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  • Music for the Melodramatic Theatre in Nineteenth-Century London and New York by Michael V. Pisani
  • Matthew T. Shifflett
Music for the Melodramatic Theatre in Nineteenth-Century London and New York. By Michael V. Pisani. Studies in Theatre History and Culture series. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014; pp. 384.

Melodrama has a notoriously checkered history among theatre scholars. There was a time when any serious study of melodrama had to begin with a full-throated defense of its merits, as if the genre itself were a damsel in need of rescuing. Melodrama has a different history, however, among film scholars and musicologists. Film scholars have long treated melodrama as a more fluid and enduring category than theatre scholars have, while musicologists have entered the world of melodrama through its reciprocated influence on European opera. As David Mayer has recently published a book (in this same series) that puts mainstream theatre historiography into conversation with film studies, let us hope that Michael Pisani’s Music for the Melodramatic Theatre in Nineteenth-Century London and New York can open similar dialogues with musicologists. [End Page 149]

The book offers a rich historical account that charts music’s unique power to elicit the emotional reactions of an audience, and how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theatre artists leveraged that power to create a new genre of dramatic expression. Pisani uses the term melos (from the Greek by way of nineteenth-century German scholars) to describe the affective dimension of a piece of music intended for the stage. Using a wealth of archival material (much of it previously untouched), he has recovered the world of the nineteenth-century music director, who both composed original pieces and marshaled existing popular tunes in order to establish mood, introduce recognizable character types, and communicate affect to the audience. This focus on music and musicians underlines the continuity of melodrama with earlier popular forms, in sometimes surprising ways. Pisani shows that melodrama was an intersection of several popular traditions, shaped by the political and economic concerns of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theatrical managers. By reanimating components of the Victorian theatre he also recovers some of the vitality that has been lost through a century of encountering these plays mainly as reading texts.

Pisani’s book proceeds chronologically, dividing its subject into three overlapping historical periods. The first portion of the book, covering the period from 1752 to the 1820s, charts the emergence of melodrama from eighteenth-century practices. Chapter 1 traces the use of music in eighteenth-century “legitimate” theatre, especially as it was used by David Garrick and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Pisani here relates the use of music to the “science” of gesture in the Georgian theatre, and charts the narrowing of theatre music from establishing a general mood to articulating specific character emotion. Chapter 2 contains the author’s most extended discussion of melodrama’s form and character, emphasizing its farcical construction. In Pisani’s telling, theatre managers used and expanded the stage practices of the eighteenth-century pantomime as a strategy for navigating the complex licensing laws in effect during this period. Music made it possible to direct the audience’s affect, so that farcical complications could achieve a more earnest emotional effect. Pisani draws the reader’s attention to Richard LeGallienne’s description of melodrama as “a play which combines the intensity of a tragedy with the construction of farce and the dénouement of a fairy tale” (43). He uses the third chapter to illustrate the contours of this process in three case studies, drawing on stage histories of the Coburg, the Adelphi, and the Surrey theatres.

The second part of the book follows this new genre as it proliferated through stock theatre repertoires between the 1820s and ’60s. This portion begins with a chapter that suggests the effect that legal and economic circumstances, especially the incipience of copyright law, exerted on melos. Legislation like the US Copyright Act of 1831 protected playwrights far more securely than they protected composers. Music directors fought to control their music by limiting its availability. After a too-slight chapter on theatre musicians of the period (less than ten pages), Pisani turns, in the...


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pp. 149-151
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