Sunday, June 9, 2013

What Makes Us Cry: Melodrama, Awash with Emotions




Women would hate to live in a melodramatic world, right?
It's very easy to laugh about Melodrama. We imagine when hearing the word a world where heroines are tied to train tracks by villains with long twirl-able moustaches, and rescued by daring heroes dressed all in white. It's thought of as a genre so absorbed in its own pathos that it tends to wash us in a wave of emotions. However, I'd argue at the same time it's an important and influential genre as it has the capacity to put on display the "troubling issues" and "moral dilemmas" of the day that need to be addressed, just managing to do so in a highly emotional manner. Melodrama is most certainly a genre that "makes us cry" as it is a genre where the emotions of our protagonists are heightened and exaggerated to some degree to arrive a some certain truth that couldn't be felt were things to be portrayed realistically. As a genre it could be said to be the offspring of Tragedy and Romance and thus exists in between them and contains certain aspects of each.

Back before playbills had graphic designers.
Melodrama first developed as a genre I'd argue in the 1700s, being born from its predecessor Sentimentalism. Sentimentalism was a philosophic idea which rose to prominence between the 1700s - 1720s along side the early form of modern market capitalism. In Sentimentalism it was argued that people could know moral truths through sentiment or emotion. If something was truly horrendous morally, it was argued you'd be able to know it by feeling violated emotionally. As this trend crossed over into literature you'd find heroes being pushed to emotional extremes in order to determine right from wrong. This movement in philosophy is due partially thanks to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England which had the cultural side effect of not only bringing in a new set of monarchs to rule a country, but a new cultural generation as well. Gone was the old generation of those who had partied hard and long during the Restoration and in its place were a witty and foppish group of people who wanted to take a middle road between the moral depravity of the Restoration era and the budding sense of Sentimentality that would rise twenty years later. Fops became a standard in not just the literary world but also the, and as such they focused on perfecting outer appearance, high intelligence, and overlooking emotional displays of feeling. In that twenty years a dry sense of intelligence, wit, and foppishness, dominated the stage and literary world of England seeking to pull back slightly from the Restoration era, but never doing so completely. It would be yet another generation of writers after the Glorious Revolution who came of age approximately from the 1700s to the 1720s that would take that desire to turn towards a more moral literature which explored its characters' emotional feelings more than put on display its characters' sense of wit and intelligence. In that sense Sentimentalism was rebelling against both the "anything goes" morality of the Restoration culture, and the unemotional wit and attention to superficial appearance of the post-Revolution era. One can see this most explicitly in the play The Conscious Lovers (1722) by Richard Steele. Here we find the father, Sir John Bevil, is a middle-aged fop, whose son, Bevil Junior, is a budding sentimentalist. Sir John Bevil connives to marry his son off to a rich
How to Identify your Long Lost Child 101:
Give your babies jewellery.
man's daughter so as to double his estate without any consideration for his son's heart, while Bevil Junior loves the penniless Indiana. Indiana then by lucky coincidence turns out to be the long lost elder daughter of the man set to be Bevil Junior's father-in-law (this is revealed by the discovery of a bracelet) and all comes to right. The play also marked a social custom to turn away from marrying for fortune and property and a tendency amongst the elite to marry friends or people with prior affection for one another. The moral at the end of the play is told to us that the "happiness of the young is provided by good virtue, honesty, and Providence".

Capitalism: The early years.
It is thus from this period the tendency in literature to deliver the "moral of the story" began, as playwrights and authors liked to make sure everyone learned the proper lesson from the emotional roller coaster they were put on. No more is the clearer than in the popular play The London Merchant (there's that tie-in to early market capitalism) which makes duly sure to hit the audience over the head that morality and capitalism must coexist together if capitalism is to succeed. The argument the play makes completely immoral capitalism is a whore (like the whore in the play who is the villain), and that lack of morality in capitalism can lead to murdering one's uncle and the worst crime of all... stealing from one's boss! And I'm not kidding the play tries to argue that stealing from one's boss is one of the most horrible things a person can do, and explains why the play was so popular for fifty straight years as bosses in the early industrial era brought in actors to perform the play for their employees as "employee training" sessions. Nowadays we have inspirational speeches and films that have replaced the need of The London Merchant for employers.

The actual word melodrama originated in the 1700s meant something completely different from the stylistic origins I'd argue it had in Sentimentalism. Melodrama in the 1700s meant a part of the drama when people would speak over a piece of music in a slightly exaggerated or emotional manner. This idea of delivering dialogue over music stemmed from a particular interpretation of Aristotle's Poetics which listed Music as one of the important components of Tragedy. Melodramas in this sense typically were pinpointed for pivotal moments of a play and were self-contained exchanges between the hero of the play and the villain or obstacle preventing them from achieving what they wanted. This style would enter opera and later find its natural home in nineteenth century operetta, and thus serve as part of the inspiration for the modern day musical. It should also be noted that the word melodrama could also be associated to a pantomime set to music, which became the format for our silent films in general.

The Eternal Mother (1912) an eleven minute silent film,
which goes to melodramatic extremes in emotion.

Melodrama as we know it fully developed and was arguably one of the most popular genres in the Victorian era and pre-WWI part of the 20th Century, or approximately from 1837 - 1918. When else but in a period which celebrated Romanticism (which was a sentimental look at Romance) would Melodrama prove to be popular? It still remains with us in the form of what we now call soap operas, most especially daytime soap operas. While prime-time shows like Dynasty, Dallas, Desperate Housewives, Revenge, or even Mad Men can borrow from the melodrama genre, they fail to completely enter its realm by failing to use music consistently in tangent with sparking an emotional mood. To be sure, they do do it, it's just they pull back from doing so all the time, which an actual melodrama would. Music in melodrama, is just as important if not more important than the story and the characters. It's the music in melodrama which goes about painting the emotional mood of our characters for us. In this way our use of film music is influenced by melodrama even to this day and one could say that our modern films are rather melodramatic, especially when scored by John Williams.

Just listen to John Williams mess with your emotions.
Believe me, he's the master of it.

In Melodrama our heroes lose a little of their heroism and the villains become a bit more maniacal, but at the same time both become a little more blundering and prone to mistakes, as they become more "human" than they were previously and enter a more realistic world. No longer are there monsters to do battle with nor is there any cosmic rhyme or reason for the persecution of our hero and heroine, it just is life--the emotions might be a bit exaggerated, but overall it is life as we know it. Instead of being enticingly tied to rocks for monsters to devour, our heroines are tied to train tracks for the monster of industry to run over.

Iachimo the Jack in the Box.
Melodrama villains despite giving monocle, mustache, and top hat enthusiasts a bad rap, have been de-fanged for lack of a better term. While the villains are villainous there's something that holds them back from being completely evil. Let's look back to Shakespeare for a second to see if we can find an example. The Shakespeare play most closely associated with Melodrama typically is the Romance Cymbeline. In the Victorian period, Cymbeline was a popular play and its elements of melodrama were amplified by Victorian actor-directors like William Charles Macready when the play began hitting the peak of its popularity in the 1837 - 1842 period in the early days of the Victorian era. I'm reminded of the scene from Cymbeline where Iachimo springs out of the chest in Imogen's room and goes about writing down the details of the chamber as well as her body and stealing a bracelet (why is it always a bracelet?) of hers while she sleeps in her bed. The entire while we're reminded that Iachimo could very well rape Imogen if he so chose, after all he had tried to get her to have sex with him earlier, but he doesn't. Our villain merely wants to make Imogen's separated husband Posthumous THINK he slept with her, when Imogen proves unwilling Iachimo doesn't force the matter when he very well could have. It doesn't change that what he did to Posthumous was diabolical, but it's not exactly the worst he could've done, and he does feel bad about it after. For all intents and purpose, he a second-rate villain or a "little Iago" as his name hints at. There is a certain line that isn't crossed in his villainy. He seems to have morals and values, but just likes the idea of causing trouble--sure that's antagonism, but it's not the full extent of what he COULD do. I should note that threatening villains don't spring from chests like a jack in the box. It's hard on the actor who has to perform that scene to keep it from turning completely laughable.


Nothing funny to say about a child freezing to death in a blizzard.
The heroes in melodrama are the innocence du jure, and can be split into two types. The first type typically tends to on the pathetic side being women, children, or some other kind of disenfranchised class of peoples--mainly poor children though. This type of melodrama was especially popular when Hans Christen Anderson wrote his fairy tales which includes the rather melodramatic Little Match Girl. The more pathetic the hero, the more dastardly and cold the villains will be, typically. In this form of melodrama, it will be more about the question of survival of our heroes in a cold, indifferent, and cruel world. In Cymbeline this would be our heroine Imogen who runs away into the forest near Milford Haven to try and escape with her husband's servant to reunite with her husband, only to discover that her husband thinks she's cheated on him, and she is left in a cold forest in the middle of winter to wander alone. The fact that she's in the wilderness in the middle of winter is a physical reflection of how alone and miserable the world she lives in treats her.


Sure, like everyone can afford a balloon...
When our heroes aren't of the pathetic mould, then our heroes in melodrama are, for lack of a better term, overgrown children.  In this form they're gullible, trusting, obstinate, and prone to throwing temper tantrums to get their way. Also the more childish our heroes are, the more childish our villains will be. Melodrama usually covers how these types of heroes thus "grow up" and become wise to the ways of the world and its villains, while still remaining impeccable examples of virtue. In The Perils of Pauline (1914) our heroine Pauline is determined to live her life for a year and have "adventures" before settling down and getting married. Helen, from The Hazards of Helen (1915) shows pretty much the same thing--except Helen manages to be the one to save the day. Now I don't want to sound like she should have married immediately off the bat, but Pauline continues to want to have adventures immediately after the death of her guardian who was like a father to her. So she spends the year she's supposed to spend in mourning going around having adventures... yeah that's crossing an accepted line of propriety a bit. These overgrown children are typically the side of melodrama that we find in parody. It's much harder to make fun of the pathetic heroes (though Disney did succeed in 1941 in the clip at the end of this post), but relatively easy to poke fun at the melodrama of the rich and spoiled. It's usually this type of hero and heroine which get into even more ridiculous dangerous situations that eventually one has to wonder if it is a case of self parody. In Cymbeline we can again look to Imogen, who while she is in the court suffers from the separation of herself from her husband and has to endure Clotten's many attempts to woo her. Her problems, while discomforting, aren't as nearly horrible as when her father disowns her and her husband Posthumous tries to get his servant to kill her and she's out alone in the middle of the woods. So one could say that this dynamic between the two types of melodramatic heroes is coalesced and balanced within Shakespeare as he makes his rich-kid protagonists actually experience true pain and suffering unlike the holiday-like madcap adventures of Pauline.

The plot for melodramas are rather simple, our pathetic hero or heroine gets into a bind and has to be rescued by our slightly more competent (though not by much) hero figure. In the first half-hour episode of The Perils of Pauline, she's rescued from a hot air balloon, a cliff, and a burning house, all in rather quick succession. The formula thus is pretty easy, put our hero or heroine in danger and have them rescued somehow, repeat ad nauseum.

Why was melodrama popular in the Victorian and Progressive eras (1837 - 1918)? From having read a few articles and opinions from the period, I can safely say that what appealed so much to Victorian audiences was the opportunity that melodrama gave them to cry. There is just something so healthy about having a good cry every now and then. In Tragedy proper we call this catharsis, and here in melodrama catharsis is over emphasized to the hilt.

Audiences secretly love to cry, but don't tell them that.
Catharsis though only works when we struggle with an issue. The Victorian period through to the WWI era struggled with economic equality and the harsh conditions of the poor, which is why all those melodramas of that era typically feature young children who are poor and starving dealing with fathers who spend all their money on drink, and mothers too sick too work, leaving the poor child to have to suffer the horrors of sweat shops. Whenever a society is unequal and thinks of itself as unjust, expect melodrama to become a popular form of drama to try and either inspire people to change things or  be used to cope and deal with feeling bad about the issues so that they don't have to do anything about it. This latter argument can be made that they went and cried in the theater so they could continue living their lives without feeling too guilty about exploiting others. As such the question of whether or not melodrama is good or bad for society as a genre is troubling to say the least. It's popularity marks a troubled society to be sure and one struggling to figure out its own moral issues and dilemmas.

Disney parodies the type of melodrama
that would've been commonly seen in the 1890s.

Whatever is to be said about melodrama, while it is rather easy to make fun of, it is often a challenging form of drama, asking us to look at the darker side of society and its unjust ways. What we do after having been expose is up to us, but on some level expect there to be an exploration of the exploitation of others, whether it be handled in a manner looking at the overgrown children amongst us or the pathetic and disenfranchised.
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Next Theoretical Post: What Makes Us Laugh: The Time to Attack
Next Serial Pot: What Makes Us Cry: Laughing to keep from Crying

~LCC