Melodrama Unbound
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Melodrama Unbound

Across History, Media, and National Cultures

Christine Gledhill, Linda Williams

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eBook - ePub

Melodrama Unbound

Across History, Media, and National Cultures

Christine Gledhill, Linda Williams

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For too long melodrama has been associated with outdated and morally simplistic stereotypes of the Victorian stage; for too long film studies has construed it as a singular domestic genre of familial and emotional crises, either subversively excessive or narrowly focused on the dilemmas of women. Drawing on new scholarship in transnational theatrical, film, and cultural histories, this collection demonstrates that melodrama is a transgeneric mode that has long spoken to fundamental aspects of modern life and feeling.

Pointing to melodrama's roots in the ancient Greek combination of melos and drama, and to medieval Christian iconography focused on the pathos of Christ as suffering human body, the volume highlights the importance to modernity of melodrama as a mode of emotional dramaturgy, the social and aesthetic conditions for which emerged long before the French Revolution. Contributors articulate new ways of thinking about melodrama that underscore its pervasiveness across national cultures and in a variety of genres. They examine how melodrama has traveled to and been transformed in India, China, Japan, and South America, whether through colonial circuits or later, globalization; how melodrama mixes with other modes such as romance, comedy, and realism; and finally how melodrama has modernized the dramatic functions of gender, class, and race by orchestrating vital aesthetic and emotional experiences for diverse audiences.

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Información

Año
2018
ISBN
9780231543194
Categoría
Film & Video
PART I
Melodrama’s Crossmedia, Transnational Histories
1
Unbinding Melodrama
MATTHEW BUCKLEY
INTRODUCTION: MELODRAMA’S REVOLUTION
Until about a half-century ago, melodrama was generally understood to be a crude, excessive, irrational, naïve, superficial, marginal, and finally insignificant type of modern drama—a “minor” form, best exemplified by a handful of cheap, primitive, and ephemeral genres of the popular stage and screen, that had long since been superseded, on the modern stage as on the modern screen, by the more complex, controlled, rational, reflexive, substantive, and historically significant forms of realism and modernist aesthetics. These, it was generally assumed, were very obviously modernity’s central and definitive dramatic modes: beside them, mere melodrama, however interesting as a transitional or liminal form, paled to insignificance. Melodrama scholarship, though growing and already challenging these traditional judgments and ideas, remained sparse, isolated in separate disciplines and—like melodrama itself—both marginalized and generally ignored. Historical and cultural comparative research was just beginning, and melodrama’s extensive global history—including nearly the entirety of its history as a televisual form—remained almost entirely unmapped and thought, in general, deservedly neglected.
Today, after five decades of revisionist scholarship in theater, film, and television studies, and particularly in the wake of the now widespread study of melodrama’s ongoing global history as a transcultural and transmedial aesthetic, it has become disconcertingly obvious that everything about this traditional view of melodrama’s character, history, and place in modern culture is not simply distorted and biased but strikingly delusory, and in fact very nearly the opposite of anything one might call a rational view. In the most basic sense, such work has made it abundantly clear that melodrama has been Western modernity’s dominant, even definitive dramatic form. Far from having faded or been forced into obsolescence, melodrama, we now recognize, has been produced in ever-greater quantities and consumed by ever-growing audiences from its origins to the present day, despite continual critical hostility, derogation, and disregard. Far from having been marginal, characteristically “low,” or limited to its most clichéd, nominative forms, melodrama, we now see, expanded its range and register continuously from its moment of birth, spinning off into an ever-growing host of subgenres and variant forms—including those from which realism would arise—and crowding out, or “melodramatizing,” alternative modes.
It is now clear, too, that melodrama—as a style and a set of conventional dramatic expectations—has long since reshaped not only drama but narrative of nearly all kinds, from the novel and the news to reality television and computer games, as well as the whole range of the musical, visual, spectacular, and performance arts, from opera and pop songs to propagandist display and public demonstration. In the past decade, as the vast ocean of melodrama’s global, intermedial history has begun to emerge, it has become starkly evident that the production of melodrama around the world has so thoroughly dominated the mass-cultural histories of modern theater, film, and television drama (indeed, of modern narrative) that all other dramatic genres, modes, and styles—including dramatic realism and modernist aesthetics—seem, ironically enough, marginal, ephemeral, and arguably obsolete. Comparative work built on these recovered histories is now robust and advancing at speed, and among melodrama’s many manifestations and across its varying styles and modes we are beginning to discern striking formal continuities and regular patterns of growth and change. Its many national and medium-specific traditions have begun to gain evident coherence as a complex, closely interwoven, single history of cultural and medial expansion, migration, and adaptation. The history of melodrama, we now realize, is not only that of a dizzyingly complex, dynamic, and variegated form of drama: it is that of a viral aesthetic, expanding continuously and in all directions from its birth through the present in a process of cultural transmission that most closely resembles contagion.
As this history has been uncovered, we have come to see too that melodrama’s impact on cultural thought and consciousness has been profound. As an extensive body of interdisciplinary scholarship has made evident, melodrama’s conventions, assumptions, and imperatives have shaped the structure of modern political discourse, given form to modern social and domestic ideologies, and conditioned the modern world’s active structures of feeling, apprehension, and perception, penetrating and suffusing the consciousness of those cultures in which it is produced and consumed. Peter Brooks (1976) first caught this discursive aspect of melodrama’s life a half-century ago when he described it, with some precision, as a “central poetry” of the nineteenth-century world. Today we have begun to see melodrama as a kind of affective meme, a self-replicating pattern of sensation and feeling that moves successively from the surface of culture to the subtending structures of social and individual life, and from there to the behavioral patterns of the body and mind. In this view, modern culture hasn’t merely adopted melodrama, it has become melodramatic.
Taken as a whole, such research has overturned not only traditional views of melodrama but traditional views of the developmental trajectory of drama in modernity and of the modern era itself. What had been seen as a progressive march away from affective sentiment, naïve spectacle, and romantic distraction and toward presumably more self-reflexive, objective modes such as realism and modernist aesthetics—a process in which melodrama served as the naïve, hackneyed, overemotional “other” against which truly modern drama was defined—seems now just the opposite: a progressive triumph of those affective-spectacular modes, and a process in which melodrama occupies such a central position that seemingly resistant phenomena such as dramatic realism and avant-garde aesthetics seem mere eddies in an overpowering tide.
Such recognitions have profound implications for scholarly understanding of the modern critical tradition that constructed and maintained that mythic view—and of the narrative of modern art and culture that tradition constructed, professed, and passed down to us. What had seemed a rational, responsible, objective narrative of realism’s inexorable rise and melodrama’s obsolescence and demise, an account that itself testified to an advancing state of self-awareness and the triumphant progress of critical reason, looks now very much like a profoundly irrational, irresponsible, and finally unsustainable fiction—a myth, maintained almost reflexively for two hundred years, that seems to testify to nothing so clearly as an implacable, deep-seated desire to disown, deny, downplay, and ignore melodrama’s steadily expanding presence in modern art, culture, and the mind.
Such an extraordinary revision of scholarly perspective, the fruit of decades of intensive work on popular culture in several different disciplines and many fields, seems nothing less than revolutionary. With it, we have not only recovered a long-repressed history of form but become aware, in so doing, of one of modernity’s most persistent and most misleading myths about its own art and culture—able to see, for the first time, the modern era’s aesthetic history and fundamental character as they unfolded, to borrow ironically from Wordsworth (1905), “not in Utopia… but in the very world” (36–38). Nowhere else, perhaps, does one find such a powerful illustration of the implications and accomplishment of the past half-century’s scholarly turn to popular and mass-cultural study, and of the force and depth of its challenge to traditional accounts of the modern era. Indeed, critical recognition of melodrama’s place in the culture of the modern era may turn out to be a marker of that era’s end—a moment in which its self-spun mythos ceases to inspire blind belief and we begin to gain a more detached and more rational view of that time.
But this revolution is troubling, too, and there is good reason to suspect that we are not nearly so liberated from the modern critical tradition’s distorted views of melodrama and the era of its rise as we might think, for the biases of those views are woven into the very fabric of our work, and they continue to condition, inflect, and inform what we do, how, and even why we do it in fundamental ways. From that modern tradition we have inherited our disciplinary formations, our critical practices and methodologies, our understanding of artistic production and traditions and of genre, style, and mode—even our foundational premises and assumptions about what modern art is and does, and about what modernity itself means and is. We may have come to recognize melodrama’s historical significance and interest, but we have done so using critical theories, perspectives, methods, and practices not only poorly fitted to that task but in many respects designed to deny and to impede just that recognition: to draw attention elsewhere, valorize and foreground all that melodrama is not, and define modern art and its study in terms that would enable, justify, and sustain its critical exclusion, derogation, and dismissal. Melodrama scholarship may have carried out a revolution against the modern critical tradition, but it has done so in a language countervalent to that revolution at every level and with an outlook still shaped and driven by that tradition’s ideas.
With such deep structural impediments and biases in mind, it is no surprise that even the most radically revisionist scholarship on melodrama from a few decades ago had such difficulty escaping an apologetic attitude toward melodrama’s status as an art, or why it has taken so long—and still proves so difficult—to understand melodrama’s fundamentally multimedial formal development as a commercial and popular art. It is difficult to articulate the intermodal aesthetic and discursive history of melodrama as a style, mode, rhetoric, ideology, and poetry and to describe its transcultural impact on modern art, aesthetics, and consciousness. By training and tradition, our gaze inclines away from such admixtures and border-crossings, placing them, almost instinctively, at the margins of those normative histories of discrete generic forms, specific aesthetic modes, and particular historical contexts and linguistic cultures that define our areas of study and determine the kinds of objects we seek to explain and exalt. Within such a framework, melodrama seems continually blurred and incomplete, a nonnormative construct, a thing slipping always out of view, across boundaries, and, almost necessarily, a “mode of excess.”
Scholars have begun in recent years to address these now-pressing conceptual problems: in film studies, where such efforts are most advanced, melodrama scholarship has challenged the construction of film history’s “tradition” as well as the conceptual basis, structure, and status of its genre systems and begun to develop a critical practice in which melodrama, and not realism, forms the primary and normative aesthetic ground. This important, urgently needed work lends impetus to related efforts to recognize—finally—melodrama’s foundational generic position in the formal histories of other mediums and modes (such as musical theater, for example, or the novel).
However, revising our understanding of modern genre systems is only a beginning. Most obviously, we have yet to overcome, despite having now seriously challenged, the biases and obstacles imposed by the modern critical tradition’s disciplinary separation of music, drama, theater, and film, and of the performative and plastic and literary arts, which still fractures approaches to melodrama as a historical and formal object of study. Less obviously, we have yet even to question many of the modern critical tradition’s methodological tendencies and conventions, including not only its historiographic privileging of exceptional individual works and its valorization of canons constituted by such works but—more crucially—its referential association of the artwork with an individual medium and a single authorial creator. Such biases remain deeply inimical to the analysis and comprehension of a form that is from its inception multimedial and mass-cultural, thoroughly commodified and collectively produced on an industrial scale—a form whose history is constituted not by any canon but by the tidal movements of broad fields of commercial production, and whose works—in a manner that highlights their modernity—are created not by individual artists but the corporate work of many. Least obviously, we have yet even to notice, much less to question or challenge, many of that tradition’s basic assumptions about modern art and culture, including not only the conventional notion that modern art is distinguished by its pursuit of realism or formal self-reflexivity but the underlying presupposition that it adopts a critical stance toward tradition, and even the subtending belief that modernity itself marks a decisive break with the past. Until we unbind ourselves from these fundamental practices, conventions, and assumptions, and not simply from the narrow realist narrative of modern art that they produced and supported, there is little doubt that we will continue to see the vast ocean of modern melodrama, and the broad global currents of cultural modernity, in a profoundly limited, distorted, and inaccurate way.
Freeing ourselves from these binds will take a long time, but one way we might advance that process now is to reconsider two foundational, still largely unquestioned conceptions of melodrama’s origins and character—conceptions that are consonant with the past half-century’s great revolution in perspective, but which are in fact myths, rooted in the modern tradition, that continue to distort and limit our understanding of what melodrama is and what it means. My aim is not to derogate or dismiss these conceptions, for like all compelling myths they illuminate as well as obscure the history they describe and tell us much about the modern culture and the fascinating critical history from which they arise. More crucial is to indicate the ways in which these myths have both shaped and obscured our view and to delineate something of the history of melodrama, and of modernity, that becomes visible once we set them aside.
THE MYTH OF MELODRAMA’S REVOLUTIONARY BIRTH
The first of these myths, most influentially advanced in our era by Peter Brooks but set out by Charles Nodier within a generation of the genre’s rise, is the still widely accepted idea that melodrama is a product of the cataclysmic changes that accompanied the French Revolution. As Brooks famously put it almost a half-century ago, “The origins of melodrama can accurately be located within the context of the French Revolution and its aftermath… the moment that symbolically, and really, marks the final liquidation of the traditional Sacred and its representative institutions, the shattering of the myth of Christendom, and the dissolution of an organic and hierarchically cohesive society” (1976,14–15).
It is from this Revolutionary origin story, more than from any other source, that we derive the now commonplace assumption that melodrama is the drama of a “post-Sacred” world. In a more indirect way, we also derive from this account our sense of melodrama as the natural expression of a popular culture—any popular culture—that has, through the cataclysms of modernity, lost or been freed from traditional structures of re...

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