Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Rituals of Nostalgia: Old-Fashioned Melodrama at the Millenium

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Rituals of Nostalgia: Old-Fashioned Melodrama at the Millenium

Article excerpt

Just as in its nineteenth-century heyday, the melodrama, in all its various forms, reigns triumphant in today's cultural marketplace. The television detective series, the western, the science fiction film, the horror flick, and the action blockbuster are all its progeny. Many, if not most, of the popular films of our age contain that same heady mix of excitement, comedy, and pathos found in the famous stage adaptations of melodramas like W.H. Smith's The Drunkard (1844), George Aiken's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), and Augustin Daly's Under the Gaslight (1895). With the arrival of cinema at the turn of the century, the stage melodrama was eclipsed by a medium that could transmit thrills with ever-greater verisimilitude. Stephen Spielberg said of his own films: "In my work, everything is melodrama. I don't think I've ever not made a melodrama. E.T. is melodramatic, and so is The Sugarland Express. I mean, there's melodrama in life and I love it. It's heightened drama, taking things to histrionic extremes and squeezing out the tears a bit" ("A Dialogue" 1).

If American popular culture seems melodramatically inclined, it is perhaps due to the myth of America as nation in adolescence. The popular conception of "America" is of a young nation proud of its identity, muscular in clout and fair in temperament, and decidedly different from its older, effete European ancestors. Eric Bentley noted in The Life of the Drama that "theatre corresponded to that phase of a child's life when he creates magic worlds," and he continued: "Melodrama belongs to this magical phase, the phase when thoughts seem omnipotent ... in short when the larger reality has not been given diplomatic recognition" (217). The youthful American narrative is set in that earlier, "magic world" in which anything can happen, but everything always turns out right in the end.

In the first chapter of Over the Footlights (1923), Stephen Leacock describes the classic melodrama and its presentation on the stage of his youth:

Everybody who has reached or passed middle age looks back with affection to that splendid old melodrama Cast Up by the Sea. Perhaps it wasn't called exactly that. It may have been named Called Back from the Dead, or Broken Up by the Wing, or Buried Alive in the Snow, or anything of that sort. In fact I believe it was played under about forty different names in fifty different forms. But it was always the same good old melodrama of the New England coast. (3)

What follows Leacock's rumination is a chapter-long exegesis of the plot of the play along with the recreation of its fictive performance and the audience's reactions to it. For Leacock, this ideal melodramatic performance of memory can be favorably compared with the film and theatrical productions of the present; it is a production so thrilling that as a spectator he was too excited to eat the popcorn and peanuts purchased in the lobby. Leacock's whimsicality is a typical response to the passage of time and the idealization of certain childhood events. The fact that melodrama of his youth came in "forty different names in fifty different forms" is immaterial as it is "always the same."

This resolute sameness, this desire for immobility afforded by nostalgia, is the hallmark of the modern "melodrama theatre." If Leacock views melodrama as a form from a bygone age and looks back with a parodic glance at its simplicity, melodrama theatres throughout America actually present these same performances of imagined memory in the form of "old-fashioned melodrama." No matter how inaccurate historically, the perception of melodrama as an arrested form of unswerving regularity and consistency has caused the genre to be emblematic of those thrilling, yet comforting, days of yesteryear.

Every summer, in locales like Cripple Creek, Colorado, Virginia City, Montana and Victor, Idaho, melodramas are performed for audiences desirous of a taste of an "old-fashioned" aesthetic. The form, the "melodrama theatre," is one of the most widespread theatrical formats in America. …

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