Decadence and the Antitheatrical Prejudice

Alston, Adam. 2023. Decadence and the Antitheatrical Prejudice. In: Dustin Friedman and Kristin Mahoney, eds. Nineteenth-Century Literature in Transition: The 1890s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 264-284. ISBN 9781009063852 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

This chapter looks at the discursive production of theatre as a decadent institution over the course of the fin de siècle in Britain and France, focusing especially on the prevalence of the antitheatrical prejudice at the time. It considers why theatre was thought to be inadequate or injurious on the basis of several kinds of impurity, including the pejorative condemnation of its potentially viral degeneracy (moral impurity), critical ruminations on creative sclerosis and declining artistic standards (aesthetic impurity), as well as the reasons why several prominent playwrights and critics of the period who were closely associated with both decadence and symbolism were uneasy about the staging of decadent drama (metaphysical impurity). Moving from a two-dimensional account of theatre’s decadence in the hands of moral purity advocates, to a more nuanced consideration of the surprisingly generative qualities of the ‘Paterian Paradox’ – which describes how the impossible ideal of a disembodied voice rubs up against the public dissemination of a work – I argue that theatre can no longer be viewed as a marginal or erroneous topic in the study of decadence, and that theatre’s decadent ‘wrongness’, especially when it is embodied and enacted, may be the best starting point we have for appreciating its role in a nascent modernism.

Item Type:

Book Section

Identification Number (DOI):


Antitheatrical prejudice; decadent theatre; decadent drama; fin de siècle; symbolism.

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Theatre and Performance (TAP)


15 October 2022Accepted
August 2023Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

16 Nov 2022 13:53

Last Modified:

28 Feb 2024 02:26


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