Melodrama was the nineteenth century”s most popular form of theatre, as it demonstrated precisely the values that the contemporary audience desired, due to its essence of escapism and their demand for real people, cities and social situations to be recreated on stage. The nineteenth century saw the industrial revolution in England, after which stage machinery naturally developed, in order to create more spectacular effects for an audience demanding more realistic displays of tragedy and sensation from their theatres.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines melodrama in its historical sense as “a play with songs interspersed and with orchestral music accompanying the action”. Thus music was an integral part of this theatrical genre, typically used in order to heighten the dramatic effect of scenes. This technique is employed throughout Leopold Lewis”s `The Bells”, an example of which is not only the use of the ringing bells to evoke past memories and haunting nightmares, but also the constant stopping and starting of background music in significant situations, such as, in Act 3 of the play: The mesmerist goes up stage to back of Mathias, makes some passes.
Music. Mathias to himself. Mathias, if you sleep you are lost… I will–not–no– Falls asleep, Music ceases. The sudden lack of music, so shortly after it first begins, creates additional dramatic effect and deathly silence in this courtroom scene, for it can be concluded that now Mathias is sleeping and exposed, all is certainly lost. Melodramatic form is expressed through various textual features, and dramatic effects. Melodrama adds extra significance and importance to gestures, as it is a genre intended for performance, rather than reading.
Peter Brooks” `The Melodramatic Imagination” remarks that “Everyday gestures point to another world of life and death”. This ostensibly purports that such acts as the sailor diving into the water in order to slay a shark and retrieve the corpse of a child, in `Black-Ey”d Susan”, are present in melodramatic theatre due to the fact that, in order to manifest aspects of the cosmic, realistic situations are necessarily employed to convey a deeper message to the audience, whilst still perpetuating the melodramatic characteristic of realism.
The cosmic, fantastical aspects are presented in Mathias of `The Bells” being strangled to death by a rope, which is merely his own fantasy. However, this is of no importance to the reader, as although impossible, it is the underlying moral to which it hints which is critical. Melodrama has a tendency, almost entirely in opposition with the previous technique, to treat the everyday as exciting, as although the contemporary public exacted everyday events as their subject matter of choice, the form must be modified and sensationalised if there is to be a continued demand for it.
Melodrama operates via metaphors, in which occurrences and objects must speak for something entirely different. For example, William of `Black-Ey”d Susan” speaks almost entirely in nautical terms, referring to Susan with the supposedly affectionate name of “my craft”. Melodrama is comprised principally of moral absolutes, a fast-moving dialogue in order that tension be created towards the obstacles faced by the hero or heroine, formulaic ideals of content and writing style, false conclusions and climaxes, the plot being based on a secret that is known to the audience, and a particular style of acting.
The strict dichotomy between good and evil is perhaps the most characteristic, as personalities mediating between the two polar extremes are rarely seen, allowing virtue always to overcome vice, and the stereotypical ending of a succinct closure reinstating the old social order with all its flaws being corrected being reached without too much moral ambivalence on the characters” behalf. James L Smith remarks in `Melodrama, the critical idiom” that “In melodrama man remains undivided, free from the agony of choosing between conflicting imperatives and desires.
He greets every situation with an unwavering single impulse which absorbs his whole personality” For example, despite William”s attempted murder in Black-Ey”d Susan, he is never condemned, and Gnatbrain remarks that “All William”s life has been goodness, and think you he would forget it at the end? ” The same play also contains false climaxes and conclusions, such as when, at the end of Act one, the couple are reunited, forming a peak in the storyline, when tragedy strikes, and a trough is descended into which enables the continuation of the narrative.
The use of actors” lavish facial expressions and gestures in order to denote specific characteristics and emotions, is designed for a non-literature community, which comprised the most part of theatre going Victorian audiences. Also, this acting style was necessary in order that the people sitting at the very back of enormous auditoriums could view and understand the action. Hartmut Ilsemann in `Melodrama, the cultural emergence of a genre” called the genre of melodrama a “domestic play”, which connotes the range of issues that are predominantly seen. Social exploration is the melodrama”s driving force.
These plays examine the role of women and family, especially regarding the destruction of the family unit as a result of alcohol, as presented in `Black-Ey”d Susan”, when everything is made tragic by the Captain”s attempted drunken seduction. Victorian Melodramas often introduced controversial views, without offending the audience, but instead helping them to ask questions of life and society. Peter Brooks called this “the desire to utter the unspeakable”. `The Bells” has been labelled “one of the most psychologically real melodramas of the nineteenth century”, due to its portrayal of the machinations of the mind of a murderer.
This is an early example of the presence of expressionism in nineteenth century drama, exemplified by its abundance of expressionistic dream sequences. Another of these domestic issues is that of poverty, as is shown in `Black-Ey”d Susan” through the following exchange between Doggrass and Susan: D: Can Dame Hatley pay me the money? S: No D: Then she shall go to prison S: She will die there D: Well? The contemporary Victorian audience show their tastes to be antithetical to each other, desiring the more sensational occurrences and catastrophes, whilst rooting the appeal of melodrama in every day, realistic characters and immediate issues.
This is perhaps the reason melodrama has received such criticism, and the term become to be used pejoratively, with even the Concise Oxford Dictionary containing another definition of the word alluding to its “crude appeal”. James L Smith opined, “The once precise words are now hopelessly debased by popular misuse. It is a term which any man in the street loosely applies to any machine-made entertainment dealing in vulgar extravagance, implausible motivation, meretricious sensation and spurious pathos”.
The notion of melodrama as clichÃ©d is somewhat enforced by the fact that actors at the time in melodramatic plays were familiar with their stock roles, within which the audience allowed slight variation, but dismissed any dramatic deviations from the rule. Bernard Shaw condemned Melodrama, questioning the validity of the hero/villain paradox. The overly simplified moral universe of good versus evil presented to certain audiences a lack of realism, bordering on the idiotic.
The episodic form to which melodramas invariably adhered a threat posed by the villain, escape of hero/heroine, concluding with a happy ending seemed to both emulate and ridicule family life, or whatever issue is its predominant topic. The aforementioned use of hyperbolised gestures and expressions to some seemed over-acted, and intended to create a comedic effect, which is probably the origin of the fabricated definition of the term. Melodrama allowed for a fairly minimal amount of variation from its established framework, meaning that those who disliked one play of the genre were more than likely to condemn its fellows.
However, although arguments may be presented to back the opinion that melodrama constitutes manufactured art and poor acting skills, there are distinct aspects of verisimilitude, such as the discussion of domestic issues, which either serve to negate, or at least neutralise, these hostile opinions. Another aspect is that of the language used, such as William”s colloquial nautical terminology in `Black-Ey”d Susan”, of which demotic language George Rowell asserted in `The Victorian theatre, 2nd edition”, “Low-life characters of Victorian melodrama… raw their vigorous imagery from everyday life. ” Nevertheless, the realistic catastrophes astronomically demanded by late nineteenth century audiences led to the coining of the phrase `Sensation Melodrama”, which, despite attempting to introduce more realism, snowballed into the almost ridiculous, as each new play attempted to outdo its predecessors in terms of exciting events and spectacular effects. William Winter stated, in `Other days”, that “sensation is what the public wants, and you cannot give them too much of it”.
This contrasts with James L Smith”s earlier assertion that “Triumph, despair and protest are the basic emotions of melodrama, and the art of working each to its highest pitch occasions the catharsis of the form. ” Melodrama had taken on a new, more physical, importance, overshadowing the motives and sentiments, which had at first caused it to become so popular. Melodrama, as all other genres, has evolved with its audience, and their changing demands, so that to a Victorian audience, modern melodramas would seem virtually unrecognisable and probably repulsive.
It is in this way that statements regarding the ideal characteristics of such a genre must be considered objectively, with consideration given to the audience towards whom the text was first directed, and for whom the author had intended it. Unlike such genres as comedy or horror, melodrama appears to have a purpose other than that of entertainment, as it addresses acute social issues, and personal grievances.
The simplified catharsis to which the polarisation of right and wrong lead, is not necessarily unintended or unwanted, as a Victorian audience, perhaps compelled to introspection by the themes of a melodrama, may have found the uncomplicated relief for which they had previously searched. It is due to this polarity that James L Smith asserted that “there is no other form of theatre which speaks so simply and directly to the people as a whole”, which favours my opinion that melodrama, when taken in context, deserves no such scorn, whilst reassuring that despite some dissent, melodrama continues to maintain its relevance.