Theses Doctoral

The Performing Detective: Spectacle and Investigation in Victorian Literature and Theater

Rutigliano, Olivia Lucy

The character of the detective in Victorian literature and entertainment seems to be a paradox: tasked with surveillance but enacting it via disguise and other performative and even theatrical hallmarks. Scholars have often read the detective as an extension of the panoptic state, as a policing figure whose investigative work is undertaken through surveillance. How, then, are we to explain why Victorian detectives are so performative, which seems hardly compatible with surveillance? In this dissertation, I look beyond surveillance as the detective’s main function, towards the process of detection overall—which I demonstrate is completed through the detective’s use of performance and involves the manipulation of spectacle and evaluation of audience expectations.

In redefining detection as a performative practice, I look at four different cases in which Victorian fictional detectives rely on a specific performance practice, style, or tradition to complete their detective work. The first two chapters establish the embeddedness of performance within the practice of detection, focusing on feats of non-theatrical performance by detectives who rely on and cultivate spectacle around them.

In Chapter One, I analyze Dickens’s detectives, Mr. Nadgett of Martin Chuzzlewit and Inspector Bucket of Bleak House: conjuror figures who rely on controlled concealment, illusionistic demonstrations, and enthralling revelations to crime-solve, in a way that will win the favor of the Victorian public. In Chapter Two, I detail how Sherlock Holmes borrows the spectacular conventions of Victorian scientific performance to legitimize his own “Science of Deduction” as a discipline.

The third and fourth chapters examine cases in which the feats of performance undertaken by detectives demonstrate the ways that detection is essential to the practice of performance—and that performance itself is not only a logical act, but also an interactively educational one. In Chapter Three, I analyze the practices of “lady detective” characters who have had prior careers as professional actresses and use the acting skills they cultivated on the stage to un-spectacularize themselves, achieving a level of invisibility that allows them mobility, access, and information.

In Chapter Four, I look at two stage detective characters who are themselves performing roles: Hawkshaw in Tom Taylor’s The Ticket-of-Leave Man and Gripper in W.S. Gilbert’s A Sensation Novel. I analyze how these plays showcase the detective’s acting to refocus the ways that the actor is doing detection—that is, the ways in which, through performance, the theater is able to disseminate news and critique institutions of power, like the police itself.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Stone Peters, Julie
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 18, 2023