Academic journal article K@ta

The Myth of the American Identity in American Melodrama

Academic journal article K@ta

The Myth of the American Identity in American Melodrama

Article excerpt

Abstract: Melodrama reflects and constructs ideology. In American melodrama, the dominant social group imposed its ideology by constructing the standard American identity and its opposite through the heroes and villains. In the four plays discussed, the standard is pictured through the heroes in terms of their ability to get financial success, their acceptance of the Protestant moral codes, and their being white. Thus, in the world of melodrama people of color as well as financially deprived people are marginalized.

Key words: ideology, melodrama, hero, cultural poetics, hegemony, identity, villains, history

During the colonial period and the early years of independence, the United States was socio-politically still a shadow of the old world. In the first half of the nineteenth century, however, as the common people demanded equality, the United States began to develop its own democracy. The "new democratic spirit" continued to grow, and eventually it brought Andrew Jackson, a leader of this movement, to presidency (Burns, 1986). The election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828 opened a new era in American politics and strengthened the American faith in the common man as well as America's pride in her own achievements (Wilson, 1982, p. 36, Spielvogel, 1994, p. 757). Mason (1993) even believes that this movement started earlier, at the end of the eighteenth century. He argues, "As events led toward establishment of the republic in the late eighteenth century, those who had once identified themselves as European colonists now desired a new self image"(p. 33). Therefore, the "new world" gave them not only a new place to live but also that to create a new identity. "For members of the majority and minority alike, the old world is the world in which one's place in the community establishes one's identity and the new world is the world in which one creates an identity, or self" (Andreach, 1976, p. 47).

By looking at how the United States came into being, Daniel C. Gerould considers that the birth of America is similar to that of melodrama (1983, p. 7). Even further, Jeffrey D. Mason clearly argues that American history can be seen as a melodrama (1993, p. 194). "Anyone who crossed the Atlantic and braved the challenge of an unknown continent had to be optimistic. The cowards never started; the weak died on the way" (Wilson in Basuki, 2003). What Wilson means, in agreement with Mason's statement, is that the journey was something heroic, and heroes are the main characters in melodrama. Thus, American history is a melodramatic history, and melodrama takes part in shaping American history. For instance, in the 1800s, American theatres performed melodrama in which the Americans found references for where they were from and what they were to become. Therefore, Gerould, who adopts a sympathetic approach to melodrama, considers melodrama as "cultural artifacts, expressing the American temperament, preaching American ideologies, embodying American aesthetic principles" (1983, p. 8). Mason contends that "melodrama creates the myth of America, the myth that . . . establishes and preempts the moral high ground and becomes the standard against which all experience is measured" (p. 187). In other words, melodrama presents a standard self-identity against which every individual is measured.

The question is: "What is the standard identity imposed by melodrama?" To investigate the American "identity," I will discuss Uncle Tom's Cabin by George L. Aiken (1887), The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault (1859), The Great Divide by William Vaughen Moody (1906), and The Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco (1905). Although I cannot claim that the four plays I discuss represent the complex world of American melodrama, I hold that they present good examples of how the myth is established.

The theoretical lens I am using is cultural poetics (or new historicism), since through cultural poetics I can investigate ideologies hidden in a literary text. …

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