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  • The Melodramatic Moment: Music and Theatrical Culture, 1790–1820 ed. by Katherine Hambridge and Jonathan Hicks
  • Hayley Fenn
The Melodramatic Moment: Music and Theatrical Culture, 1790–1820. Ed. by Katherine Hambridge and Jonathan Hicks. pp. xii + 282. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2018. ISBN 978-0-226-54365-9.)

If melodrama is alive today, it is arguably most familiar as an oft pejorative descriptor of emotional excess. Such excesses might burst forth from stage or screen, the courtroom or the front page, the football pitch or a political rally. Indeed, sightings of the melodramatic can happen almost anywhere: few places are beyond the reach of melodrama's heightened emotional tenor.

Boiled down to their essence, countless creative modes roam freely from their artistic homes to provide a useful shorthand for myriad everyday experiences. The melodramatic, however, has wandered so far that it has lost sight of its natural habitat, a fate shared with other especially mobile, highly malleable expressive genres, such as the art of puppetry and various folkloric traditions. Severed from its historical roots, the melodramatic is, so the editors of this volume counsel, 'in danger of running away with itself ' (p. 1), of shedding layers of specificity while accruing reductive cultural baggage. For the authors gathered here, it is time to rein melodrama in—for its own sake.

Under the assured direction of its editors, Katherine Hambridge and Jonathan Hicks, The Melodramatic Moment stages a critical reorientation towards historically situated performance, putting sound centre stage. Melodrama, a theatrical genre characterized by extreme passion, spectacular scenery, and, [End Page 554] most distinctively, small-scale alternation of text and music, came to prominence across the cultural capitals of northern Europe—London, Vienna, Berlin, and Paris—during the years 1790–1820. From revolutionary upheaval and nationalist preoccupations to the place of Enlightenment sensibilities and theatrical representation, the cultural trends and ideological transformations by which this period is already so well defined, as Hambridge and Hicks acknowledge, provide incisive critical lenses onto the slippery terrain of the melodramatic. Not only was melodrama at its core a hybrid creature, paradoxically both flexible and formulaic, but as the range of contributions to this finely wrought volume attest, it was promiscuous, practised on all sorts of stages, from the theatrical to the political to the domestic, and thus apt to challenge established social divisions and aesthetic rules.

Melodrama's unruliness begins at birth, for it has not one origin story, but two. What is now widely accepted as the German tradition of melodrama was grandfathered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and descends from his ground-breaking scène lyrique, Pygmalion (1770). Somewhere between opera and spoken theatre, this Ovidian retelling became the model for the Bohemian composer Georg Benda (1722–95), whose melodramas depicted the tragic fate of a solo (usually female) protagonist. Musically speaking, German melodramas (also known as monodramas) were highly idiosyncratic, featuring big, bold gestures and a fraught tugof-war between orchestra and text. By contrast, French melodrama was incubated on the stages of Parisian boulevard theatres. Headed up by the aristocrat-turned-playwright René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt (1773–1844), who wrote ninety-four melodramas, the tradition combined the French penchant for pantomime and spectacle with occasional songs and short musical cues to punctuate the drama and underline the emotional states of the characters.

Dualistic since birth, melodrama, as an object of scholarly analysis, is split along comparable lines: musicologists tend to gravitate towards the body of works represented by Benda, while scholars of literature, theatre, and film focus primarily on those of Pixérécourt and his contemporaries. It was Pixérécourt's melodramas that caught Peter Brooks's attention when grappling with the aesthetics of later nineteenth-century literary works by the likes of Balzac and James. In his seminal 1976 monograph The Melodramatic Imagination, Brooks identified a 'mode of excess' in melodrama's layering of theatrical resources (text, music, gesture, scenery). Significantly, Brooks's opening out from questions of genre to questions of modality has, as Hambridge and Hicks observe, helped to spur explorations of the melodramatic beyond the theatre (p. 5).

The Melodramatic Moment confronts this rift head-on: by insisting...


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