Scene from The Drunkard

The Drunkard was written in 1844 by William H. Smith. After playing for an unprecedented 101 performances at Kimball's Boston Museum, it became a regular offering at museum theatres in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. It debuted in 1849 at Barnum's American Museum and was so popular that Barnum enlarged his Lecture Room to accommodate the growing audience. Moral reform melodramas like The Drunkard were popular in American theatres in the 1840s and 1850s, and their plots followed a formula of temptation, downfall, ruin, and occasionally reformation and redemption. In this excerpt from The Drunkard, protagonist Edward Middleton, who has just attempted to strangle a tavern owner, experiences delirium tremens, or withdrawal pains from alcohol, and attempts suicide, only to be rescued by his benefactor Mr. Rencelaw.


Act IV, Scene I from William H. Smith, The Drunkard or, The Fallen Saved; A Moral Domestic Drama in Five Acts

WILLIAM. Good lord! what is this? Edward, Edward! (EDWARD releases

LANDLORD and falls, R.)

LANDLORD. You shall pay for this--villain! you shall pay for this. (Exit, hastily, L.)

EDWARD. (On ground in delirium.) Here, here, friend, take it off, will you--these snakes, how they coil round me. Oh! how strong they are--there, don't kill it, no, no, don't kill it, give it brandy, poison it with rum, that will be a judicious punishment, that would be justice, ha, ha! justice! ha, ha!

WILLIAM. He does not know me.

EDWARD. Hush! gently--gently, while she's asleep. I'll kiss her. She would reject me, did she know it, hush! there, heaven bless my Mary, bless her and her child--hush! if the globe turns round once more, we shall slide from its surface into eternity. Ha, ha! great idea. A boiling sea of wine, fired by the torch of fiends! ha, ha!

WILLIAM. He's quite helpless, could I but gain assistance, he cannot move to injure himself. I must venture. (Exit, rapidly and noiselessly, R.)

EDWARD. So, so; again all's quiet--they think I cannot escape. I cheated them yesterday--'tis a sin to steal liquor--(Enter MR. RENCELAW, R.) But no crime to purloin sleep from a druggist's store--none--none. (Produces phial.) Now for the universal antidote--the powerful conquerer of all earthly care--death. (About to drink, RENCELAW seizes phial and casts it from him.) Ha! who are you, man? what would you do?

RENCELAW. Nay, friend, take not your life, but mend it.

EDWARD. Friend, you know me not. I am a fiend , the ruin of those who loved me, leave me.

RENCELAW. I came not to upbraid, or to insult you. I am aware of all your danger, and come to save you. You have been drinking.

EDWARD. That you may well know. I am dying now for liquor--and--will you give me brandy? Who are you that takes an interest in an unhappy vagabond--neither my father nor my brother?

RENCELAW. I am a friend to the unfortunate. You are a man, and if a man, a brother.

EDWARD. A brother! yes, but to trouble yourself without hope. I am lost, of what use can I be to you?

RENCELAW. Perhaps I can be of use to you. Are you indeed a fallen man? (EDWARD looks at him, sighs and hangs his head.) There you have the greater claim upon my compassion, my attention, my utmost endeavors to raise you once more, to the station in society from which you have fallen, "for he that lifts a fallen fellow creature from the dust is greater than the hero who conquers a world."

EDWARD. (Starts.) Merciful heaven! My mother's dying words! Who and what are you?

RENCELAW. I am one of t hose whose life and labors are passed in rescuing their fellow men from the abyss into which you have fallen. I administer the pledge of sobriety to those who would once more become an ornament to society, and a blessing to themselves and to those around them.

EDWARD. That picture is too bright, it cannot be.

RENCELAW. You see before you one who for twenty years was a prey to this dreadful folly.

EDWARD. Indeed! no, no; it is too late.

RENCELAW. You mistake; it is not too late. Come with me, we will restore you to society. Reject not my prayers; strength will be given you, the Father of purity smiles upon honest endeavors. Come, my brother, enroll your name among the free, the disenthralled, and be a man again. (Takes his hand.)

EDWARD. Merciful heaven! grant the prayer of a poor wretch be heard. (Exeunt, R.)