which is replicated in the social types that Harold and Bess symbolize in the play.

Works Cited

Banks, J.A. “The Contagion of Numbers.” In The Victorian City: Images and Realities vol. 1. Eds. H.J. Dyos and Michael Wolff. London: Routledge and Kegan, 1976.

Barthes, Roland. “The Reality Effect.” In The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986.

Booth, Michael. “Introduction.” In Lights of London and Other Victorian Plays. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

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To Cite This Article:

Richard Higgins, ‘London on Stage: The Urban Melodrama of George Sims’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 1 (March 2006). Online at Accessed on [date of access].