Showing posts with label melodrama. Show all posts
Showing posts with label melodrama. Show all posts

Saturday, August 22, 2015


Yes, my guess is that media of all kinds, but especially theatre and adventure novels,  contributed to the outbreak of the American Civil War and influenced our behavior right up to the Hippie Revolution in the 1960s.

Beginning with the invention of melodrama in France in the 1780s Americans were increasingly steeped in romantic hero stories that made ordinary trades seem unappealing and dull. The appearance of Dumas' ground breaking actioner "The Three Musketeers" in the 1840s was like kerosene poured on an already raging fire. The appearance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" pushed it over the edge.

We have an image of the 19th Century America as one of unrelieved physical labor, but was it? There were melodramas, classical music concerts and opera. Shakespeare played even in small towns in the American West. In 1847 the "Shakespeare Riots" occurred when fans of different Shakespeare companies clashed violently on the city streets and people were killed.

There were showboat shows, Vaudeville, and saloon concerts.

There were minstrel shows, Hippodrome spectacles, and human and animal fights.

Add to that medicine shows, recitals, church theatre, races, state, local and world fairs, circuses, magic shows, dances, and Vaudeville.

And did I mention burlesque, public lectures and readings, debates, political rallies, rousing band concerts, sports, penny dreadfuls and magazines, romance stories, and increasingly illustrated newspapers?

Let us not forget Fourth of July celebrations, Christmas pageants, puppet shows and temperance plays.

Oops! I forgot equestrian shows, harvest celebrations and revival meetings. Geez, it's a wonder that anyone ever found time to work!

My guess is that nearly everybody, even the relatively poor, attended shows at least once a week, probably more. It's almost as if the people who lived in the 1800s had television, just like we do. People then were saturated with media, only for them it was an edgy new thing that stimulated new desires.

One last thought: people wonder how a thug like Hitler managed to come to power in the most educated country in the world. The standard reasons offered are no doubt correct but I'll add a minor reason to the list: adventure media.  For over a century the public was exposed to an unprecedented number of romantic plays and hero stories and they unwittingly did propaganda for the idea that any individual, if sufficiently bold, could live a life of adventure, excitement and pageantry. When millions of people were converted to this belief it was only a matter of time before somebody found a way to base a political system on it.

Interesting, eh?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Long time readers of this blog know how much I like melodrama. The time travel story I just posted was heavily influenced by it. For me it means creating stories out of elements that have sure-fire audience appeal. If people naturally like to see romance and swordfights, if they love to cheer on a hero and boo the villain, if they have a sentimental attachment to beloved pets...then the melodramatist tries to fit those elements in.

A story like that can be the cheesiest daytime soap opera or it can be Macbeth. It depends on the skill of the writer.

Anyway, if you like that medium you might be curious about how it started...or rather how the popular modern incarnation of it started. Here's how one internet source describes it.

The story begins in the 1780s with a young French aristocrat named Pixerecourt.

Pixerecourt was young and well off and his father had just bought an estate that would have qualified him as an aristocrat. The boy had no aspirations beyond chasing women and wearing nice clothes. Life was good and he hadn't a care in the world. Then came the French Revolution and he and his family were tossed out into the snowflakes.

I don't know what happened to his family, but Pixerecourt's life became a horror. With no money and no way to make a living he had to wander from town to town trying to pass himself off as a peasant. The police were on his trail, and anybody he met might have turned him in.

He had lots of adventures where he was hunted like an animal and nearly starved.  Finally he met an old friend who, at great risk to himself, got Pixerecourt a low level clerk's job under an assumed name. Desperate for money, Pixerecourt tried to pay back the friend by writing a play and selling it to one of the local theatres. Sell it he did, and to his surprise the public lined up around the block to see it. It was a hit. In order to explain why I have to digress for a moment.

After Shakespeare's time fictional villains had fallen into disrepute. The Baroque era was ushered in and with it the belief that a man becomes good by surrounding himself with with positive things like art (above) and finery. Dwelling on the dark thoughts of villains was considered morbid and perilous to virtue. Baroque drama centered around misunderstandings, not evil, and comedy became popular.

Back to Pixerecourt: he wasn't trying to innovate. He just wanted to write a popular drama. The problem was that he had seen nothing but the darkest side of life since he left home and was still living under the threat of discovery by murderous fanatics. He wrote about villains because that's all he knew. It evidently struck a chord with the audience, who'd had plenty of brushes with evil themselves.

I wish I could say that Pixerecourt had a life of ease afterward but that wasn't the case. His plays brought him to the attention of the authorities who did everything they could to capture him. Later he was drafted into the revolutionary army which apparently didn't know about his background. I don't know how his later life played out but one of his plays, The Dog of Montargis (usually spelled differently than it is on the poster), became a staple of theatre in the 19th Century and was a favorite of Charles Dickens.

 Here's (above) a statue that commemorates the play, and which still stands in the real-life town of Montargis.  In the play a popular nobleman is killed by a jealous courtier in the forest. The killer might have gotten away with it but the victim's dog recognizes him and attacks him at every opportunity. The killer pleads with the law to have the dog put down, but the king declares that justice would only be served by a Trial by Ordeal. The murderer must fight with the dog to the death. Needless to say, it's a melodrama so the murderer loses.

Incidentally, how did anyone ever stage this play? Even with a trained dog the actor playing the murderer must have gotten some serious bites. And what would happen if someone in the audience brought their cat to the play?  

So that's how modern melodrama began. Someone had to risk his life so that we could have soap operas and stories about faithful pets who rescue their masters from drowning in icy rivers.

Fascinating, eh?


Tuesday, March 05, 2013


Yes, it's another post on the 40s version of "Mildred Pierce!" I admit it, I just can't get enough of that film. I'll keep watching it til I figure out why I keep watching it. 

Camus called the book's author, James M. Cain, America's greatest writer. I think I can guess why an Existentialist would say that. Cain believes that all people have both a good and a bad side, and for that reason the world is dominated by moral ambiguity and unhappiness. 

 Just for the record, I don't buy Cain's depressing philosophy but he's such a good writer that I give him the benefit of the doubt for the duration of the story.

Warning: I give away some of the less important plot elements here. 

There's a shooting at the start and Mildred is made to tell her story to the police. The novel doesn't start that way, but the device is pure genius because it justifies the narration and the flashbacks that follow. It's a nice way to compress a complicated story. 

Mildred's a simple housewife, but her excessive dedication to her snooty daughter brings her into conflict with her husband. It's tragic because they're both good people. 

She leaves her husband and takes up with an amiable weasel. He's amoral but she needs companionship. 

After she leaves her husband and ventures out into the outside world, she encounters four or five major types of people. It's like a medieval morality tale that introduces us, one by one, to the different kinds of false friends and demons that are out there. All have a good side, but all will eventually betray her. 

Mildred gets a job as a waitress and meets a woman who will become her friend. The friend is helpful when Mildred starts her own restaurant, but is also self-absorbed, and isn't proper friend material.

Unable to find a genuine friend, Mildred tries romance with a formerly rich gold-digger. He has a nice side, but..... 

Even the daughter she made so many sacrifices for treats her badly. Unable to find any good in the world she heroically tries to create the good by spoiling her kid. 

Yikes, I have lots more to say, but I'm running out of space. I'll have to continue this another time. 

Monday, August 10, 2009


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I'm always amazed when someone tells me that melodrama died in the late 1890s. Actually it's alive and well, even today. I don't mean in soap operas, I mean in most mainstream films and novels. What was the recent Academy Award winner, "Slum Dog Millionaire," but a re-hash of the old story of the virtuous orphan abused by an evil skinflint?

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that if you want to learn how to write stories, you better make your peace with the conventions of melodrama. For one thing, you better learn how to love cruel stepfathers, scheming misers, generous benefactors, smooth villains, stolen children, lost wills, missing heirs, disguises, plots overheard, people thought dead returning to life, and all the rest.

I wish I'd learned melodramatic writing in school. Here's (below) a fantasy of mine, where an imaginary teacher hands out the kind of assignment I'd have killed to get:

TEACHER: "A nice girl from a mid-west farm has come to New York to see if she can get a part in a Broadway play. She's talented but she doesn't know anybody in the city and her money's running out. We pick her up when she's standing in a line outside a theater waiting for an audition.

An awkward young man comes out and she inadvertently causes him to drop his copy of the script into the mud. When she helps him pick it up she loses her place in line and ungraciously blames him for it. He asks who she is and she impulsively says that she's a big star who's slumming by reading for the part. When he leaves she discovers that the man she's just alienated is the leading man in the play.

The assignment? Make an outline of the conversation they have outside the theater. A little humor is okay, but don't don't make fun of the genre, and make it a scene the audience won't soon forget."

STUDENTS: "But it's cheesy! Nobody can write stuff like that with a straight face anymore!"

TEACHER: "You not only have to write it, but you have to write it with conviction. And it has to be good!

STUDENTS: (Groans).

Sunday, July 19, 2009


"It's a Wonderful Life": the film is falling out of favor lately, largely because it's been on the vintage favorites list for a long time and people are looking for something new. Too bad, it's a great film. Anyway, I brought it up because I want to talk about one of my favorite sequences in the film, the one where Potter tries tries to buy off George Bailey with the promise of a high-paying job.

It's an interesting sequence because Potter's been treated as a one-note villain up to this point so you'd expect him to play the sequence in a high-hatted, "Take this offer or else!" kind of way. Instead Potter uncharacteristically tries to sweet talk Bailey. Watch the clip. It begins 4 1/2 minutes into the video.

Did you watch it? What intrigues me about this is that it's a simple attempt at bribery that doesn't add anything to the story, yet it manages manages to be one of the best scenes in the whole film. Think about it. We already knew that Bailey and Potter were enemies. We already had abundant evidence that Bailey preferred integrity to money. The sequence tells us nothing new, and yet....

What I'm going to argue here is that the sequence exists for a theatrical reason. Up till now the Potter part of the story simply laid down information. It took great pains to let us know who the good and bad guys were. That's fine so far as it goes, but live theater people know that audiences crave scenes where they can boo the villain...where they're tempted to yell, "Don't go in there, Dick! he's got a gun!" Even in the middle of a story, they want sequences that end with the patriotic triumph of right exemplified with angelic choirs waving the flag and the villain being hissed off the stage.

Not only that, but actors need scenes where they can shine and not simply be pawns racing ahead to the next plot point. In this sequence Barrymore gets to be sunny for a while. This means he can anchor his performance in a deliberately insincere sing-song, which live audiences love to re-act to, and actors love to play.

That's all I have to say on the subject of live theater and film, but I have a copy of "Cyrano de Bergerac" on the desk in front of me and it wouldn't be much trouble for me to scan in a couple of terrific paragraphs that I read last night. Let's goes!

Great, huh? Here's an excerpt from the same scene, a couple of pages later:

Wow! Good old Cyrano...a real force of nature!

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Readers who hated the last post I did about Delsarte will probably hate this one too. It's a hard sell to convince people that Delsarte's old-fashioned "tie-the-pretty-girl-to-the railroad-tracks" school of acting is actually worth studying.

  Here's the picture (above) I posted a few days ago. Look at it closely. The woman refers to the man as a giant, yet she's looking down and her hand is at waist-level. Why isn't her hand way up? She should be pointing up to the sky, shouldn't she? The guy's a giant after all. When she says he acted like a dwarf she looks upward disdainfully. What's going on? How come at the mention of "dwarf" she looks up, where she didn't at the mention of "giant?" Why is the orator defeating our expectations? Why don't her expressions and attitudes describe what's happening in the dialogue?

The Delsartean answer is that her gestures are describing what's really happening in the scene. the emotional point of the scene is that she's heart-broken with disappointment. The description of the guy is secondary, and is only an excuse to convey her emotion. The idea that gesture shouldn't slavishly follow text is extremely interesting. I remember a quote from Norbert Weiner: It is a cybernetic law that the more expected a communication is, the less information it contains." In other words, gestures that only mirror the dialogue are boring. Gesture should ADD to what the dialogue tells us!

Delsarte is full of ideas like this. How about the one where he says gesture should always preceed dialogue? Or repeated expressions of the same thought should always be identical? Or never dwell on the final word? Or geture should always be choreographed? Or...well, you see what I mean. It doesn't matter if the man is right. What's important is that he stimulates our imaginaton!