photo by Joe Mazza and Brave Lux

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Melodrama and Its Descendents

As I mentioned before, to understand the differences between U.S. and East European theatre in the 20th century one must first examine the countries' traditions in the 19th century. In the U.S., the most popular plays were melodramas and minstrel shows. Melodramas were directly descended from the neo-classical plays of 18th-century Europe and the Romanticism that followed. 19th-century U.S. melodrama was very much like Hollywood blockbusters of today: two-dimensional characters, fantastic special effects, and a premium placed on suspense. The minstrel show was a shameful native-grown theatre genre based on racist stereotypes of African Americans that appropriated aspects of African music and incorporated them into a variety-show format. Minstrel shows would greatly influence both vaudeville and the musical.

The melodrama was a distinctly formulaic type of theatre. Characters were heroes or villains, there was a damsel in distress, and the script consisted of predictable plot rather than character development. Since plot, suspense, and spectacle were the most important aspects of melodrama, technical artists of theatre were more important than ever before, often more so than the playwrights or actors. Technical artists staged horse battles on stage, ships sinking on stage, trains on stage, and, most famous of all, rivers of ice which actors had to cross onstage. The special effects of 19th-century melodramas in the U.S. were akin to the summer blockbusters that now come out of L.A. every summer.

The most successful melodrama of the 19th century was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but there were dozens of versions. Copyright laws did not exist as we know them today so anyone with half a mind could adapt the novel. At one point, dueling productions were across the street in New York City. More people saw some version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the stage than read the book in the 1800s. But no matter the text, every version included the runaway slave Eliza escaping dogs across an ice flow.

This type of spectacle was the most important part of U.S. melodrama, and part of what 20th-century U.S. drama will revolt against.

George Aikin’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most popular, and its full text is available online. Part of its popularity was its incorporation of the other native form of drama from the U.S., the minstrel show. Understanding the minstrel show and its incorporation into much popular U.S. entertainment right up through today is the next aspect of 19th century U.S. drama that needs to be understood in order to compare U.S. and East European theatre in the 20th century. So next week I’ll begin my discussion of the minstrel show with Aikin’s character, Topsy, a character he added to the narrative.

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