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Victorian Literature Melodrama
by
Juliet John

Introduction

Melodrama is a genre that emerged in France during the revolutionary period. The word itself, literally meaning “music drama” or “song drama,” derives from Greek but reached the Victorian theatre by way of French. In Britain, melodrama became the most popular kind of theatrical entertainment for most of the 19th century, a period when more people went to the theatre than at any time in history. Its unprecedented popularity during the Victorian period owes much to its appeal to working-class or artisan audiences and to a ready-made nexus of so-called illegitimate theatres (theatres forbidden by law to perform drama involving the spoken word unaccompanied by music). Despite the decline in the popularity of melodrama on stage by the end of the 19th century, its influence both during and after its heyday has been immense. Melodrama’s influence went beyond the stage, affecting novelists throughout the period—to mention just a few examples, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, sensation novelists, and even Henry James. It was a direct influence on the silent screen, and its techniques persist today in film, television, fiction, and theatre.

General Overviews

For a century, melodrama was virtually ignored by literary criticism. Its popular cultural status was anathema to the Arnoldian tradition of literary criticism dominating approaches to “literature” from Matthew Arnold’s day to that of his disciple F. R. Leavis, so influential in English studies until the 1960s. Since the 1960s, however, the reaction against the humanist approach to literary study in many ways epitomized by Leavis has meant an increasing critical attention to melodrama. Though the sea change in the critical fortunes of melodrama was enabled by the rise of cultural studies, with its leftist interest in popular culture, critical orthodoxy positions the publication of Brooks 1976 as the initiating moment in the “serious” study of melodrama. Even before Brooks’s seminal work, critics had begun to examine stage melodrama. Heilman 1968 opposes tragedy and melodrama as “versions of experience,” and Bentley 1964 maintains that melodrama “is the quintessence of drama” (p. 216). Brooks’s approach to melodrama, though influential, has been widely contested—Kaplan 1983, for example, offers a clear statement of the differences between his theory of melodrama and that of feminists, while helpful edited essay collections (such as Gerould 1980 and Redmond 1992) illustrate the diversity of possible approaches to melodrama.

  • Bentley, Eric. The Life of the Drama. New York: Atheneum, 1964.

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    Bentley’s classic text contains a great deal of help to students of melodrama, not least his defense of types and archetypes (in characterization) and his assertion that melodrama “is drama in its elemental form; it is the quintessence of drama” (p. 216).

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  • Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.

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    A groundbreaking work that uses tools like psychoanalysis and expressionism to argue that “the melodramatic mode” is a means of “uncovering, demonstrating, and making operative the essential moral universe in a post-sacred era” (p. 15). Influential though contested.

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  • Gerould, Daniel, ed. Melodrama. New York Literary Forum 7. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980.

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    A crucial text containing many essays and quotations on melodrama from a variety of different perspectives. It also contains a good bibliography.

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  • Heilman, Robert. Tragedy and Melodrama: Versions of Experience. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968.

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    Opposes tragedy and melodrama as “versions of experience,” arguing that while melodramatic “types” are characterized by “monopathy” or “the singleness of feeling that gives one the sense of wholeness” (p. 243), tragedy is centered on the division of the protagonist. Psychological and aesthetic rather than historical or political in its approach and interests.

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  • Kaplan, E. Ann. “Theories of Melodrama: A Feminist Perspective.” Women in Performance 1 (1983): 40–48.

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    A useful feminist discussion of melodrama and its theories, including a summary of feminist film theorists’ analyses of spectatorship and gender in melodrama. Contains a clear statement of the differences between Brooks’s theories of melodrama and feminist ones (p. 45).

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  • Redmond, James, ed. Melodrama. Themes in Drama 14. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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    A useful collection of essays on melodrama from a variety of perspectives.

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Introductory Works

Important pioneering work by theatre historians told the story of the advent of melodrama. Thus, Booth 1965 offers a descriptive overview of the development of English melodrama in particular; the pioneering scholarship on Nicoll 1959 in many ways created a template for 19th-century theatre history; Rahill 1967 added to the knowledge base about 19th-century melodrama in particular, and Rowell 1956 provided a wide-ranging account of the development of the theatre in the long 19th century. Since then, detailed scholarship of various kinds has refined the original narratives of theatre historians to a range of interpretation. This range is perhaps most effectively captured in key edited essay collections, such as Hays and Nikolopolou 1996. As book-length studies of Victorian melodrama are still relatively rare, individual essays such as Mayer 2004 and James 1980 provide authoritative synoptic analyses of the genre and its criticism. Disher 1949 demonstrates that learned enthusiasm for Victorian melodrama was in evidence even before the professionalization of English studies gathered pace in the second half of the 20th century.

  • Booth, Michael R. English Melodrama. London: H. Jenkins, 1965.

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    A descriptive overview of theatrical melodrama from the 18th to the early 20th century that includes a basic account of the characteristics and development of the genre and its subgenres. Introductory. Emphasizes the idea of melodrama as presenting a “dream world” (p. 13).

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  • Disher, Maurice Willson. Blood and Thunder: Mid-Victorian Melodrama and its Origins. London: Muller, 1949.

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    Learned but poorly referenced early account of the stage genre.

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  • Hays, Michael, and Anastasia Nikolopoulou, eds. Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1996.

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    An important collection of essays that argues against “aesthetic” meta-narratives of melodrama and for specific, historical interpretations of the genre. Creates a “subversive” model of melodrama; argues against Brooks 1976 (cited under General Overviews) and its influence on melodrama studies. Focuses on the 19th century.

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  • James, Louis. “Was Jerrold’s Black Ey’d Susan More Popular than Wordsworth’s Lucy?” In Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film and Television, 1800–1976. Edited by David Bradby, Louis James, and Bernard Sharratt, 3–16. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511659423Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An excellent survey of melodrama, melodrama criticism, and the representation and function of emotions in the genre.

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  • Mayer, David. “Encountering Melodrama.” In The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre. Edited by Kerry Powell, 145–163. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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    A stimulating essay that emphasizes melodrama’s ability to respond to “immediate social circumstances and concerns” (p.146) and opposes the idea that melodrama is escapist (see Booth 1965).

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  • Nicoll, Allardyce. A History of English Drama, 1660–1900. Vol. 4, Early Nineteenth Century Drama, 1800–1850. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

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    A truly pioneering scholarly work that examines the conditions of the stage, actors, and managers as well as dramatic genres.

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  • Rahill, Frank. The World of Melodrama. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1967.

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    Traditional, pioneering theatre history. It is not thoroughly referenced, but it is more accurate and detailed than some early works in the field.

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  • Rowell, George. The Victorian Theatre: A Survey. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.

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    Accessible early account of the development of the theatre during the long 19th century that includes a description of the rise of “native melodrama” (pp. 46–51). Wide-ranging and introductory.

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Bibliographies

No single, authoritative bibliography of critical material on melodrama exists. Arnott and Robinson 1970, a mammoth print bibliography of English theatrical literature from 1559 to 1900, is a significant scholarly resource, though not specific to melodrama or the Victorian period. Nicoll 1959 is a pioneering bibliography of plays rather than of critical material on plays. As the study of melodrama has grown up in recent decades alongside the information technology revolution, students of melodrama can often find the most up-to-date information on reliable websites such as the Victorian Web, and sites hosted by universities and libraries specializing in theatre studies (for example, Indiana University’s Guide to Victorian Drama and the bibliography included in Nelson and Cross’s Adelphi Theatre Project. The bibliographies provided by Don B. Wilmeth for the Victorian Web are more focused and less extensive than that provided by Nelson and Cross, though none of these is specifically devoted to melodrama. The Victorian Theatre Research Web contains a good bibliography section, which includes online sources and links. Bibliographies appended to recent, authoritative scholarly books on melodrama and the Victorian theatre are also obviously a good resource.

Reference Resources

The Internet is increasingly being used not simply to broaden access to the play as print object or to bibliographies, but to theatrical “ephemera”—not in fact ephemeral to scholars interested in the material conditions and cultural production of 19th-century melodrama—and for reference purposes. Thus, the East London Theatre Archive contains programs and playbills relating to various East End theatres and productions. The Adelphi Theatre project, based on the theatre’s calendar of performances, gives a detailed account of every aspect of each yearly season at the theatre. The Adelphi Theatre project grew out of the London Stage Project 1800–1900: A Documentary Record and Calendar or Performances, a growing compilation of information on the London stage. The Henry Irving Archive is a superb resource for research on Irving and is housed on the Victorian Theatre Research Web, which is a very useful bibliographical and reference tool for scholars of all aspects of Victorian theatre research. Jack Wolcott’s Theatre History on the Web is a successful example of an individual scholar’s knowledge and reference tips helping researchers to navigate online resources. Not all theatrical reference tools are electronic, of course. Mullin 1987 is a helpful resource for Victorianists, while Conolly and Wearing 1978 is a useful tool, though obviously not up to date with online resources. The continuous expansion of reference material is likely to mean that the natural home for the most up-to-date reference resources in the future is online.

Primary Texts

Although melodrama has been increasingly recognized as a major influence on 19th-century culture, there remain problems for students and scholars who wish to access the texts of 19th-century plays (and of course there are further problems about accessing or imagining the original performances of these plays). In the 19th century, many melodramas were performed from handwritten playscripts that never reached print. Those plays that did reach print usually found their place in one of the series of plays available during the period but not routinely available in today’s university libraries—for example, the Acting National Drama, edited by B. N. Webster (1837–1850), Cumberland’s British Theatre (1829–1860), Cumberland’s Minor Theatre (1828–1840), Dicks’ Standard Plays (1880s), Duncombe’s Edition of Plays (pre-1850), Lacy’s Acting Edition (c. 1850–1860), French’s Acting Edition (a continuation of Lacy’s), and Richardson’s New Minor Drama (1928–1931). For fifty years, students have relied on the relatively few anthologies of 19th-century plays for access to printed versions of Victorian melodramas, most of which are out of print—for example, Ashley 1967, Bailey 1966, and Rowell 1972—the most readily available of which is probably Booth 1969–1976. While the majority offer a representative selection of plays, the anthologies Franceschina 2000 and Wischhusen 1975 are unusual in focusing on works by women and Gothic melodrama, respectively. In recent years, however, technology has revolutionized the study of melodrama. The University of Worcester’s Victorian Plays Project, led by Richard Pearson, has enabled online access to a selection of Birmingham Central Reference Library’s holdings of Lacy’s Acting Edition plays, and the Royal Holloway/British Library “Buried Treasures” project, led by Jacky Bratton, is a hugely significant resource that makes available e-texts of plays submitted to the Lord Chamberlain between 1852 and 1863.

  • Ashley, Leonard R. N., ed. Nineteenth-Century British Drama: An Anthology of Representative Plays. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1967.

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    Includes thirteen of what the editor regards as the best or most significant plays of the 19th century.

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  • Bailey, J. O., ed. British Plays of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology to Illustrate the Evolution of the Drama. New York: Odyssey, 1966.

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    The bulk of this work is actual texts of 19th-century plays. However, the introductions, criticism, and commentary are also useful in uncovering the trends and progress of drama during this time. Includes a large number of plays, many of which are melodramas.

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  • Booth, Michael R., ed. English Plays of the Nineteenth Century. 5 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969–1976.

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    Particularly Vol. 1, Dramas: 1800–1850 (1969), and Vol. 2, Dramas: 1850–1900 (1969). Booth’s seminal edition of 19th-century plays is perhaps the most readily available edition included here and is and widely used by students of melodrama.

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  • Franceschina, John, ed. Sisters of Gore: Seven Gothic Melodramas by British Women, 1790–1843. New York: Routledge, 2000.

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    Although only two of the plays included in this selection (Elizabeth Polack’s St. Clair of the Isles [1838] and Catherine Gore’s Dacre of the South [1840]) were published in the Victorian period, this modern collection nonetheless offers a fascinating sample of melodramas written by women in the turbulent and transformative political and theatrical period between the French Revolution and the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843.

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  • The Lord Chamberlain’s Plays, 1852–1863.

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    This ambitious project is an invaluable resource. It includes a detailed, searchable online index of the more than two thousand British plays performed between 1852 and 1863 and submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for licensing. It makes available online scholarly editions of a selection of plays from different genres, including melodrama.

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  • Pearson, Richard. Victorian Plays Project.

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    A superb resource that includes e-texts of 350 plays, many of which are melodramas, from T. H. Lacy’s Acting Edition of Victorian Plays (1848–1873). Contains a volume-by-volume catalogue of the contents of the complete run of Lacy’s Acting Edition held by Birmingham Central Reference Library, from which the selection of e-texts is taken. Eminently searchable, and thirty encoded plays enable searches for stage directions and textual references.

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    • Rowell, George, ed. Nineteenth Century Plays. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

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      Contains ten classic 19th-century plays, the majority of which are melodramas. Each play is printed in the form in which it was originally performed and includes an introductory headnote by Rowell. The volume also contains a glossary of stage terms and a reading list.

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    • Wischhusen, Stephen, ed. The Hour of One: Six Gothic Melodramas. London: Gordon Fraser Gallery, 1975.

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      Unusual for an anthology of melodramas in its concentration on one subgenre. The Gothic melodramas included are classics.

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    New Histories and Theories of 19th-Century Theatre

    This section confines itself to major, recent works that both familiarize us with traditional histories and theories of the 19th-century theatre and challenge those narratives. These works do not concentrate on melodrama exclusively, but they have major implications for the study of melodrama that are either implicit or explicit. Thus, Bratton 2003 challenges current historiography—which for Bratton has roots in the 1830s—by exploring the differences between “the drama” and “the stage” in the 18th and 19th centuries. Davis and Holland 2007 offers the latest research on a broad array of 19th-century performance genres, and Powell 2004 includes authoritative essays by leading experts in the field under two main headings: “Performance and Context” and “Text and Context.”

    • Bratton, Jacky. New Readings in Theatre History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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      Offers a revisionist historiography arguing for a more organic, less judgmental and hierarchical understanding of the history of the British stage. For Bratton, current historiography has its roots in the 1830s. Focuses on the 18th and 19th centuries and explores the differences between “the drama” and “the stage.”

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    • Davis, Tracy C., and Peter Holland, eds. The Performing Century: Nineteenth-Century Theatre’s History. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

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      This collection offers the latest research on a broad array of 19th-century performance genres, lucidly written, by leading scholars in the field. Of interest to students of historiography, theatre history, British popular culture, and leisure studies.

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    • Powell, Kerry, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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      A must-read volume for anyone interested in this era’s theatre by leading experts in the field. Accessible and new. Both parts (“Performance and Context” and “Text and Context”) touch on melodrama, but the genre is discussed specifically in David Mayer’s stimulating essay “Encountering Melodrama” (pp. 145–163), which emphasizes melodrama’s ability to respond to “immediate social circumstances and concerns” (p.146).

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    Plays, Performances, Professionals, Theatres

    It is perhaps in the area of historicist, empirical theatre research that the most pioneering work is taking place, and in which most work needs to take place. For what is remarkable about our map of the 19th century is that there is still so much about the 19th-century theatre that we do not know. Although the works assembled under this heading are rooted in empirical research, some include a sophisticated sense of its relevance to larger theoretical debates. Thus Davis 1991 and Davis 1992 on the Britannia Theatre, for example, like Estill 1971, an essay on The Factory Lad, is inflected by Marxist theory but firmly rooted in new knowledge. Mayer 1980 on Henry Irving and The Bells, Slater 1996 on Jerrold’s Black Ey’d Susan, and Taylor 1989 on Players and Performances in the Victorian Theatre build detailed pictures of particular plays in performance—in the case of Taylor’s work, an analysis of the acting profession, audience, theatre management, and taste is welded to case studies. Jackson 1989 is an excellent collection of contemporary documents assembled under five headings: “Theatre for Audiences,” “The Actors’ Life,” “Behind the Scenes,” “Management,” and “The Author’s Work.”

    • Davis, Jim. “The Gospel of Rags: Melodrama at the Britannia 1863–74.” New Theatre Quarterly 7 (1991): 369–389.

      DOI: 10.1017/S0266464X00006072Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Davis examines the repertoire of the theatre over one representative decade, exploring the sources of the melodramas presented there, many of which were specially written or adapted by popular “house dramatists.” By going to manuscript sources rather than the more respectable print sources, he uncovers a more radical repertoire than previous authorities had assumed existed.

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    • Davis, Jim, ed. The Britannia Diaries, 1863–1875: Selections from the Diaries of Frederick C. Wilton. London: Society for Theatre Research, 1992.

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      Frederick C. Wilton was the manager of the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton; his diaries give a fascinating insight into the day-to-day running of this East End London theatre, renowned for its melodramas.

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    • Estill, Robin. “The Factory Lad: Melodrama as Propaganda.” Theatre Quarterly 1 (1971): 22–26.

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      Reads Walker’s The Factory Lad as radical political theatre.

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    • Jackson, Russell, ed. Victorian Theatre. London: A. & C. Black, 1989.

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      An excellent collection of contemporary documents assembled under five headings—“Theatre for Audiences,” “The Actors’ Life,” “Behind the Scenes,” “Management,” and “The Author’s Work”—by date of composition. A concise editorial essay prefaces each section, and individual extracts are annotated where necessary.

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    • Mayer, David, ed. Henry Irving and the Bells: Irving’s Personal Script of the Play by Leopold Lewis. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1980.

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      A handsomely produced record both of Irving’s production of Leopold Lewis’s crime melodrama and of his distinctive performance in the leading role. The heart of the book is an exact transcription of Irving’s annotated personal script of The Bells. A model documentary record that also contains reviews from the time of the production.

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    • Slater, Michael. “The Transformations of Susan: The Stage History of Douglas Jerrold’s Black Eyed Susan 1829–1994.” STR Theatre Notebook 50 (1996): 146–175.

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      Slater surveys the productions and principal performers as well as burlesques of the play, and shows the play’s enduring appeal to critics and audiences.

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    • Taylor, George. Players and Performances in the Victorian Theatre. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1989.

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      Uses detailed illustrative accounts of representative works, productions, and performances as points of focus for more general chapters on the development of acting styles and techniques, the changing social constitution of audiences and of the acting profession, the turbulent politics of management, and the development of theatrical taste.

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    Audiences

    It is perhaps in the area of historicist, empirical theatre research that the most pioneering work is taking place, and in which most work needs to take place. For what is remarkable about our map of the 19th century is that there is still so much about the 19th-century theatre that we do not know. Audience research is necessarily empirical at base, though all the work included here is inflected by a concern with class and an awareness, to differing degrees, of Marxist theory. Barker 1996 and Davis and Davis 1991 provide a factual base to our understanding of the illegitimate Britannia Theatre in London’s district of Hackney. Though Booth 1989 is not so detailed, it gives an account of the relationship between melodrama and the working class, arguing that “from the audience point of view, melodrama . . . was the Victorian working-class theatre” (p. 100). The definitive work on audience composition to date, though, is Davis and Emeljanow 2001, which focuses on London theatre audiences from 1840 to 1880 and on seven representative theatres from four areas.

    • Barker, Clive. “The Audiences of the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton.” New Theatre Quarterly 12 (1996): 27–41

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      An informative article about the composition of the audience of this Hackney “illegitimate” theatre frequented by Dickens.

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    • Booth, Michael R. “Melodrama and the Working Class.” In Dramatic Dickens. Edited by Carol Hanbery MacKay, 96–109. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1989.

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      An account of audience which argues that “from the audience point of view, melodrama . . . was the Victorian working-class theatre” (p. 100). More detailed and complex studies of audience composition have since been published (see, for example, Barker 1996, Davis and Davis 1991, and Davis and Emeljanow 2001).

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    • Davis, Jim, and Tracy C. Davis. “The People of the “People’s Theatre”: The Social Demography of the Britannia Theatre (Hoxton).” Theatre Survey 32 (1991): 137–165.

      DOI: 10.1017/S0040557400001046Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      A considered discussion of the audience composition of this illegitimate Hackney theatre frequented by Dickens, by two of the leading authorities in the field.

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    • Davis, Jim, and Victor Emeljanow. Reflecting the Audience: London Theatregoing, 1840–1880. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.

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      A pioneering study of 19th-century British theatre audiences focusing on London from 1840 to 1880 and on seven representative theatres from four areas: the Surrey Theatre and the Royal Victoria to the south, the Whitechapel Pavilion and the Britannia Theatre to the east, Sadler’s Wells and the Queen’s (later the Prince of Wales’s) to the north, and Drury Lane to the west. Excellent use of primary sources.

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    Censorship and Illegitimate Theatre

    Throughout the 19th century, the theatre was subject to censorship. Censorship had in fact been in place since the Licensing Act of 1737, which granted the lord chamberlain the power to vet any new plays and limited spoken drama to the patent theatres, originally only the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden; other theatres became known as “illegitimate” theatres. This act remained in force until the 1843 Theatre Regulation Act, which restricted the powers of the lord chamberlain (specifically his “examiner of plays”) and allowed theatres other than Drury Lane and Covent Garden to be licensed. The definitive work on censorship in the Victorian theatre is Stephens 1980, which is informed by Stephens 1973, an earlier article on the “Newgate” drama Jack Sheppard. Stottlar 1970, an article on the theory and practice of William Bodham Donne, the Examiner of Plays in the lord chamberlain’s office between 1857 and 1874, is an important case study that illuminates the workings of the lord chamberlain’s office, while Goldstein 2009 places British censorship practice in a broader European context. Moody 2000 and Moody 2004 have added brilliancy and texture to our understanding of the illegitimate theatre in the Romantic and early Victorian periods before the 1843 Theatre Regulation Act.

    • Goldstein, Robert Justin, ed. The Frightful Stage: Political Censorship of the Theater in Nineteenth-Century Europe. New York: Berghahn, 2009.

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      Offers a broad view of the influence of theatre censorship in different European countries, emphasizing differences between countries as well as points of similarity.

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    • Moody, Jane. Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770–1840. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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      Superbly rich account of the theatrical and cultural “back story” of the Victorian theatre. Although it largely focuses on the Romantic period, it aids understanding of the significance of Victorian “illegitimate” theatre.

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    • Moody, Jane. “The Theatrical Revolution, 1776–1843.” In The Cambridge History of British Theatre. Vol. 2, 1660 to 1895. Edited by Joseph Donohue, 199–215. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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      A textured account of a period Moody regards as witnessing a “revolution” both in dramatic genres and in theatrical institutions. Good, concise account of the early Victorian theatre and in particular of the theatrical scene before the 1843 Theatre Regulation Act.

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    • Stephens, John Russell. “Jack Sheppard and the Licensers: The Case Against Newgate Plays.” Nineteenth Century Theatre Research 1 (1973): 1–13.

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      An interesting account of the furor surrounding W. H. Ainsworth’s sensational “Newgate” novel Jack Sheppard (1838–1839), based on the exploits of the real-life criminal of that name, and the stage adaptations that sprang from it, leading to a ban on theatrical adaptations of the novel for almost half a century.

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    • Stephens, John Russell. The Censorship of English Drama, 1824–1901. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

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      An important scholarly book that charts and analyzes the lord chamberlain’s theatre censorship in Britain from 1824–1901.

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    • Stottlar, James F. “A Victorian Stage Censor: The Theory and Practice of William Bodham Donne.” Victorian Studies 13 (1970): 253–282.

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      A case study of the theory and practice of William Bodham Donne, the examiner of plays in the lord chamberlain’s office between 1857 and 1874.

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    Class and Marxist Approaches

    Although the broad range of work undertaken in this area defies simple categorization, much of the best recent work in this area has devoted itself to correcting or refining a common post-Victorian tendency to see melodrama in binary terms, as either politically conservative or radical. Although it is now increasingly rare among specialists to hear the received idea that melodrama (because of its fantasy solutions, happy endings, and paternalistic, patriarchal ideologies) is a conservative genre, any claims for the subversive or radical tendencies of melodrama are often carefully constituted in historicist, cultural, or relative terms. See, for example, Hadley 1995 and Leaver 1999. While Ledger 2007 and McWilliam 1996 demonstrate the importance of melodrama and radicalism to the work of specific authors, Hadley 1995 and Sypher 1948 examine the broader manifestations of melodrama: Hadley examines “the melodramatic mode” as a form of resistance to the economics of market culture, while Sypher’s pioneering essay positions melodrama as the characteristic modality of the 19th century. Although identity politics has always been a core interest for melodrama studies, the best work in the field crosses, and indeed moves, boundaries. Thus Carlson 1996 examines the metamorphosis in nautical melodrama of class tensions into sexual rivalry. Leaver 1999 brings class politics to bear on questions of representation and subjectivity to counter the tendency of modern revisionist readings of Victorian privacy to assume that all Victorians’ relations to ideological formations mirror those of the middle class. Like Vicinus 1981, Leaver takes a seemingly specialized focus (in Leaver’s case the popular crime melodrama Maria Marten; or, The Murder in the Red Barn) to transform our sense of 19th-century political, affective, and cultural formations.

    • Carlson, Marvin. “He Never Should Bow Down to a Domineering Frown: Class Tensions and Nautical Melodrama.” In Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre. Edited by Michael Hays and Anastasia Nikolopoulou, 147–166. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1996.

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      Argues that class tensions in early nautical melodramas like Jerrold’s Black-Ey’d Susan (1829) are replaced by sexual rivalry in a later production like Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore.

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    • Hadley, Elaine. Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800–1885. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

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      A very good book on “the melodramatic mode” as it expresses itself socially, culturally, and politically (as well as in texts). Specifically about the melodramatic mode as a form of resistance to the economics of market culture. Interesting on subjectivity and privacy as a product of market culture and melodrama’s resistance to this.

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    • Leaver, Kristen. “Victorian Melodrama and the Performance of Poverty.” Victorian Literature and Culture 27 (1999): 443–456.

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      Interested in the relationship between representation and subjectivity. Counters the tendency of modern revisionist readings of Victorian privacy to assume that all Victorians’ relations to ideological formations mirror those of the middle class. Focuses on the crime melodrama Maria Marten; or, The Murder in the Red Barn, popular in the 19th century.

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    • Ledger, Sally. Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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      Links Dickens to the tradition of popular radicalism epitomized by writers such as William Hone and William Cobbett. Stresses the importance of melodrama (and satire) in this tradition and the period more generally.

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    • McWilliam, Rohan. “The Mysteries of G. W. M. Reynolds: Radicalism and Melodrama in Victorian Britain.” In Living and Learning: Essays in Honour of J. F. C. Harrison. Edited by Malcolm Chase and Ian Dyck, 182–198. Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1996.

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      An examination of the ways in which the melodramatic imagination structured the politics, journalism, and fiction of the radical George W. M. Reynolds, author of the best selling The Mysteries of London (1844–1848).

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    • Sypher, Wylie. “Aesthetic of Revolution: The Marxist Melodrama.” Kenyon Review 10 (1948): 431–444.

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      An important pioneering essay that positions melodrama as the characteristic modality of the 19th century and argues that its drama of opposites can be found equally across many genres. Reads this drama of opposites politically.

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    • Vicinus, Martha. “‘Helpless and Unfriended’: Nineteenth-Century Domestic Melodrama.” New Literary History 13 (1981): 127–143.

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      A provocative, politicized defense of melodrama that “explores the nature of domestic melodrama in Victorian literature” and argues for “its importance as a psychological touchstone for the powerless” (p. 128).

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    Gendered Approaches

    Although the broad range of work undertaken in this area defies simple categorization, a common concern is the relationship between conservatism and subversion in ideological constructions of gender. Although it is now increasingly rare among specialists to hear the received idea that melodrama (because of its fantasy solutions, happy endings, and paternalistic, patriarchal ideologies) is either straightforwardly a conservative genre (see Hyslop 1985) or “genuinely subversive” (Duffy 1999), there is perhaps more critical emphasis on the conservatism of melodrama in respect of gender than in respect of class. This is not to say that any overwhelming consensus emerges, however, and the most sophisticated studies (for example, Clark 1986) work to refine or subvert the conservative/radical binary opposition. Although Clark’s work is not unique in its focus on male characters, a great deal of work on gender still focuses on females and femininity. Within this dominant focus on women, however, a great deal of variation exists. Thus, Hart 1994 and Kaplan 1992 take a psychoanalytic approach to their subjects, McWilliam 2005 explores the way that G. W. M. Reynolds deployed the resources of melodrama to develop sympathy for the plight of Victorian needlewomen in his novel The Seamstress (1850), and Rosenman 2003 looks at the gendering of pain in novelistic melodramas East Lynne (1861) and Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Newey 2005 bases itself firmly in theatre studies and ranges beyond melodrama. It is a comprehensive study of women playwrights in the British theatre from 1820 to 1918 and also includes an extensive appendix of authors and plays.

    • Clark, Anna. “The Politics of Seduction in English Popular Culture, 1748–1848.” In The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. Edited by Jean Radford, 47–70. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

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      A nuanced essay that emphasizes the links between melodrama and the radical political writing of the 18th century and Romantic period, yet also explores the fact that melodramatic seducers can be working-class. A useful corrective to broad-brush accounts of melodrama that assume that melodrama is either straightforwardly conservative or radical.

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    • Duffy, Daniel. “Heroic Mothers and Militant Lovers: Representations of Lower-Class Women in Melodramas of the 1830s and 1840s.” Nineteenth Century Theatre 27 (1999): 41–65.

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      Argues that women played a “genuinely subversive” role in the “lower-class insurgence” (p. 41) of the early 19th century, and explores this subversion as it was represented through the heroines of domestic melodrama and the antiheroines of romantic melodrama.

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    • Hart, Lynda. “The Victorian Villainess and the Patriarchal Unconscious.” Literature and Psychology 40 (1994): 1–25.

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      Psychoanalytic exploration of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), which includes useful material on deviant women in both melodrama and Victorian society.

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    • Hyslop, Gabrielle. “Deviant and Dangerous Behavior: Women in Melodrama.” Journal of Popular Culture 19 (1985): 65–77.

      DOI: 10.1111/j.0022-3840.1985.1903_65.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Although this focuses on French melodrama and the work of Pixérécourt, it is a very useful article in relation to women in melodrama and melodrama more generally. Emphasizes the conservatism and reassuring function of melodrama.

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    • Kaplan, E. Ann. Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama. New York: Routledge, 1992.

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      A feminist psychoanalytic approach to representations of the mother in popular culture and melodrama. Sees mother figures produced through tensions between the “historical” and the “psychoanalytic” and sees mass culture as formative in ideological constructions of the feminine.

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    • McWilliam, Rohan. “The Melodramatic Seamstress: Interpreting a Victorian Penny Dreadful.” In Famine and Fashion: Needlewomen in the Nineteenth Century. Edited by Beth Harris, 99–114. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005.

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      An examination of G. W. M. Reynolds’s novel The Seamstress (1850) that explores the way the author deployed the resources of melodrama to develop sympathy for the plight of Victorian needlewomen.

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    • Newey, Katherine. Women’s Theatre Writing in Victorian Britain. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

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      A comprehensive study of women playwrights in the British theatre from 1820 to 1918. It looks at how they negotiated their personal and professional identities as writers, and at the importance of the themes of home, the nation, marriage and the family to the tradition of women’s theatre writing. Also includes an extensive appendix of authors and plays.

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    • Rosenman, Ellen Bayuk. “‘Mimic Sorrows’: Masochism and the Gendering of Pain in Victorian Melodrama.” Studies in the Novel 35 (2003): 22–43.

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      Focuses on Ellen Wood’s best-selling sensation novel East Lynne (1861) and makes comparisons between this and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862).

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    Race, Empire, and National Identity

    A variety of melodramas, but particularly nautical melodramas, reflect and critique Victorian attitudes to race and empire. No overall consensus about the ideological slant of melodrama on issues of race, empire, and national identity exists, though Waters 2007 argues for a hardening of racial attitudes during the 19th century in general. Specific melodrama research on empire demonstrates that beneath the popular stereotype of the “Jolly Jack Tar,” melodrama both supported and questioned imperialism (Booth 1996, Davis 1988). Bratton, et al. 1991 examines various aspects of the relationship between empire and the stage between 1790 and 1930, while Bratton 1980 focuses specifically on representations of the Crimean War on the London stage in the 1854–1855 season.

    • Booth, Michael. “Soldiers of the Queen: Drury Lane Imperialism.” In Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre. Edited by Michael Hays and Anastasia Nikolopoulou, 3–20. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1996.

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      Discusses the ways in which spectacular melodramas performed at Drury Lane in 1881 boosted imperialism, but how support waned from 1899 because of the Second Boer War.

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    • Bratton, J. S. “Theatre of War: The Crimean on the London Stage, 1854–5.” In Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film and Television, 1800–1976. Edited by David Bradby, Louis James, and Bernard Sharratt, 119–138. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

      DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511659423Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Focuses on representations of the Crimean War on the London stage in the 1854–1855 season.

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    • Bratton, J. S., Richard Allen Cave, Breandan Gregory, Heidi J. Holder, and Michael Pickering. Acts of Supremacy: The British Empire and the Stage, 1790–1930. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1991.

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      The book’s “authors” contribute one essay each to this collection of essays on various aspects of the relationship between empire and the stage between 1790 and 1930.

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    • Davis, Jim. “British Bravery, or Tars Triumphant: Images of the British Navy in Nautical Melodrama.” New Theatre Quarterly 4 (1988): 122–143.

      DOI: 10.1017/S0266464X00002669Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Discusses melodramatic images of the navy and of sailors alongside factual and critical accounts of life at sea in the first half of the 19th century. Davis draws in particular on the memoirs of Douglas Jerrold to explore aspects of the ambiguity to be found in attitudes of the time.

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    • Waters, Hazel. Racism on the Victorian Stage: Representation of Slavery and the Black Character. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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      Concentrating on the period from 1830 to 1860, the book’s detailed excavation of some seventy plays is deployed to argue that a certain flexibility in attitudes toward skin color, observable at the end of the 18th century, changed into the hardened jingoism of the late 19th century. Not a genre-specific study, but includes discussion of melodramas.

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    The Ideology of the Aesthetic

    Attention to the formal “shape” of melodrama is often attended by an interest in affect or emotion and a concern for the ideology of the aesthetic, rather than confining itself to a purist concern with form for form’s sake. Thus, John 2001 argues that Dickens’s aesthetic deployment of melodrama was an expression of political commitment to the principle of cultural inclusivity; McWilliam 2000 is a study of the “melodramatic turn” amongst historians, who have increasingly employed melodrama as device for understanding Victorian discourse and structures of feeling; and Morse 1992 emphasizes melodrama’s antirational, anti-Enlightenment tendencies and discusses the poetics of the unrepresentable from a poststructuralist perspective. Shattuc 1994 is a groundbreaking analysis of the relationship between “affect” and agency in melodrama whose usefulness extends beyond the text, genre, and theories under discussion. Likewise, Shepherd 1994 offers an astute questioning of “the assumed simplicity of melodrama’s ethical emotions and fantasy solutions” (p. 2), which queries in particular the common critical assumption that melodramatic endings capture the conservative ideology of the whole, enabling a way out of the logic of pessimism that so often frames academic discussion of the politics of emotion. Meisel 1983 is a landmark interdisciplinary volume that traces the ways in which “the nineteenth century revealed a powerful bent in whole classes of fiction to assimilate themselves with drama, while drama itself was under a compulsion to make itself over as a picture” (p. 64).

    • John, Juliet. Dickens’s Villains: Melodrama, Character, Popular Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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      Explains the importance of melodrama to Dickens both aesthetically and ideologically, arguing that Dickens chose to render character in externalized ways as an expression of political commitment to the principle of cultural inclusivity. Has larger implications for readings of character and externalized aesthetic modes in the period.

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    • McWilliam, Rohan. “Melodrama and the Historians.” Radical History Review 78 (2000): 57–84.

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      A study of the “melodramatic turn” among historians who have increasingly employed melodrama as a device for understanding Victorian discourse and structures of feeling. McWilliam explores and critiques the uses of melodrama as a way of understanding current trends in the interdisciplinary relationship between Victorian literature and history.

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    • Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

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      Not specifically about melodrama, but of importance to an understanding of melodramatic aesthetics. A landmark interdisciplinary volume that traces the ways in which “the nineteenth century revealed a powerful bent in whole classes of fiction to assimilate themselves with drama, while drama itself was under a compulsion to make itself over as a picture” (p. 64).

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    • Morse, William R. “Desire and the Limits of Melodrama.” In Melodrama. Edited by James Redmond, 17–30. Themes in Drama 14. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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      Emphasizes melodrama’s antirational, anti-Enlightenment tendencies and discusses the poetics of the unrepresentable. Sees melodramatic elements in Shakespeare’s plays and subjects them to a poststructuralist reading.

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    • Shattuc, Jane. “‘Having a Good Cry over The Color Purple’: The Problem of Affect and Imperialism in Feminist Theory.” In Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen. Edited by Jacky Bratton, Jim Cook, and Christine Gledhill, 147–156. London: British Film Institute, 1994.

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      An excellent analysis of the relationship between “affect” and agency in melodrama whose usefulness extends beyond the text and theories (feminist/postcolonial) under discussion. Shattuc argues that “all melodramas produce a double hermeneutic: a positive one which draws on the emotional power of authentic liberatory aspirations . . . and a negative one which recuperates the Utopian impulse in complicity with an oppressive ideology” (p. 6).

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    • Shepherd, Simon. “Pauses of Mutual Agitation.” In Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen. Edited by Jacky Bratton, Jim Cook, and Christine Gledhill, 25–37. London: British Film Institute, 1994.

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      An astute questioning of “the assumed simplicity of melodrama’s ethical emotions and fantasy solutions” (p. 2), which queries in particular the common critical assumption that melodramatic endings capture the conservative ideology of the whole. Shepherd argues that “points of arrival are not necessarily points of achieved stability” (p. 34).

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    Melodrama, Modernity, and Film

    A burgeoning field has grown up on Victorian melodrama and film in tandem with (and in relation to) the increasingly influential areas of film studies and neo-Victorian studies (the study of post-Victorian appropriations and constructions of the Victorian). This is partly because a consensus exists that Victorian melodrama was a direct influence on early silent film (see, for example, Altman 1992 and Singer 2001). Although Soviet film-director Sergei Eisenstein chose—no doubt for strategic reasons, as Altman 1992 has argued—to elevate Dickens’s influence on film above that of stage melodrama (see Eisenstein 1996), a chorus of influential critical voices has reinstated the importance of melodrama to film: the much reprinted Elsaesser 1972 has been extremely influential in this respect, and Mulvey 1994 accounts for the continued influence of melodrama on film and film theory by emphasizing its ability to offer a history of the present. Like the influential anthology of which it forms a part (Bratton, et al. 1994), Mulvey’s essay provides a historically aware account of the capacity of melodrama to escape from its historical moment. The view of Bratton, et al. 1994, that melodrama is “an agent of modernity” (p. 1), has become increasingly influential, and the relationship between melodrama and the idea of modernity has become subject to varied and sophisticated theoretical analyses. Thus Singer 2001 uses the relationship between early film, 19th-century melodrama, and the processes of industrial modernization as the basis for a relative analysis of the concepts of melodrama and modernity more broadly, while Buckley 2002, an essay on Ainsworth’s Newgate novel Jack Sheppard, identifies a shift in the 1830s from “political to perceptual modernity” (p. 426) and a corresponding split in melodrama criticism that associates melodrama with one of these versions of modernity. While most of the works cited here focus on the relationship between Victorian melodrama specifically and film and/or modernity, Landy 1991, an excellent reader on film and television melodrama, spans beyond its nominal subject and is therefore of value to those interested in earlier stage melodrama and its relationship to screen melodrama.

    • Altman, Rick. “Dickens, Griffith, and Film Theory Today.” In Classical Hollywood Narrative: The Paradigm Wars. Edited by Jane Gaines, 9–47. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992.

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      An important essay that argues that the influence of 19th-century stage melodrama on film has been strategically relegated by film theorists beneath that of the more culturally prestigious genre of “the classical novel.”

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    • Bratton, Jacky, Jim Cook, and Christine Gledhill, eds. Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen. London: British Film Institute, 1994.

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      A key collection of essays on melodrama in a variety of modes by leading theorists and critics of the genre. Although the collection is not exclusively focused on Victorian melodrama, it takes as its premise that 19th-century melodrama was “an agent of modernity” (p. 1).

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    • Buckley, Matthew. “Sensations of Celebrity: Jack Sheppard and the Mass Audience.” Victorian Studies 44 (2002): 423–463.

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      Identifies a shift in the 1830s from “political to perceptual modernity” (p. 426) and a corresponding split in melodrama criticism that associates melodrama with one or the other version of modernity. Offers a sophisticated critique of both melodrama studies and the use of melodrama in Ainsworth’s “Newgate” novel Jack Sheppard, seeing the novel as “a critique and even a repudiation of the model of community and the associated modes of perception articulated in conventional melodrama” (p. 457).

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    • Eisenstein, S. M. “Dickens, Griffith, and Ourselves.” In Selected Works. Vol. 4, Writings, 1934–47. Edited by Richard Taylor; translated by William Powell, 193–238. London: British Film Institute, 1996.

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      A seminal analysis of the relationship between film and literature, which positions Dickens as the prime ancestor of film. Eisenstein analyzes the influence of Dickens on the pioneering filmmaker D. W. Griffith, and the influence of both on the film technique known as “montage.” Eisenstein uses Dickens’s analogy of melodramatic and novelistic technique in chapter 17 of Oliver Twist to explain montage.

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    • Elsaesser, Thomas. “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama.” Monogram 4 (1972): 2–15.

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      A brilliant and influential essay on the roots of Hollywood family melodrama between 1940 and 1963 in 19th-century melodrama. Its range and scope is impressive, including a discussion of ideological and aesthetic features of melodrama in Europe and America across different periods. Sees melodrama as an ideologically flexible form and links its evolution to class struggle (particularly the ascendancy of the middle class over the aristocracy). Uses Freud in places.

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    • Landy, Marcia, ed. Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film and Television Melodrama. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

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      An excellent collection on film and television melodrama by leading names (including Brooks and Elsaesser). Its reach spans beyond its nominal subject and therefore is of value to those interested in earlier stage melodrama and its relationship to screen melodrama.

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    • Mulvey, Laura. “‘It Will Be a Magnificent Obsession’: The Melodrama’s Role in the Development of Contemporary Film Theory.” In Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen. Edited by Jacky Bratton, Jim Cook, and Christine Gledhill, 121–133. London: British Film Institute, 1994.

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      A strong defense of melodrama’s ability to offer a history of the present that counters readings of melodrama which see it as escapist (for example, Booth 1965, cited under Introductory Works). Of relevance to those interested in the relationship between melodrama and film theory.

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    • Singer, Ben. Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

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      An ambitious book that explores the specific roots of early film in 19th-century melodrama and the processes of industrial modernization, as well as the relationship between the concepts of melodrama and modernity more broadly.

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    LAST MODIFIED: 03/02/2011

    DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199799558-0042

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