Way back in our collective consciousness is the damsel in distress. The girl in peril at the hands of a villain. She is tied to the railroad tracks. As the piano thunders, a train barrels down on the helpless girl. But in the nick of time comes our hero! He pulls her to safety, they ride off into the sunset, and Bob’s your uncle.
So imagine how hard I belly-laughed when I discovered the play Under the Gaslight. Written in 1873, it featured the first known rescue of someone tied to railroad tracks. The play is melodrama to the fifth power, and reflects the bias of the wealthy in 19th-century New York. In other words, it ain’t Shakespeare. However, in light of the ‘damsel in distress’ archetype, this first-known train rescue is mind-blowing:
The villain wants to rob the damsel’s house. She’s rich. A one-armed friend of the damsel’s tried to stop the villain, but the villain overtakes him. The villain kidnaps both the damsel and her friend. He locks the damsel in a wood shed and ties the friend to the railroad tracks a few feet away. The damsel’s fiancé has dumped her for being adopted, so she’s not rich anymore. Not to mention no one’s coming to her rescue. She must sit helplessly while her one-armed friend gets mangled by the oncoming train. But wait–is that an ax in the corner? With only moments to spare, the damsel hacks at the walls of the shed until she is free. She cuts her friend loose, and the two of them dash out of the train’s path. Dun-da-da-DUN!!!
Not only did the GIRL rescue the GUY, they weren’t even in love. The damsel gets back with the fiancé after he’s super sorry for dumping her, and it just so happens that she’s not adopted after all. So, you know, she’s still rich. The one-armed guy remains a friend, and cue curtain. Have you ever had so many assumptions swept away at once? We of the 21st century cannot abide such stories. Girl saves guy? A guy she doesn’t even like in a romantic way? Then she marries the fiancé who was clearly after her money? One-Armed Guy winds up in the friend zone even though he’s the one that had her back the whole time? Catch me, I shall swoon!
For all of its melodrama, this play keeps it real in ways we can’t stomach today. The damsel’s fiancé was an army captain, while her friend was a non-ranking soldier. But who’s got the missing arm? Who showed up when the damsel actually needed help? And when it turns out that he was the one who needed saving, he doesn’t pout over being rescued by a girl. Of course, a one-armed ex-soldier won’t have the bank of an army captain, and an upper middle-class girl in 1870s New York has to eat. And it isn’t as if the friend is entitled to the damsel’s love. It’s just that he’s a better choice than some pretty boy who cares more about social position.
So over the years, the scene changed. The idea of a helpless man was demoralizing. Maybe it had to do with war, its destruction of the bodies and minds of men. Maybe the wealthy couldn’t stand such an honest reflection of who they were and how they got there. And heaven forbid a woman get the notion that she can save herself. So here’s what we’ll do. Let’s make the poor guy the hero. Women will happily take a backseat because they want men to feel useful, the little dears. Don’t worry, boys, it’ll be business as usual in the real world–the spineless rich will be rewarded for selling out, poor men will be trampled by ‘progress’, and women will sit idle because they ‘don’t want to hurt a man’s pride’.
But wait–is that an ax in the corner?