- Music for the Melodramatic Theatre in Nineteenth-Century London and New York by Michael V. Pisani
Michael Pisani accomplishes many things in this study. Most notably he explains a new eighteenth-century genre, the musico-dramatic form, and details its evolution in popular drama by adding fresh information about how music functioned as a part of the total mise en scène of the melodramatic theatre. After twenty years of research, [End Page 69] Pisani has produced a highly enjoyable, comprehensive and astute book that illuminates the relationship between playwright, actor, and musician on the nineteenth-century stages of London and New York.
Pisani’s work is presented in three parts which are divided chronologically: “Forging a New Musico-Dramatic Genre”, “Propagating the Popular Drama”, and “Transforming the Popular Drama”. The first section begins with an overview of the actor David Garrick and his work at Drury Lane in London as well as several important English melodramas. A highlight of this section is his inclusion of Black-Eyed Susan, a popular “nautical drama” by Douglas Jerrold, which had “stirring and recognizable music” (95). Pisani also spends time on Continental theatrical practices, including a discussion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Pygmalion, and Georg Benda’s German melodrama, Ariadne.
“Propagating Popular Drama” is centrally concerned with explaining important developments in melodrama in the mid-nineteenth century such as Anglo-American melodrama, Victorian theatre bands, and, most notably, the emergence of sensation drama. The 1860s gave birth to this distinctive kind of play that garnered tremendous popularity with its “technical wizardry, near-instantaneous communication among all aspects of production, and increased musical participation” (168). Pisani describes such memorable melodramas as Henry Leslie’s The Mariner’s Compass, Charles Reade’s The Courier of Lyons (starring Charles Kean), Augustin Daly’s Under the Gaslight, David Belasco’s The Stranglers of Paris, and, of course, an extended section on Dion Boucicault’s memorable Irish tale, The Colleen Bawn (1860). All of these plays “relied heavily on mounting suspense and affective music” (170). Pisani concludes that the legacy of the sensational melodrama is that this style of writing depended heavily on “well planned musical accompaniment” (204) for its effectiveness.
“Transforming the Popular Drama” describes the progression of melodrama in the last third of the nineteenth century. Pisani carefully explains the changes in style and tone on the New York and London stages. Theatres at this time—in both London and New York—were increasingly concerned with prestige; though many plays still utilized appropriated works, it was now in vogue to commission original scores by fashionable composers.
In his conclusion, Pisani points out that melodrama emerged out of “pantomime and the intersection of legitimate theatrical traditions in the last two decades of the eighteenth century” (309). Pisani rightly argues that music in nineteenth-century melodrama went “far beyond fulfilling stereotypical expectations” to become an innovative and creative part of the total work of art. Of value to both theatre historians and musicologists, this book teaches us about the role of the music director in New York and London and how important music was to actors and actresses in sustaining the emotional pitch of a scene or monologue. Music also helped establish the genre by heightening the build in “sensation scenes” and added to the tragic pathos of heroes and villains. Adapted and original music was a staple of melodrama and an essential and exciting part of the experience for audiences. [End Page 70] Music for the Melodramatic Theatre in Nineteenth-Century London and New York is a magnificent scholarly work, a must-read for anyone interested in the nineteenth-century stage, and a welcome addition to the on-going conversation about music and theatre.