Melodrama: Low Comedy or High Art? Part One
Timko, Michael, The World and I
What is melodrama? Most of us, when we think of it at all, and we often don't, think of a "melodramatic" scene such as in Augustin Daly's "Under the Gaslight" (1905). The character Snorkey is tied up and laid on the tracks. Just as the train comes thundering down on him, Snorkey is rescued by Laura.
One remembers it vividly. Laura is locked in ta nearby shed and can't get out to rescue Snorkey. She grabs an axe. Snorkey directs her: "Cut the woodwork! Don't mind the lock--cut round it! How my neck tingles! Courage! Courage! (The steam whistle heard again--nearer, and rumble of train on track. Another blow.) That's a true woman! Courage! (Noise of locomotive heard--with whistle. A last blow; the door swings open, mutilated--the lock hanging--and Laura appears, axe in hand.) Snorkey again: "Here--quick! (She runs and unfastens him. The locomotive lights glare on the scene.) Victory! Saved! Hooray! (Laura leans exhausted against switch.) And these are the women who ain't to have a vote!" (As Laura takes his head from the track, the train of cars rushes past with roar and whistle from left to right.) END OF ACT IV
Others may think of villains like Simon Legree or heroines like Girl in "The Girl of the Golden West." In other words, according to Stephen Sondheim, the author of "Sweeney Todd" and other plays, melodrama is often considered something to be spoofed, to be laughed at. He disagrees and cites "Oedipus Rex" as being "very close to melodrama."
Others are much more complimentary. George Bernard Shaw praises the genre: "A good melodrama is a more difficult thing to write than all this clever-clever comedy: one must go straight to the core of humanity to get it, and if is only good enough, why, there you have Lear or Macbeth." T.S. Eliot goes even further: "Melodrama is perennial and a the craving for it is perennial and must be satisfied. So long as novels are written, the possibilities of melodrama must from time to time be explored. You cannot define Drama and Melodrama so that they shall be reciprocally exclusive; great drama has something melodramatic in it, and the best melodrama partakes of the greatness of drama."
Melodrama, in short, has a long and honorable history; it is perennial, as Eliot claims, and deserves serious study. Although it has always existed in various forms, by the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries all the ingredients for the genre we now identify as pure or unadulterated "melodrama" are in place--it was just a matter of combining all of the elements in a new way. The ingredients include elements from:
a) 15th century morality plays, with symbolic characters and the battle between good and evil;
b) Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, a rich source of melodrama. These dramas, The Spanish Tragedy, The Jew of Malta, Hamlet, and Macbeth, contain many of the features of the genre (ghosts, inflated language, villains, heroes and heroines, and madness);
c) melodrama also absorbed aspects of 18th century "sentimental drama," a good example being George Lillo's The London Merchant, 1731, featuring George Barnwell, an apprentice who becomes an evil man at the instigation of the heartless Millwood, an older woman who has seduced him. Barnewell, of course, ends up on the gallows.
What these 18th century "sentimental dramas" provided were highly emotional situations, characters reflecting the view of man that regarded him as innately virtuous, endowed with strong moral sense, characters that might be labeled "loyal friend," a serious and honorable lover, a loyal wife, and loyal comic servant; they also included surprising revelations and discoveries, mistaken identities, lost or forged documents, sudden recognitions by parents of lost children, and obvious morality. There were also the "sentimental" 18th century novels with many of the same ingredients: (Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, Pamela : and the Gothic novels: Horace Walpole, "Castle of Otranto," "Ann Radcliffe," "Mysteries of Udolpho. …