Sunday, 25 February 2018

Who Fancies a Culture War: From melodrama to naturalism... (part one)

Both Rebecca D'Monte (British Performance and Theatre, Bloomsbury 2015) and James Woodfield agree (English Theatre in Transition, Routledge 2016): the melodrama of the nineteenth century is an inferior genre of performance, tainted by its rowdy audience and simplistic plots that celebrate the worst qualities of nationalism and prejudice. Woodfield is especially scathing, imagining a vulnerable theatre at the mercy of a voracious public.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the theatres had been deserted by the middle and upper classes and were forced (my italics) to play to a predominantly uneducated, lower-class audience who... demanded... four hours or more of action, emotion, sentiment, spectacle and horseplay and novelty (2016: 1)

D'Monte is a little more circumspect, although retains the class prejudice that delights Woodfield .

The melodrama did more than pander to the tastes of an unthinking mass audience... it could also reinforce racial prejudices. imperialist propaganda and social anxieties... xenophobic representations of corrupt 'Asians' or barbaric Africans who threatened the Christian way of life but were trounced by British heroism and moral supremacy... the dichotomous view of women as Madonna/whore (2015: 18)

D'Monte at least has the courtesy to identify the objectionable elements of melodrama: Woodfield is content to prove his position by quoting Charles Dickens' description of Sadler Wells' audience (Shakespeare in Newgate, 1851), and dismiss fifty years of theatre as 'vulgar fare'.

Luckily for both authors, the melodrama is merely a prelude to their studies of that superior theatrical genre that emerged from the social melodrama, but pretended that it was something utterly new: naturalism. Naturalism - sometimes called 'realism' - became popular at the time that the theatres decided to woo those disgruntled middle-classes by making the theatre a more comfortable and expensive experience. Championed by Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw and Ibsen and every single critic who can't get past their own bourgeois values, naturalism claims to be rooted in a scientific observation of human life, but initially manipulated the burgeoning theories of psychology to replace a theatre shaped by narrative surprise with one driven by character and motivation.

I haven't come here to blame naturalism as a genre, although the idea that 'realism' is some kind of gold standard for a medium that is a bunch of make-believe (or, as Aristotle has it, mimesis) makes me ache. I'm more intrigued by what this shift reveals about the way that culture is occupied by the dominant group in a hierarchy, and the culture of the defeated groups is reduced to a vulgar side-show.

Oh yes: I am also using it to explain why contemporary theatre is far too comfortable. If a study of the transition from melodrama is naturalism might seem a bit dry, hold on. I am going to say some nasty things about theatre criticism in the twenty-first century. 


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