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Melodramatic Borrowings Life, Stage, Screen Erin Bone Steele All audiences engage in various decoding processes when making sense of any work of art.1 Our previous training allows us to recognize genres, and to navigate new works through our knowledge of conventions and our willing suspension of disbelief. “Melodrama ” and “melodramatic” are imprecise terms that are usually used to refer either to emotional content or to a historical genre; people think they know melodrama and its characteristics well, and often dismiss it as overly simplistic or lacking in literary merit, or expand the term to encompass so much that it becomes useless to a scholar. Nineteenthcentury melodramas, however, functioned in significant and complex ways, capitalizing on audiences’ expectations to provide entertainment that also reinforced cultural ideals of the lower and middle classes, adjusting dramatic messages as those ideals shifted. Subgenres naturally developed , including nautical, imperial, gothic, romantic, exotic, and truecrime plays. And although melodramas in the United States and in England share many characteristics, there are also differences that naturally arise from each distinct nation’s unique anxieties and social issues. During the nineteenth century, the working poor in England attended the melodrama theatre in droves even when the “legitimate” theatres were rebuilding their houses to segregate their patrons by class. In 1811, when architect Benjamin Dean Wyatt was hired to rebuild the venerable Drury Lane Theatre, one of London’s two licensed playhouses, one of his stated goals was to protect the “more rational and respectable” patrons from having to pass through crowds of “disreputable” people.2 Illegitimate or unlicensed companies producing melodrama, however, catered to that excluded crowd and built playhouses in working-class neigh- Melodramatic Borrowings 9 borhoods, particularly in the East End. These theatres offered entertainments that generally furthered moral lessons and often presented issues about temperance, crime, working conditions, poverty, imperialism, nationalism, slavery, and women’s rights, usually employing sensational special effects to heighten the audience’s enjoyment. As Michael Hays and Anastasia Nikolopoulou write in their introduction to Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre, “The claim for a linkage between the melodrama and the political and social conditions of the world in which it emerged seems quite unproblematic.”3 This is not to suggest that there was not also a complicated process of interpretation and expectation informing what an audience might or might not take away from viewing a particular production, but melodrama does have much to tell us about interpretation and representation designed for a particular popular audience. British melodrama authors in the mid-nineteenth century engaged in an interesting process of source choice and narrative reworking. Quickly adaptable source material became a major consideration when the economic situation of London theatre created a harsh environment for playwrights after 1820.4 Minor theatres offered their writers a fixed price for a play; the playwright had no hope of receiving benefit performances, copyright protection, or what might now be called royalties on future productions. Playwright Douglas Jerrold had a relatively good position earning five pounds a week as house dramatist for the Surrey Theatre in the 1830s, but Jerrold earned a grand total of only sixty pounds for one of the century’s most famous melodramas, Black Ey’d Susan. Beyond literary works and folk tales, theatres and playwrights found useful subject matter in popular crime events, loosely translated from newspapers to the stage. “The consequences of the low market value of drama after about 1820 or 1830 were obvious,” says melodrama expert Michael Booth. “Authors either had to turn out great quantities of material very quickly or abandon the drama entirely. . . . The only way an author could keep up the monetary pace at the low rates prevailing was feverishly to adapt French plays, work to a few stereotyped situations and characters, steal from popular novels, dramatize newspaper reports of crime, rewrite his own old plays, and borrow liberally from his fellow dramatists.”5 Most of these hardworking commercial writers churned out melodramas that, not surprisingly, did not hold up well as literary texts and were not preserved in their own day, let alone in modern scholarly circles enamored with the development of Realism.6 However, as Thomas Postlewait reminds us, “Melodramatic and...


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