In Victorian times, stage plays were straightforward affairs. You had a virtuous maiden and a sneering villain, and the plot was some contrivance by which the sneering villain would attempt to rob the virtuous maiden of her adjective. Mortgages were always useful weapons in the arsenal of a stage villain, but the better playwrights came up with more ingeniously dastardly plots than the simple but reliable mortgage-on-the-farmhouse.

By many accounts the first American to make his living as a playwright was Bartley Campbell. He wrote for theaters in Pittsburgh, whence his plays propagated across the country. They were perfectly suited to the middlebrow tastes of the American theatergoer in the later 1800s. No one’s heroines were more virtuous, no one’s villains sneerier than Campbell’s.

His most successful play by far was The White Slave, which played every stage from big-city theaters to hick-town “opera” houses for decades. It’s set in the antebellum South, and it’s about a virtuous maiden and a sneering villain who comes up with a humdinger of a wicked plot. He convinces the heroine that she is an “octoroon”—that one of her great-grandparents was Black. Under Southern laws, that makes her Black and a slave.

This poster shows the two most famous scenes from the play:

The White Slave poster

In the first, the villain has just threatened to put our heroine to work with the common field slaves unless she consents to become his favorite. In reply, she speaks the most famous and applause-gettingest line in nineteenth-century American theater: “Rags are royal raiment when worn for virtue’s sake!” The other scene is the villain’s inevitable comeuppance, in which an authority figure reveals that our heroine is a Genuine White Woman, and thus ineligible for slavery. Notice that nineteenth-century audiences did not worry about “spoilers.” They knew how the plot would come out, but they loved to see virtue in action. They came to cheer the heroine and hiss the villain.

Bartley Campbell’s plays were enormously successful, but he went mad from the stress of trying to manage a full-time playwriting career and died in an asylum at the age of 43. Let that be a lesson to all you aspiring writers out there. He is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where he rests under an obelisk—but a Catholic obelisk, depaganized as they usually are in Catholic cemeteries by the addition of a prominent cross.

Bartley Campbell monument

And if you look a little closer, you will recognize his epitaph:


Imagine our stage heroine—who has been trained from youth to trill her Rs vigorously—pronouncing that immortally alliterative line with a virtuous toss of her head. Imagine the audience jumping to their feet to cheer for her virtue, leaving the villain to shuffle his feet for five minutes before he can finally get on with his next threat. And then imagine one of those audience members years later wandering through the pleasant hills of St. Mary’s Cemetery and coming across this monument. In an instant the most thrilling stage performance of his life rises before his mind’s eye, and he hears that immortal line, and he says a prayer for the soul of Bartley Campbell.

And while we are imagining things, imagine a twenty-first-century play in which the heroine gives up everything for virtue’s sake, and the audience doesn’t laugh at her.

The pictures of the Campbell monument come to us by courtesy of Father Pitt, who in turn was directed to the monument by the noted Lawrenceville historian James Wudarczyk.