Musical Theatre in America: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the Musical Theatre in America

By Glenn Loney | Go to book overview

Celestial Queen of the Dumb Shows

MARY GRACE SWIFT

The dark-eyed heroine of this essay, Madame Celeste Keppler Elliott, was chiefly an entertainer of the common man who starred primarily, though not exclusively, in melodramas. James L. Smith's refreshing little volume, Melodrama, reminds readers that "in popular and even academic use, melodrama is still a synonym for cheap and nasty thrills," or "a term which the man in the street (now) loosely applies to any machine-made entertainment dealing in vulgar extravagance, implausible motivation, meretricious sensation and spurious pathos." A term of abuse and contempt, "it is probably the dirtiest word a drama critic dare print." 1

The term melodrama did not always have such a black and dastardly dimension. Derived from the Greek melos ("music"), melodrama was a common eighteenth-century synonym for opera. One important step in the evolution of the genre took place when that erratic genius Jean Jacques Rousseau, thinking that French was too harsh a language to be sung, devised for his production of Pygmalion "a kind of musical leap-frog," 2 in which the words and music instead of being sung together were heard alternately, with musical phrases being used to announce or prepare for the spoken phrases.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, melodrama might be "a play, or a passage in a play or a poem, in which the spoken voice is used against a musical background." 3 At the same time, melodrama often abolished language altogether, and in many spectacular scenes the action would move so rapidly that the characters had time only for startled exclamations. Such as it was, melodrama became a popular form of musical theatre, utilizing the creative powers of artists as varied as Beethoven, and Bayle Bernard.


Celeste's First American Tour

The nineteenth-century melodramatic artist Celeste Elliott first saw the light of day in Marcilly-sur-Campagne, Département de l'Eure, France, on

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