Melodrama on and off the stage

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Jim Davis

Since so much has been written about melodrama over the last five decades, there may be a case for arguing that there is nothing more to say for the moment. Among the most influential books of recent years have been Peter Brooks’s The Melodramatic Imagination, focussed on French melodrama and its impact on French literature and using a methodology partially based in psycho-analytic theory; Martin Meisel’s Realizations, which links melodrama (and other genres) to the visual arts and the nineteenth-century novel; Elaine Hadley’s Melodramatic Tactics, which demonstrates how melodrama operates as an extra-theatrical force within nineteenth century culture and politics; and Ben Singer’s study of melodrama and modernity and their impact on early cinema.i There has also been a considerable amount written about melodrama’s political impact (or lack of it) and debates around the perhaps over-simplified binaries of subversion versus escapism, efficacy versus containment.

In this chapter I want to argue for a more pluralistic view of melodrama and also to suggest that there are still many avenues totally or partially unexplored. Traditionally melodrama has been written about as a national phenomenon. Thus Frank Rahill’s early study The World of Melodrama is carefully divided into sections on French, English and American melodrama, while Michael Booth focuses solely on English melodrama and a number of other studies focus on American or Australian melodrama.ii Yet overall, with some notable exceptions, there has been a reluctance to focus on melodrama as a transnational phenomenon and to ask what it means, say, when East Lynne suddenly becomes successful in North America and Australia or Uncle Tom’s Cabin is performed in Britain. Boucicault’s melodramas were, of course, performed and even toured by him internationally and, by the end of the nineteenth century, many other actor managers were very much alive to the potential attraction of good melodramas as vehicles for international touring. Even in discussions of the origins of melodrama there is a case for further exploration of the interactions between French, English and German drama and literature during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.

Yet, before following through the notion of melodrama as a transnational phenomenon, it is necessary to be a little clearer about what we mean by melodrama. There has been a tendency among scholars to label as melodramas plays that were not labelled as such by their own authors or by the theatres that staged them. Not all of the plays that we would define as melodrama today were so regarded by their contemporaries. Many were labelled as dramas, nautical dramas, dramatic romances, domestic dramas, temperance dramas or plays, but there is no evidence that their authors or contemporary audiences regarded them as melodramas in any strictly generic sense of the word, although many of these plays share melodramatic characteristics. Moreover, in so far as melodrama as a genre is often defined through character stereotypes, moral absolutes and conventional plot structures, we find that many so-called melodramas defy such simplistic categorisation from John Walker’s The Factory Lad (1832; a domestic drama) to Leopold Lewis’s The Bells (1871; a drama) and Paul Potter’s Trilby (1895; not categorised). Indeed, The Factory Lad raises another problem. Performed for a week at the Surrey Theatre in the 1830s and revived briefly at the Victoria Theatre a few years later, it is both atypical and even insignificant in its impact, but has nevertheless been accorded a lot of arguably disproportionate space in critical discussions of the genre.

Much of what we call melodrama is not really melodrama at all and there is a danger that it has merely become an easy device through which to define and limit our responses to the wide, diverse field of nineteenth-century drama. Equally, the failure by some critics to explain ways in which spectacle and acting style and even the use of music were mandated by the increasing size of theatres from the 1790s onwards can lead to dismissive comments about the drama of the period, even while the impact of these changes on operatic or Shakespearean productions is readily accepted. The rhetorical language and visual appeal of nineteenth-century drama is not out of place in theatres with audience capacity of 3,000 or more, while a scene such as William’s court martial in Jerrold’s Black-Ey’d Susan, which takes a minute to read, actually lasted for ten minutes or more in performance, as the original musical score for the play clearly indicates. Nineteenth-century dramas need to be read carefully by contemporary critics, since the theatres and actors for which they were written, and the musical scores, form the primary footnotes to our understanding of these plays in performance.

The Evolution of Melodrama and the Supernatural

If, despite these provisos, we loosely define many nineteenth-century plays as characterised generically by melodramatic features, we still have to confront a further issue. Melodrama evolved and changed throughout the nineteenth century and, as a genre, demonstrates continual slippage and refashioning and not only through the series of sub-genres that Booth or Rahill define in their studies. If we take the treatment of the supernatural as an example, we might consider the last act of Trilby, in which we learn that a character named Zouzou has passed a disgusting old man in the street, reminiscent of the now deceased Svengali, carrying a portrait. He is quite shaken, for he thinks he has seen Svengali’s ghost. Shortly afterwards a portrait is delivered to Trilby: unveiled, it turns out to be a portrait of Svengali. Even from the grave, it seems, Svengali maintains his hypnotic power over Trilby - the mesmerising power of the eyes in the portrait so overwhelms her that she expires. Whether the power of suggestion is too great or the other worldly, quasi supernatural implications of the ending bring closure, the play concludes with a moment worthy of an M. R. James short story, one that hopefully sends shivers down the spines of its spectators. Yet, If we take a step backwards from the late 1800s to the late 1700s we might find ourselves confronting another spine-shivering moment in M. G. Lewis’s 1797 drama The Castle Spectre, considered by many to be a Gothic harbinger of melodrama. Angela has just confronted Earl Osmond with the poniard with which he killed her mother and caused him to faint. Now she must save her father, but a plaintive voice, with (supernatural) guitar accompaniment, sings to her, informing her that her father is on his way, as folding doors unclose and the oratory is seen illuminated

In its centre stands a tall female figure [her deceased mother], her white and flowing garments spotted with blood; her veil is thrown back and discovers a pale and melancholy countenance; her eyes are lifted upwards, her arms extended towards heaven, and a large wound appears upon her bosom.iii

Angela sinks to her knees, then, as the spectre vanishes to an organ swell and full chorus of female voices chanting ‘Jubilate’, enhanced by a blaze of light flashing through the oratory and the clang of the doors closing, she falls motionless on the floor.

Reactions to the use of ghosts in late-eighteenth century drama were polarised between those who saw it as blasphemous and those who saw it as inappropriate in a post-enlightenment age. Subsequently, the use of the ghost in Lewis’s play spawned not only a debate about the legitimacy of using the supernatural in the drama, but also a whole series of imitations in future plays. As a result spectres of all shapes and sizes haunt nineteenth-century British drama, raising the obvious question as to why ghost effects retained their popularity throughout the nineteenth century and the need to move beyond the obvious answer, applicable to The Castle Spectre and much else besides, that the growing demand for spectacle and new developments in stage technology inevitably encouraged this sort of effect. In the light of this one might have expected the Victorians to be more sceptical about ghosts than their predecessors, but the reverse turned out to be the case. Despite scientific and technological progress and the impact of Darwinism, curiosity about, fascination with, as well as investigation of, the supernatural became much more marked, especially on account of the growing interest in spiritualism, mesmerism and the embedding of the tradition, by Dickens, of the Christmas ghost story, as well as ongoing discussions of ghosts and the supernatural in the journals Dickens edited.iv

New technologies enhanced the mechanical sophistication of the means by which the appearance and sudden disappearance of supernatural beings could be effected on the stage from the vampire trap devised for J. R. Planche’s 1820 romantic melodrama The Vampire to the Corsican trap devised for Boucicault’s The Corsican Brothers in 1852 and the first theatrical use of Pepper’s Ghost (dependent on a sheet of plate glass and reflection) in Britannia melodramas in 1863, sensationally superseding the earlier impact of the phantasmagoria displays of the supernatural at the beginning of the century. These all appealed to the visual or ocular senses that are fundamental to an apprehension of the supernatural and which, of course, place theatrical display in a different category from the novel or short story, in which the appearance of ghosts and spectres may be rendered far more ambivalent and uncertain. Once the spectre is made visible, then there is less room for doubt. Thus the ambiguities of Dickens’ Christmas Stories are sacrificed in the many stage dramatisations which give the ghosts a concrete form. Ambivalence makes way for spectacle.

Within the context of modernity the function of the supernatural in the Victorian theatre is arguably more complex than merely providing an excuse for the presentation of special effects. The ghost in the machine (to use the phrase anachronistically for the moment) becomes more interesting than the mechanised ghost, which might anyway prove unreliable. Indeed, the use of special supernatural effects materialised more in plays where the visions or hallucinations were internal, perhaps most famously in Leopold Lewis’s The Bells in 1871, when Mathias sees a vision of his murder, many years before, of a Polish Jew and later a vision of a court scene in which, through the agency of a mesmerist, he is forced to reveal his long suppressed guilt. The possibility that manifestations of the supernatural might, as it were, be in the mind’s eye or in those dream-like, hallucinatory moments between sleeping and waking, had long been discussed by the Victorians and even earlier. In effect, they were the result of physiological and psychological processes, manufactured within the mind of the spectator. Now, as in the instance of The Bells or in the uncanny power of Svengali’s portrait to mesmerise and kill Trilby by some form of auto-suggestion, the supernatural is internalised and we are confronted not so much by haunting but self-haunting. We move into the realm of psychology: it is not mesmerism, but fear of mesmerism, that kills Mathias; it is the hypnotic power of suggestion embodied in Svengali’s portrait, not Svengali’s ghost, that kills Trilby.

Melodrama and Realism

As melodrama evolved, its use of the supernatural evolved too, emerging in more credible or psychologically-driven manifestations. Increasingly, melodrama reflected everyday life. The oppositional way in which the coming of naturalism and realism is often seen as a late-nineteenth century antidote to popular drama fails to grasp that the various categories of drama generically defined as melodrama were grounded in the real. This point is astutely made by Julia Swindells, who argues that the fundamental interest of pre-Victorian drama and melodrama

is in this everyday world of ordinary people, not kings and queens, not the nobility (except for their vices), but the lives and perspectives of factory workers, oppressed wives and daughters, cottagers, farmers and farm labourer, domestic servants and other representative of daily life in Britain.v

While one may argue for a wider social basis or bias in the drama of the Victorian period, the fact is that melodrama, however heightened though spectacle, conventional plotting and character stereotyping, works because it is rooted in the real, just as David Wilkie’s pictures of everyday life, Augustus Egg’s narrative paintings or W. P. Frith’s representations of everyday spectacle also appeal because they embody the familiar. Some, like William Bodham Donne, the Examiner of Plays from 1857-74, complained that an obsession with the everyday stifled the imaginationvi, a lament articulated more graphically by Percy Fitzgerald writing in 1870, who noted that even in the theatre we are no longer separated from the objects of everyday life, and ‘meet again the engine and train that set us down almost at the door; the interior of hotels counting-houses, shops, factories, the steam-bats, waterfalls, bridges, and even fire-engines’.vii

The real, as Swindells implies, goes deeper than the pictorial representations criticised by Donne and Fitzgerald. A number of studies have demonstrated that melodrama was often rooted in the everyday experience of its spectators and it was even a modus operandi of Victorian society outside of the theatre. This is the persuasive case made by Elaine Hadley in Melodramatic Tactics, arguing for a historicist view of melodrama rather than for an aesthetic or personalised discussion of melodrama as genre. Particularly valuable is her comment on the limitations of Peter Brooks’s influential study, The Melodramatic Imagination:

Brooks’s title articulates our fundamental differences, for in his attribution of melodrama to the imagination—what amounts to a melodrama of consciousness—he locates melodrama within the psyche of the individual. Thus, the rhetoric of melodrama becomes an aestheticized form of psychological expression and its tropes a series of psychic pressure points that move melodrama out of history and, occasionally, into pathology.viii

For Hadleigh the melodramatic mode ‘erupts throughout nineteenth-century public life, often as ‘a reactionary rejoinder to social change’.ix Hadley sees this mode as operative verbally and non-verbally, often theatrically reinforcing traditional values and social formations, to which stage melodrama is a contributing factor. The melodramatic mode, in Hadley’s view, is not discursive, but nevertheless contributed to the shaping of nineteenth-century society. Even if, in real life, the villain, embodying ‘all the evils of modernising Victorian capitalism’, won in the end and rewrote nineteenth-century history from his own perspective, the ‘melodramatic mode’ provides a multiple and more variegated manifestation of the ‘conflict, struggle, unmanaged excess, insistent variety in the historical record’.x

Hadley provides a sophisticated approach to the relationship of melodrama with nineteenth-century life, one that liberates us from too close an engagement with romantic individualism and psychoanalytic theory as key elements of the genre and its applications. Ben Singer has also argued for a recognition that melodrama is neither anti-realist nor confined to the superficially external realism evoked by realistic scenery and objects, but that by the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries the sensation scenes of melodrama, reflecting the cultural and personal discontinuities of modernity, contained a considerable degree of realism, insofar as the events portrayed ‘correlated, even if only loosely, with certain qualities of corporeality, peril and vulnerability associated with working-class life’.xi That melodrama is a means of coming of terms with modernity or certainly provides ways of dealing with is complexities takes us in the direction of Jacky Bratton’s broader notion of the ‘contending discourses’ of melodrama’.xii Melodrama, in her view, enabled its spectators to negotiate change in a period of imperialism, industrial growth and socio-economic instability, often through the use of contrast, humour and irony. Again the emphasis here is on melodrama from a cultural materialist and historicist perspective, acknowledging the ambiguities and complexities of its interaction with everyday life and experience.

Melodrama’s engagement with the quotidian is prevalent in many of the plays categorised within the genre. Both Tom Taylor’s The Ticket of Leave Man (1863) and Colin Hazlewood’s The Casual Ward (1866) have provoked essays specifically on their relationship to everyday life.xiii The latter play, based on James Greenwood’s sensational series of essays ‘A Night in a Workhouse’, published in the Pall Mall Gazettexiv, was staged simultaneously at the Marylebone, Britannia and Whitechapel Pavilion Theatres: the Marylebone production even featured one of the workhouse inmates described in the Greenwood articles, ‘Old Daddy’, among its cast. Punch (17 March, 1866) denounced this mania for realism as tasteless, while All the Year Round was equally condemnatory.xv Yet the depiction of the casual word on stage was praised in many reviews and the humiliating experiences of new inmates, as described by Greenwood, were also incorporated into the script. At a time of chronic unemployment, an increase in sweated and casual labour, growing poverty and economic instability, it is neither surprising that over 100,000 paupers sought relief from parish charities in the metropolitan areas of London in the last week of April 1866 or that the play should attract audiences in the predominantly working-class neighbourhoods to the west and the east of London, when it was first staged. Hazlewood is among those dramatists who, however faithful to the conventions of melodrama and the expectation of a happy ending, frequently demonstrate the injustices and inequalities of working class life, as, for example, in The Work Girls of London (1864).xvi Yet the happy ending of melodrama, with its seeming endorsement of a benevolent providence and emphasis on ‘affect’, is one that, I believe, should be read with a certain degree of irony. The exigencies of plotting should not be allowed to undermine the realism that is often a concomitant aspect of melodrama, however benign its endings. Indeed, many melodramas do not end happily, as we have already seen in the cases of The Bells and Trilby. John Walker’s The Factory Lad and Douglas Jerrold’s Mutiny at the Nore (1830) both end bleakly, as does the perennially popular East Lynne.

The problems of distinguishing between melodrama and realism or between melodrama and realist drama, from generic, formalist or even evolutionary perspectives, are eloquently explored by Tom Postlewait. Although his discussion focuses primarily on American drama and its history according to melodramatic conventions – ‘a primary conflict between good and bad drama, high and low culture, innovative art and retrograde tradition, enlightened critique and false consciousness’ xvii - , it can be applied more widely. Postlewait argues for a mutuality and overlapping between the two forms, not an evolution from one to the other, and believes that so-called realistic drama will often contain elements of the melodramatic just as melodrama will often contain much that is realistic.xviii In pursuing rigid genre definitions or looking for an evolutionary history we are, in effect, ignoring the complexity that melodrama offers and its close association with the real.

Finally, performance itself is what embodies and makes real the text. Melodramatic acting has often been criticised as rhetorical, pictorial, exaggerated and untrue to life, but as James Naremore has usefully argued, all acting is rhetorical, even at its cinematically most restrained.xix The large theatres in which nineteenth-century melodrama was often performed required strong physical and vocal performances that were visible, audible, sensitive to pictorial effect and narrative clarity, and heightened emotionally. Actors in melodrama also performed in precise co-ordination with a musical score and, in some of the genre’s more sensational scenes, demonstrated considerable athletic prowess. Arguably, despite the derision directed at melodrama by the many burlesques of the form, the actors of melodrama enhanced its realism within the context of the theatrical spaces in which they performed, the expectations of its audiences and its generic conventions. In some instances, such as Henry Irving’s performance of Mathias in The Bells, a sense of repression, the contrast between the inner and outer self and, as Gordon Craig reveals in his discussion of Irving’s enactment of the role, the careful use of detail all demonstrate the possibility that melodramatic acting can also be extremely subtle.xx Nineteenth-century actors made melodrama work and made it credible; only in burlesque did actors parody or exaggerate melodrama to the extent that it seemed patently unreal.

Transnational Melodrama

In this section I want to focus on some of the more frequently performed melodramas (albeit often in different versions or adaptations taken from a common source) and the way in which they impacted across the globe as part of the phenomenon of burgeoning cultural exchange transnationally as the century progressed, communicating and enacting multiple versions of the ‘real’. My argument is not that melodrama per se should be disregarded as a product of national cultures, perceptions, identities or as a factor that in turn shapes national cultures and identities, for often the reverse is true. Rather I am interested in the exchange transnationally that reshapes meaning but also purveys a common set of beliefs and ideologies to a wide range of global spectators, often resulting in the modification of attitudes and values, but also their entrenchment. While the advocacy of patriotism and imperialism, say, is clearly embedded in a number of British melodramas in the late-nineteenth century, I am equally interested in the way in which melodrama operates both as a hegemonic and subterranean force in its transnational manifestations, whether in its focus on spectacle, ethical clarity (what Brooks calls ‘moral legibility’) or over-simplification of individual character traits.

A couple of short case studies, both based around dramatizations of well-known novels, will demonstrate how meaning changes or is enhanced transnationally. H. Phillip Bolton comments:

It seems that the vast phenomenon of the dramatizations of famous novels would suggest how the nineteenth century was an era of popular theatrical and letter-press protest against perceived social injustices in the tyranny of one ethnic group over another, in slavery, in the oppression of women, in the exploitation of children, and in the abuse of the lower social orders.xxi

One significant source of adaptation was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the significance of which in North America has been discussed by numerous critics such as Jeffrey D. Mason, who sees in George Aiken’s well-known North American dramatization ‘a fundamental tension between Stowe’s Christian vision and the ideology of mid-century melodrama’ and believes it offers a confirmation of ‘the fundamental racism of American society’.xxii Nevertheless, the focus, even in the best of American stage adaptations, is somewhat different from that which becomes explicit in a number of English stage versions. Recent monographs on abolitionist politics in literature and popular culture in Victorian England by Audrey A. Fisch, which touches on British reactions to the novel (and stage adaptations), and by Sarah Meer on ‘Uncle Tom mania’ provide useful perspectives on what British dramatizations meant to British audiences.xxiii The first British ‘Uncle Tom’ adaptation was performed in England at the Adelphi Theatre in 1852, although the Spectator considered that both its form and substance precluded the novel from anything like adequate representation on stage and that it lost is emotional force in performance. Both The Spectator and The Times were also concerned, as conservative journals, about how the more sensational elements of the novel might be treated in adaptations designed for British working class audiences and the way in which these might be a catalyst for subverting the ‘mob’ and even arousing it to action, drawing the ‘unwashed’ to theatres such as the Victoria and the Bower in working class districts of south London. Built into this, suggests Fisch, was also a view that the use of the novel for such low cultural purposes militated against the higher cultural aspirations of Victorian society.xxiv For other British audiences and for less conservative members of the public the popularity of Uncle Tom adaptations was enhanced by British support of the abolitionist movement and both the novel and the many dramatisations unleashed a surfeit of what was called Uncle Tom mania, manifested in the manufacture of a wide range of material objects, and (in some of the stage productions) a conflating of Stowe’s representation of plantation life with that represented by contemporary minstrel acts.

Sarah Meer suggests that ‘when Uncle Tom’s Cabin transferred to the London stage it became a vehicle for popular British attitudes towards slavery as well as to the United States’.xxv Cultural and political differences were very apparent in the British ‘Uncle Tom’ plays. Moreover, the religious element was played down in Britain and was far less obtrusive than in many American versions, whereas the threat of violent action or revolt by the slaves (here almost a surrogate for the downtrodden English lower classes) was much enhanced in English adaptations, which were generally much more uncompromising in their politics. Some British adaptations, suggests Meer, condemned slavery outright and suggested ‘remedies that in the United States would have seemed terrifying inflammatory. In England Stowe’s ‘Christian Slave’ threatened to become a revolutionary.’xxvi English versions also tended to take far more liberties with the plot and narrative of Stowe’s originals, many playing down or eliminating the character of Little Eva and the piety and moral concerns at the heart of Stowe’s novel. In Meer’s opinion

Uncle Tom’s Cabin made a useful case for British self-congratulation based on a peculiar image of America that was refracted and distorted by the conventions of melodrama.xxvii

It enabled a sense of moral superiority in regard to Britain’s seemingly more enlightened attitude towards slavery and could also be seen as an incentive for revolt and rebellion.

In its British dramatizations Uncle Tom’s Cabin took on new meanings and cultural imperatives, the issue of race being subsumed, to some extent, by that of class. But what happened when a well-known and popular English novel was adapted for American audiences? Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne was first adapted for a New York audience in 1862 and, as H. Phillip Bolton has shown, became one of the most popular nineteenth-century melodramas in both the United States and in Britain, dramatized constantly in new versions in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century.xxviii After Uncle Tom’s Cabin, East Lynne was almost certainly the most performed melodrama in North America, its popularity, according to Robert Liston, resting in ‘its mixture of high flown morality and emotional titillation’.xxix E. Ann Kaplan, in Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama, suggests that its popularity may also be due to its emergence at the juncture where external threats to the family in the melodramatic genre are beginning to be complicated and even subsumed by internal difficulties within the family unit Whereas the perennial issue of class is unavoidable within the English context, Kaplan also draws attention to the manifestly different ways dramatizations of East Lynne work in American society.xxxi She believes there was a great distance between ‘British class and gender relations, and the specificity of the North American historical contexts in which the play was being seen’ and that it was difficult to adapt a mid-nineteenth century British work, ‘dealing with the political discourses specific to Britain, for American audiences in a very different historical and political context’. In her view

An attraction to the historic splendour and the traditions of England is combined with a gleeful distaste for the unequal class structures in Europe that gibe with North America’s self-professed adherence to a demonstrative, classless ideal.xxxii

As a result, argues Kaplan, it loses the particular British context of class structures and hierarchy and becomes, in North America, more of a family melodrama of the sort that was later played out in American cinema, presenting what Nina Auerbach has called ‘a kaleidoscope of unstable domestic identities’.xxxiii

We have already noted the anxiety generated in some quarters around how dramatizations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin might be received in the theatres of east and south London. Even in the case of East Lynne ideological interpretations shifted according to the venue where adaptations were performed. Andrew Maunder has drawn attention to probably the first, if somewhat free, adaptation of the novel performed at the Effingham Theatre in East London under the title Marriage Bells. I have argued elsewhere that we should not conflate west end and east end attitudes to specific melodramas and be open to variegated audience responses. Whereas for middle-class audiences East Lynne (at least in dramatic form) may have been a moral tale about a runaway wife who commits adultery and is duly punished for her sins, Maunder suggests that in Marriage Bells ‘laissez-faire capitalism is the real villain, more destructive and cruel than any seducer’. He considers that this was a version with which the working class women of the 1860s could identify, because the erring wife becomes a symbolic representative of the poor and dispossessed rather than a moral exemplum of what happens to women who break with social expectations of correct matrimonial behaviour, raising two fingers to ‘the callous straitjacket of bourgeois propriety and its mechanistic spirit’.xxxiv

Yet another response to East Lynne, if somewhat more sardonic, is exemplified in some of the critical reactions to the play in the Australian press. The Melbourne Punch (13 September, 1866, p. 83) commented, shortly after the first Melbourne production of the play

During the last few days, the drapers have been doing an unusually brisk trade in ladies' pocket-handkerchiefs—so brisk, indeed, that the price has slightly risen in consequence of the special demand. The reason is said to be that the lachrymose influence of East Lynne, which everybody is going to see at the Theatre Royal, imperatively requires that every lady should take with her to the theatre at least a dozen of these articles. The manager is in excellent spirits, and says this flood (of tears) is the tide in his affairs that is going to lead on to fortune. So happy has it made him that, out of pure sympathy, he has taken to the study of hydraulics.

A later review of a revival of East Lynne in the Melbourne Argus (13 December, 1880, p.6) refers to it as ‘a lugubrious and lachrimoyant [sic] drama which enables the more impressionable of the audience to indulge in the luxury of grief’. That East Lynne was a tear jerker wherever it was played seems a reasonable assumption and a strand that would be interesting to follow up, if space allowed, would be the shared visceral responses that the genre of melodrama quite probably offered its international audiences.

When Joseph Jefferson, an American actor who spent several years in Australia playing in melodrama and comedy, appeared in Tom Taylor’s The Ticket of Leave Man in Tasmania, he also provided evidence of how an individual melodrama takes on specific connotations in different parts of the world. The central role played by Jefferson was Bob Brierley, the ticket of leave man or returned convict back in London from Australia, which he acted for the first time in Hobart:

At least one hundred ticket-of-leave men were in the pit on the first night of its production. Before the curtain rose, I looked through it at this terrible audience…Men with low foreheads and small, peering, ferret-looking eyes, some with flat noses, and square, cruel jaws, and sinister expressions – leering, low, and cunning – all wearing a sullen, dogged look, as though they would tear the benches from the pit and gut the theater of its scenery if one of their kind was held up to public scorn upon the stage. xxxv

The first act passed without incident, but

when I came upon the stage in the second act, revealing the emaciated features of a returned convict, with sunken eyes and a closely shaved head, there was a painful stillness in the house. The whole pit seemed to lean forward and strain their eager eyes upon the scene; and as Bob Brierly revealed to his sweetheart the ‘secrets of the prison house’, there were little murmurs of recognition and shakings of the head, as though they fully recognized the local allusions that they so well remembered…This performance rendered me extremely popular with some of the old ‘lags’ of Hobart Town; and I was often accosted on the street by these worthies and told some touching tale of their early persecutions. In fact they quite looked on me as an old ‘pal’.xxxvi

Even allowing for some degree of hyperbole in this account, Jefferson again demonstrates how melodrama takes on specific local meanings or connotations in specific places.

Australia furnishes further example of the ways in which melodrama adapts transnationally. The popularity of Boer War melodrama, much of which was derived from British sources, but adapted to Australian characters and locations, is a case in point. Some plays were rewritten so that the British were saved in the nick of time by Australian reinforcements, although this sub-genre soon went into decline on the Australian stage as disillusionment with the war set in among the Australian public.xxxvii Richard Fotheringham’s study of Sport in Australian Drama demonstrates that nearly all the major sporting dramas performed in Australia from 1867-1910 had previously been successful in London. Consequently, he writes, ‘sporting drama in Australia was dominated by a relatively small number of overseas plays, which established and developed the genre in directions determined by overseas trends, but which were selected by Australian managers on the basis of their knowledge of Australian conditions’. xxxviii Inevitably, responses in the two countries differed:

If the sporting plays were for English society a reactionary fantasy of a lost age of social harmony, they were for most white Australians a dream of a remote utopian ‘home’ where life expectations were very different from those experienced in the colonies.xxxix

Plays like Boucicault’s horse-racing drama The Flying Scud, for instance, were popular in Australia because Australian audiences could find multiple and perhaps different meanings in them that were not specifically the same as those found by British audiences. However, and this is a significant point, once we try to read melodrama as a transnational phenomenon:

[S]porting drams addressed not particular problems of English and American culture, but problems of western industrialism which remained valid across nation boundaries. In particular, the utopian world offered compensation for deeper social insecurities which might be summed up as a perceived lack of stability in modern society and the sense that this sprang from a lack of any correspondence between power and morality.xl

Thus Fotheringham’s study shows how melodramas not only take on different cultural meanings in different cultural locations, but may also indicate globally shared ideological concerns.

Melodrama is trans-temporal too and the same play can take on different meanings at different periods and in different guises. Thus George Dibdin Pitt’s Sweeney Todd melodrama, an adaptation of The String of Pearls, first performed at the Britannia Theatre in 1847, has undergone a number of metamorphoses. The original script was never published, although it still exists in manuscript. The 1847 version is located firmly within the Georgian period – in the early years of George III’s reign – so that there is already a considerable gap between the historical setting of the play and its first performance. Moreover, a key character in Dibdin Pitt’s play, a liberated black slave called Hector, who is crucial to the plot’s resolution, disappears entirely from the first published version of the play (Dicks’ Standard Plays 1883), and the satire on religious hypocrisy, partly plagiarised from Isaac Bickerstaffe’s The Hypocrite, is also less prominent than it is in Pitt’s original. Pitt seems to have had radical sympathiesxli and his melodrama arguably presents Sweeney as an allegorical demonic figure, killing and devouring his prey just as the city, in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, was equally cannibalistic as it swallowed up its new inhabitants. Yet, by the second half of the twentieth century, through the agency of Christopher Bond’s adaptation at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1973 and subsequently of Stephen Sondheim’s music theatre adaptation (1979), Sweeney Todd had ceased to be an allegorical figure and had become a semi-tragic character, motivated by revenge and more sympathetically delineated. He is presented as a victim of the class system and the temporal location of the play has shifted from the Georgian to the mid-Victorian period. Just as East Lynne metamorphosed into a play about dysfunctional families so Sweeney Todd has metamorphosed through time from a play featuring an arch unmotivated villain presiding allegorically over the cannibalisation of individuals through industrial and urban growth into a play about the victim of an injustice who takes extreme measures to effect his revenge on society .xlii


In this chapter I have argued against the dangers of over-defining melodrama as a genre, both insofar as not everything we now think of as nineteenth-century melodrama was so defined by its authors and also because as a genre it is continually evolving and regularly defying the conventions by which we tend to define it. I have also argued for rethinking the progress of melodrama not only in terms of national identities and their formation, but also as a series of journeys in which the plays themselves not only propagated old values but also took on new meanings transnationally. Within the scope of this chapter I have only been able to offer a few limited examples and hint at broader possibilities, but I certainly hope for and look forward to more studies of the genre that recognise and analyse its international reach and the implications of this for understanding shared and distinctive transnational values and ideologies in the nineteenth century.

Melodrama is also a way of seeing, both on and off the stage. In everyday life it provides narrative, ideology, allegory through which existence may be explained and even lived. As discussed above, it is not the antithesis of realism, more a way of mediating reality. Through spectacle, heightened gesture, the frozen moment captured in tableau it teaches its spectators how to look at the world around them and even how to behave in that world. And, while it certainly contains ‘texts of muteness’, it is also a highly articulate form, using language and rhetoric to express reality, not always in the language of everyday life, but in ways that communicate the inherent reality of emotion and intention. It teaches us how to speak, how to perform language. Indeed, melodrama is a performance of everyday life, just as everyday life can be a performance of melodrama. As such it provides rather than erases agency. It is empowering, enabling, providing a model of how its spectators might interpret the world around them, but also suggesting how they might perform their roles in that world. In many ways melodrama is the private made public, interiority made visible, a sort of transcendent realism which takes us far beyond the limitations of verisimilitude and surface appearance.

i Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975; Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983); Elaine Hadley, Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800-1885 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995); Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

ii Frank Rahill, The World of Melodrama (The Pennsylvania State University Press; 1967); Michael Booth, English Melodrama (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1985).

iii M. G. Lewis, The Castle Spectre (London: John Cumberland, n.d.), 55.

iv See Nicola Brown, Carolyn Burdett & Pamela Thurschwell, eds., The Victorian Supernatural (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

v Julia Swindells, Glorious Causes: The Grand Theatre of Political Change, 1789 to1833 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 174.

vi William Bodham Donne, Essays in the Drama (London: John W. Parker & Son, 1858), 206, quoted in Michael R Booth, Victorian Spectacular Theatre 1850-1910 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 2.

vii Quoted in Booth, Victorian Spectacular Theatre 1850-1910, 15.

viii Hadley, Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800-1885, 9.

ix Hadley, Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800-1885, 3.

x Hadley, Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800-1885, 225.

xi Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its Contexts, 53.

xii Jacky Bratton, ‘The Contending Discourses of Melodrama’, in Jacky Bratton, Jim Cook, Christine Gledhill, eds., Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen (London: British Film Institute, 1994), 38-49 and J.S. Bratton, ‘Introduction’ and ‘British heroism and the structure of melodrama’ in J. S. Bratton, Richard Allen Cave, Breandan Gregory, Heidi J. Holder and Michael Pickering, Acts of Supremacy: The British Empire and the Stage, 1790-1930 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), 1-61.

xiii David Mayer, ‘The Ticket-of-Leave Man in Context’, Essays in Theatre 6 (1987), 31-40; Jim Davis, ‘A Night in the Workhouse, or The Poor Laws as Sensation Drama’, Essays in Theatre 7 (1989), 111-126.

xiv Reprinted in Peter Keating, ed., Into Unknown England 1866-1913: Selections from the Social Explorers (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976).

xv All the year round, 3 March, 1866, 187-8.

xvi See Jim Davis, ‘The Gospel of Rags: Melodrama at the Britannia 1863-74", New Theatre Quarterly, VII: 28 (1991), 369-89.

xvii Tom Postlewait, ‘From Melodrama to Realism: The Suspect History of American Drama’, in Michael Hays and Anastasia Nikolopoulou, eds., Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 49.

xviii Postlewait, ‘From Melodrama to Realism: The Suspect History of American Drama’, 54-56.

xix James Naremore, Acting in the Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

xx Edward Gordon Craig, Henry Irving (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1930), 58-61.

xxi H. Phillip Bolton, Women Writers dramatized: a calendar of performances from narrative works published in English to 1900 (London: Mansell Publishing, 2000), xx.

xxii Jeffrey D. Mason, ed. Melodrama and the Myth of America (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), 125.

xxiii Audrey A. Fisch, American Slaves in Victorian England: Abolitionist Politics in Popular Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Sarah Meer, Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery Minstrelsy and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2005).

xxiv Fisch, American Slaves in Victorian England: Abolitionist Politics in Popular Literature and Culture, 11-12.

xxvMeer, Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery Minstrelsy and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s, 133.

xxvi Meer, Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery Minstrelsy and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s, 134.

xxvii Meer, Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery Minstrelsy and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s, 141.

xxviii Bolton, Women Writers dramatized: a calendar of performances from narrative works published in English to 1900, 394-413.

xxix Quoted in E. Ann Kaplan, Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama (London: Routledge, 2004), 93.

xxx Kaplan, Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama, 96.

xxxi Kaplan, Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama, 96.

xxxii Kaplan, Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama, 96.

xxxiii Nina Auerbach, ‘Before the Curtain’ in Kerry Powell, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 11.

xxxiv Andrew Maunder, ‘”I will not live in poverty and neglect”: East Lynne on the East End stage’ in Kimberley Harrison and Richard Fantina, eds., Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006), 185.

xxxv Joseph Jefferson, “Rip Van Winkle”: The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson (London: Reinhardt & Evans Ltd., 1949), p. 199.

xxxvi Jefferson, “Rip Van Winkle”: The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson, 200.

xxxvii See Jim Davis, ‘The Empire right or wrong: Boer War Melodrama on the Australian Stage, 1899-1901’, in Hays and Nicolopoulou, eds., Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre, 21-37.

xxxviiiRichard Fotheringham, Sport in Australian Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 97.

xxxix Fotheringham, Sport in Australian Drama, 119.

xl Fotheringham, Sport in Australian Drama, 157.

xli Dwayne Brenna, ‘George Dibdin Pitt: Actor and Playwright’, Theatre Notebook LII:1 (1998), 33-6.

xlii See Jim Davis, ‘The Cannibalisation of Sweeney Todd’ in Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film (forthcoming) – this volume will also include Dibdin Pitt’s original version of the play, edited by Sharon Weltman; see also Robert L. Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend (London: Continuum, 2007).

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