Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Mute Eloquence: Elizabeth Jolley's the Well as Encrypted Melodrama

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Mute Eloquence: Elizabeth Jolley's the Well as Encrypted Melodrama

Article excerpt


I will not forget you...

I have carved you on the palm of my hand.

The Well (161)

The sub-title on the cover of my edition of The Well (a 1987 reprint) describes the novel as 'a dark and disturbing parable'. This essay contends that the mysteries at the heart of Elizabeth Jolley's dark parable, its allegorical melodrama, begin to be glimpsed (and heard) through close attention to the novel's juxtapositions of song and speech. With only each other for company in a colonial stone cottage perched on the edge of a Western Australian wheat field, and haunted by the un-silent body they have buried in their well, Hester and Katherine act out erotic desires, express anxieties about death and flirt with the idea of enchantments that exist below the watery grave outside their cottage. They imitate accents and declaim phrases heard on television and in Hollywood films, they listen to and share one another's music and they also become attuned to 'the idea of secret streams and caves' trickling 'beneath the ordinary world of [Western Australian] wheat paddocks, roads and towns' (131). To hear as well as to read the novel's stagey voices in the context of its cross-section of song fragments-which range from biblical hymn to German lieder and American pop-is to situate The Well in a musical-dramatic tradition that, reaching back to enlightenment-era Europe, has crossed spatio-temporal borders and metamorphosed in migration through various media, genres and modalities (including theatre and novel).

In what follows, I emphasise continuities between Jolley's late-twentieth century novel and enlightenment-era melodrama, particularly Rousseauian mélodrame. The term mélodrame was used by Jean Jacques Rousseau in reference to his 'scène lyrique' Pygmalion (written 1762; first performed 1770)-a form that was both about metamorphosis (a stone statue springs to life) and that enacted transformation through its reform of French opera. What was innovative about Rousseau's scène lyrique was its alternation, and deliberate juxtaposition of, musical with spoken phrasings. Rousseau's proto-melodramatic form spawned imitations and adaptations in France, Germany and Britain, eventually crossing to North America and elsewhere. Tracing the impact of European melodrama in Australia, Elizabeth Webby references Peter Brooks' influential work when she writes of melodrama as a mode characterised by muted emotional excess. Post-enlightenment melodrama is, in other words, marked by its incapacity to speak (or sing) its deepest meanings, when it moves not just across geographical borders but from the popular stage to print media. Following Brooks, Webby writes of the migration from Europe to Australia of a theatrical form that, while originally emphasising 'spectacle, music and movement' (210), impacted '[w]riters of fiction and poetry' who tried 'to achieve the same emotional impact through their work's structure and language alone' (219). Yet, in both its form and content, The Well can be considered continuous with Rousseau's mélodrame of metamorphosis insofar as it both consists of alternating fragments of song and speech and tells a story of metamorphosis (a body encrypted in a stony well comes to life). Integral to The Well's experimentation with aural and other (melo)dramatic forms, moreover, is Jolley's alertness to how musicodramatic elements sit uneasily within the written form of the novel. Arguing that the written form of the novel arrests the dramatic elements of song and speech that it simultaneously holds, this essay reads The Well via a long post-enlightenment tradition. It argues for the enduring yet metamorphosing and transmedial nature of melodrama as a perpetually transforming form that has moved from theatre to the novel to cinema, television and, now, into digital formats. Like the words carved on the palm of a hand, The Well is analogous to a half-enclosed tomb insofar as its written form contains musicodramatic elements that elude precise categorisation or capture. …

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