McWilliam, Rohan. “Melodrama.”
Chapter 4 of the Blackwood Comapnion is the best yet! It has a perfect quote from historian W.L. Burn (in 1964) about Lady Audley’s Secret: “Perhaps few things are better calculated to show the difference between the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century than the experience of reading C.H. Hazlewood’s adaptation of Lady Audley’s Secret … and trying to see it as other than farcical” (Burn 50, qtd. in McWilliam 54-55).
Despite Burn’s dismissiveness about mid-nineteenth century theater, McWilliam uses this essay to showcase the attention that melodrama has been getting in recent years. Thanks to what he calls the “melodramatic turn,” scholars have noticed the precursors of modern consciousness in melodrama, and an elaborate engagement with “realism,” both in melodramatic plays and in the plays’ lifelike sets and backdrops.
Origins of melodrama: According to McWilliam, melodrama “originated in the later eighteenth century, part of the reaction against the Enlightenment that characterized Romanticism with its emphasis on emotion. It also had its roots in a new form of Christian humanitarianism whereby spectators were encouraged to identify with the suffering of others. Thus the purpose of melodrama was to move the audience (which explains sentimentality)” (56). The word “melodrama” comes from the French melo-drame, which refers to a “play with music.” Appropriately, our current understanding of melodrama comes from the Parisian stage, during the French Revolution, when theater was so heavily censored in both London and Paris that speech was not permitted on the stage. Actors relied on music, gestures, and pantomime. The French Revolution of 1789 changed the speech prohibition, and once speech was allowed, melodrama was born. The form was first associated with French writer Rene-Charles Guilbert de Pixerecourt, whose popular play Coelina (1800) was pirated two years later by English playwright Thomas Holcroft as A Tale of Mystery. McWilliam also cites medieval mystery plays, Renaissance drama, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), George Lillo’s The London Merchant (1731), German Romanticism, and Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers (1781) as sources of the melodramatic form.
Melodrama flourished in unlicensed “minor” theaters, where a few songs could qualify a play as a “burletta,” so that normally-indulgent magistrates would not enforce the restriction on spoken-word plays (which were rarely enforced anyway). It usually took a populist stance, sympathizing with the struggles of the poorer classes, but avoiding anything more controversial than that, for fear of not receiving the sanction of the Lord Chamberlain (whose role as a censor did not end until 1968). Therefore, evil aristocrat characters are usually counter-balanced by good aristocrat characters, and the plays’ sympathies with the poor do not extend to any socially controversial solution.
The sensation novel, according to McWilliam, “represented a cultural upgrading of melodramatic themes for a middle-class audience, the kind of people who patronized railway bookstalls or circulating libraries such as Mudie’s” (59). Sensation characters were more complex and not as easy to “read” as were the melodramatic characters of the stage. This complexity allowed sensation novelists to explore female subjectivity on a much deeper level than melodramatists could or did. Also, since sensation novelists did not have to worry about the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain, they could write more openly (though still in heavily coded formulas) about things like female sexuality.
McWilliam also mention that stage mechanics “took a huge leap forward in the mid-Victorian years, and it was not unknown for the designer to take a curtain call on the first night” (62). There was a continual line of traffic between the sensation novel and the stage. McWilliam quotes Mrs. Henry Wood, in 1875, saying, “I cannot help thinking that a portion of ‘East Lynne’s’ success is owing to its being so much represented on the stage. Go where I will, I mean into country places, I am sure to see the walls placarded with ‘East Lynne.’ People see the play and next day send and buy the book” (Maunder 173, qtd. in McWilliam 62). Wilkie Collins loved the stage, and would often adapt his own novels as plays. This is what led to his relationship with Charles Dickens, who was also interested in amateur theater. Ultimately, melodrama has a strong afterlife, influenced modern modes of consciousness, and can still be seen in popular culture today.
Timeline of Melodrama:
1737: Spoken word drama is restricted only to licensed theaters and is censored by the Lord Chamberlain
1789: French Revolution–theater is so heavily censored that speech is not permitted on stage
1800: Coelina, by Rene-Charles Guilbert de Pixerecourt is the first modern melodrama
1802: A Tale of Mystery, by Thomas Holcroft, is a pirated version of Coelina
1820: The Lear of Private Life, by W.T. Moncrieff (a domestic melodrama)
1826: Luke the Labourer, by J.B. Buckstone (a domestic melodrama)
1832: The Rent Day, by Douglas Jerrold (a domestic melodrama)
The Factory Lad, by John Walker, takes the side of workers during the Reform crisis
The First Reform Bill
1843: Theatre Regulation Act allows spoken drama to be performed everywhere
1852: The Corsican Brothers, by Dion Boucicault (a sensation drama)
1860: The Colleen Bawn, by Dion Boucicault (a sensation drama)
The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins (novel)
1862: No Name, by Wilkie Collins (novel)
1864: East Lynne first arrives on the English stage at the Effingham in London’s East End under the title Marriage Bells
1866: Armadale, by Wilkie Collins (novel)
1867: The Second Reform Act, which happens at the height of the sensation craze
1868: The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins (novel)
Foul Play, by Charles Reade (novel and theatrical adaptation), and by Dion Boucicault (theatrical adaptation)
1870: No Name, by Wilkie Collins (theatrical adaptation of novel)
Man and Wife, by Wilkie Collins (novel)
Free Labour, by Charles Reade (theatrical adaptation of Put Yourself in His Place)
Put Yourself in His Place, by Charles Reade (novel)
1871: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins (theatrical adaptation of novel)
1873: The New Magdalen, by Wilkie Collins (both novel and play) (forerunner to the late Victorian social problem play)
Man and Wife, by Wilkie Collins (theatrical adaptation of novel)
1874: Genevieve, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (play)
1876: Miss Gwilt, by Wilkie Collins (theatrical adaptation of Armadale)
1877: The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins (theatrical adaptation of novel)
1915: Lady Audley’s Secret, starring Theda Bara (American film)
1916: East Lynne, starring Theda Bara (American film)
1931: East Lynne on the Western Front (American film)
2004: Andrew Lloyd Weber composes a musical version of The Woman in White that plays in New York and London