Sunday, 25 February 2018

Who Fancies a Culture war: Why I love melodrama (in theory) (part two)

In part one of 'Who fancies a Culture War', I gave
two examples of how melodrama has been regarded as an inferior, working-class genre. I went on to suggest that the rise of naturalism was the establishment of bourgeois control over theatre, and that its popularity among the middle-classes coincided with an attempt by theatre-owners to attract a wealthier audience. 

Naturalism positioned itself as a sophisticated alternative to the melodrama, an aesthetic deepening of theatre that represented the reality of contemporary life on stage. Thomas Postlewait(Melodrama: the cultural emergence of a genre, MacMillan 1999) puts it like this.

Nineteenth century entertainment  - popular, romantic, sentimental and quintessentially melodramatic - gives way to twentieth century drama in the modernist mode, predominantly realistic... either a step by step transformation... or a difficult struggle between two adversarial forms... the American drama comes of age when modern realistic drama supplants melodrama as the definitive dramatic form. (1999: 39)

Postlewait sees this evolutionary progress as a myth, observing the residual features of melodrama within the twentieth century drama. In the same volume, Lothar Fietz discovers the  'structural isomorphy' between melodrama and the earlier genre of 'sentimental drama' that could, with its interest in reproducing 'the real' and middle-class preoccupations, be seen as a herald of the naturalistic tragedy.

What Postlewait and Fietz describe is a continuity between the melodramatic and the naturalistic theatre, which rejects the notion that the latter is some kind of paradigm shift: the social melodrama of the 1830s, which was described as the breeding ground of socialism (citation needed) was a prototype for naturalism, but while the melodramas tended to depict the middle-classes as grasping villains, the naturalists filled their stages with first world problems.

I slipped in the term 'naturalistic tragedy' back then. That's because I do recognise a paradigm shift between the melodrama of the nineteenth century and naturalism of the twentieth. Naturalism is more likely to use a tragic structure. And if there is any 'difficult struggle between two adversarial forms', it is between melodrama and tragedy. Naturalism appears in both of these modes (they are a bit bigger than genres, so I'll call them that for the moment).  

But instead of this nuanced and frankly complicated analysis of theatrical aesthetics, the popular narrative - which is ironically melodramatic in its use of stark dualism - is that melodrama is a load of rubbish and naturalism is hip and honest, realistic and sophisticated. 'Melodramatic' is an insult. When Mark Fisher wants to complain about a weakness in the  structure of Bold Girls, he says that 'the third-act revelations (are) straight out of Victorian melodrama'.

Now, I am not saying Mark Fisher hates the working-classes. He's just using an accepted shorthand for a plot twist that is more about sensation than narrative integrity. I'm touchy because I've spent a month reading about melodrama. 

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