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The English Decadents in the music hall: Taking pleasure sadly

Audra Himes, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This study postulates some reasons for the development of the music hall as a metaphor for 1890s culture in Victorian fin de siècle literature. Using depictions of the music hall and theoretical arguments about its propriety as a subject for literature, I argue that the hall is a necessary component of understanding the division of Decadence into High and Low forms. High Decadence is the aesthetic of artifice, popularly fixed to Oscar Wilde and other Oxford-based writers like Max Beerbohm. Low Decadence, which comprises the focus of this work, found its inspiration and diction in popular culture. It is an expressivist art whose practitioners were bourgeois, male and heterosexual, and their social position informs the viewpoint of their writing. Low Decadence is found most obviously in Arthur Symons's work, but also attracted such diverse—and lesser-known—writers as Theodore Wratislaw and Frederick Wedmore. ^ Treatments of the music hall illustrate the differences between Low and High Decadence. The entwining of popular culture and art shows us how Low Decadence was an expression of ideas current in the middle class, not a codified discussion of sexual and aesthetic proclivities, which is the High Decadent. The upmarket London halls gave artists opportunities to engage in sexual liaisons with the prostitutes and female performers who worked there; those liaisons were necessary to the part of the Decadent project that I call “Low Decadence.” Primarily, the different artists' uses of the music hall and the women found there reveal that bourgeois Low Decadence was an important part of popular culture, turning popular notions about sexuality and ideas about the constituents of “human nature” into an art based on sensual immersion and naturalism. Furthermore, working from the theories of Symons and Wilde, as well as with the decade's literature, I show that Low and High Decadence were in dialogue with and, in some ways, in opposition to each other. Thus, in order to fully understand the High Decadent stance, we must understand the Low. ^

Subject Area

Literature, Modern|Theater|Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Himes, Audra, "The English Decadents in the music hall: Taking pleasure sadly" (2000). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI9967376.