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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 514-515

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Book Review

Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre.

Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre. Edited by Michael Hays and Anastasia Nikolopoulou. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999; pp. xv + 288, appendix. $39.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.

Editors Michael Hayes and Anastasia Nikolopoulou state in the opening introduction to Melodrama that there are two primary aims of their book. The first is to substantiate the extent of melodrama's impact on the cultural dynamics of the nineteenth century. The second is to examine the various melodramatic forms that served to offer a venue or space where the political, cultural, and economic issues of that time were transformed into public discourses. To substantiate their goals, Hays and Nikolopoulou offer thirteen essays organized into four sections. Each essay details a particular facet of melodrama and the political and socioeconomic resonance on a society.

Thomas Postlewait's "From Melodrama to Realism: The Suspect History of American Drama" is a clear indictment against relegating the genre of melodrama to a sub-species of theatre. Postlewait states, "we might entertain the idea that melodrama is not an early stage of modern realistic drama (or any other kind of drama). [...] As a concept and a practice, it has its own achieved form, fully developed and immensely popular since the end of the eighteenth century" (55). David Mayer credits melodrama with bridging the growing gap between popular performance theatre and parlor or narrative melodrama in Victorian England. "[M]elodrama had become one of the established modes of thinking and expression that extended well beyond the theatre" (231).

Different political governments openly used melodrama's popularity to shape and mold public opinion in its favor. The heroes, heroines, and dastardly villains were distinct and unambiguous to their working class audiences. Michael Booth discusses the military melodramatic programs offered at the Drury Lane autumn drama during the 1880s and 1890s. The examples cited offer a good example of how British colonialism was portrayed on stage. Britain's role in the Boer War, for example, was first performed under the guise of patriotic nationalism, but as the war dragged on the clear message was imperialistic vindication.

Britain was not the only country to try to manipulate public opinion through the theatre only to yield differing results. Jim Davis states in his essay that military melodrama served as a crucial rite of passage for Australians during the Boer War [End Page 514] through "the negotiation of imperial-colonial relationships at the point when Australia was moving rapidly towards federation" (21). In Bulgaria, a concerted effort was used to manipulate attitudes. According to Kornelia Tancheva melodrama's influence was so strongly felt that it helped to develop the idea of nationalism within the Bulgarian National Revival.

Barbara Cooper demonstrates how melodrama was used in an attempt to counter political unrest during a turbulent time in nineteenth century France. Cooper contrasts the historical facts against the fictionalized ones used in the popular play Le Faux Martinquerre. Even melodramas written about the famine in Ireland were used as weapons to bolster the prevailing political infrastructure. In their inquiry, Julia Williams and Stephen Watt look at the textual impact from such plays as The Fairy Man (1865), The Emerald Heart; or, a Poor Man's Honour (1860s), and For Honour's Sake (1873). The devastation and ruin brought by the famine were clearly represented on stage and should have fostered rebellion. As melodrama communicated more rather than less, the form allowed the harsh realities of hunger, degradation, and cruelty to be represented and received by the very people suffering from it. Additionaly, this experience offered them an avenue of discourse.

Political and military melodramas were reinforced by another type of popular spectacle, nautical melodrama. Nautical melodrama touted the grand life of a British seaman, and yet as Marvin Carlson contends in his essay, "He Never Should Bow Down to a Domineering Frown: Class Tensions and Nautical Melodrama," there was a dark side. Carlson limns the social tensions in plays from Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M...


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