Just as in its nineteenth-century heyday, the melodrama, in all
its various forms, reigns triumphant in today’s cultural
marketplace. The television detective series, the western, the
science fiction film, the horror flick, and the action blockbuster
are all its progeny. Many, if not most, of the popular films of
our age contain that same heady mix of excitement, comedy, and
pathos found in the famous stage adaptations of melodramas like
W.H. Smith’s The Drunkard (1844), George Aiken’s
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and Augustin Daly’s
Under the Gaslight (1895). With the arrival of cinema
at the turn of the century, the stage melodrama was eclipsed by
a medium that could transmit thrills with ever-greater verisimilitude.
Stephen Spielberg said of his own films: “In my work, everything
is melodrama. I don't think I've ever not made a melodrama. E.T.
is melodramatic, and so is The Sugarland Express. I mean,
there's melodrama in life and I love it. It's heightened drama,
taking things to histrionic extremes and squeezing out the tears
a bit” (“A Dialogue” 1).
If American popular culture seems melodramatically inclined, it
is perhaps due to the myth of America as nation in adolescence.
The popular conception of “America” is of a young
nation proud of its identity, muscular in clout and fair in temperament,
and decidedly different from its older, effete European ancestors.
Eric Bentley noted in The Life of the Drama that “theatre
corresponded to that phase of a child’s life when he creates
magic worlds,” and he continued: “Melodrama belongs
to this magical phase, the phase when thoughts seem omnipotent
… in short when the larger reality has not been given diplomatic
recognition” (217). The youthful American narrative is set
in that earlier, “magic world” in which anything can
happen, but everything always turns out right in the end.
In the first chapter of Over the Footlights (1923), Stephen
Leacock describes the classic melodrama and its presentation on
the stage of his youth:
Everybody who has reached or passed middle age looks back
with affection to that splendid old melodrama Cast Up by
the Sea. Perhaps it wasn’t called exactly that. It
may have been named Called Back from the Dead, or Broken
Up by the Wing, or Buried Alive in the Snow, or
anything of that sort. In fact I believe it was played under
about forty different names in fifty different forms. But it
was always the same good old melodrama of the New England coast.
What follows Leacock’s rumination is a chapter-long exegesis
of the plot of the play along with the recreation of its fictive
performance and the audience’s reactions to it. For Leacock,
this ideal melodramatic performance of memory can be favorably
compared with the film and theatrical productions of the present;
it is a production so thrilling that as a spectator he was too
excited to eat the popcorn and peanuts purchased in the lobby.
Leacock’s whimsicality is a typical response to the passage
of time and the idealization of certain childhood events. The
fact that melodrama of his youth came in “forty different
names in fifty different forms” is immaterial as it is “always
This resolute sameness, this desire for immobility afforded by
nostalgia, is the hallmark of the modern “melodrama theatre.”
If Leacock views melodrama as a form from a bygone age and looks
back with a parodic glance at its simplicity, melodrama theatres
throughout America actually present these same performances of
imagined memory in the form of “old-fashioned melodrama.”
No matter how inaccurate historically, the perception of melodrama
as an arrested form of unswerving regularity and consistency has
caused the genre to be emblematic of those thrilling, yet comforting,
days of yesteryear.
Every summer, in locales like Cripple Creek, Colorado, Virginia
City, Montana and Victor, Idaho, melodramas are performed for
audiences desirous of a taste of an "old-fashioned"
aesthetic. The form, the “melodrama theatre,” is one
of the most widespread theatrical formats in America. It lives
in small community theatres in Iowa, tourist traps in Colorado,
and up and down the coast of California. In these performances,
stock characters escape peril, reveal tell-tale scars at opportune
moments, and follow the comfortable narratological arcs in which
virtue always triumphs over vice. This theatre of nostalgia calls
up a prelapsarian past, one that predates the complexities of
modern America. And with hisses and cheers, audience members take
part in a liturgy in which the past is repeated, evoked, and summoned
up, sacralizing the “authentic” “America.”
Far from incorporating melodramatic elements as a part of an ironic,
postmodernist pastiche, melodrama theaters aim to maintain a collective
cultural memory. Advertisements for such productions frequently
invoke the elders of the community — “see the theatre
of your grandfather!” — situating audiences in a trans-generational
moral/aesthetic continuum. It is not simply the presentation of
a performance, but the transmission of the experience of a performance
of the past. A bridge, in a sense, to the nineteenth century.
This essay examines the implications of this type of melodrama
performance as a secular ritual of collective nostalgia.
Time, of course, generates the possibility for nostalgia —
we cannot have nostalgia for something that occurs in the present.
Like parody without the teeth of critique, nostalgia is a repetition,
a return of the past to the present. It is instinctively uncritical
as the past is idealized rather than analyzed. In the recent Time
Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia, Sylviane Agacinski considers
how nostalgia necessarily moves counter to the teleological conception
of human progress, as “[a]ttachment to the past or returning
to old forms thus appears suspect, indeed even regressive, in
light of the necessary movement of history” (106). If parody,
as the Russian Formalists noted, compels generic evolution through
critical repetition, nostalgia forces an uncritical return.
While all artistic forms try to command the interest of the viewer,
melodrama as a genre is specifically designed to keep the viewer
engaged with the story through the use of various plot devices
and strong appeals to the emotions. One of the most frequent mechanisms
for the maintenance of audience interest is the plea for audience
sentiment. The sickly, but cherubic Eva in the performances of
Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the scenes of drunkards and
their spells of D.T.’s amid their impoverished families
in the temperance dramas elicited primal responses from audiences.
But in the modern melodrama theatre, nostalgia for a sepia-hued
era takes the place of sentiment toward a character in peril.
The figure in plight is the performance itself. A website advertisement
for the Diamond Circle Melodrama of Durango, Colorado describes
its productions as putting forth the genuine article: “In
today's world of electronic reproductions this is real entertainment.
Red velvet curtains, checkered tablecloths, brass chandeliers
and authentic Victorian costumes create an atmosphere that is
truly unique, and a memory you'll treasure for years to come.”
Both melodrama and the nostalgia for the simpler time it has come
to represent always seem to be on the verge of eclipse in the
national memory. In the dedication to Melodrama Classics:
Six Plays and How to Stage Them, Dorothy Mackin, the co-founder
of The Imperial Players (now The Cripple Creek Players) melodrama
theatre, protests against neglect of melodrama in the American
It is my sincere hope that this book may be instrumental in helping
to move melodrama out of the theatrical trash heap into which
it has been tossed, and back into the realm of “legitimate
theatre” from whence it came. (4)
This is a familiar plea made by theatre scholars
like Tom Postlewait and others who view melodrama as an undervalued
form. 1. But Mackin also calls
for a theatrical evangelism. Her book, along with others like
Between Hisses: A Book of Songs and Olios for Melodrama by
James Burke and Paul T. Nolan, attempts to assist in the production
of melodramas by community theatres and high schools with a great
deal of proselytizing along the way: melodramas are packaged as
easily-produced and readily acceptable to a wide variety of audiences.
The acting style is portrayed by melodrama enthusiasts like Mackin
as a nice departure from Stanislavsky, “introduc[ing] young
actors and actresses to a wide variety of audience responses at
close range” (19).
The performances of melodrama in the “melodrama theatres”
constantly reaffirm a desire not only to invoke the spirit of
the past, but also to situate audience members within it. Long
running “melodrama theatres” like The Great American
Melodrama in Pismo Beach, California, The Gaslight Theater of
Tucson, Arizona, and The Golden Chain Theatre in Oakhurst, California
are garbed in the trappings of the bygone era. Velvet curtains,
wooden planking, and footlights give the theatre an old-fashioned
aura, just as modern amenities like air conditioning and imported
beer undercut this aesthetic. These theatres allow audiences a
seat within a pre-mediatized age while giving them the comfort
and superiority of distance. Their signature is not simply the
presentation of a performance, but the transmission of the imagined
experience of a former performance.
The “melodrama theatre” repertory
includes either genuine melodramas (temperance melodramas and
adaptations of David Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden
West and Dion Boucicault’s After Dark are
frequent favorites) or what can be termed “old-fashioned
melodramas,” plays in the style of nineteenth-century melodramas.
I would define the “old-fashioned melodrama” as the
staged version of the idea of “melodrama” as conceptualized
in the popular imagination. It is a honed-down, always-already
parodic vision of heroes and villains; the plots of the plays
are always highly formulaic; they always follow the same familiar
narrative arc in which good triumphs over evil. 2.
A good example of “old-fashioned melodrama” would
be The Girl of the Frozen North; or, Condemned to a Dead Man’s
Glacier by Eddie Cope and Buster Cearley which includes the
villainous hotel-owner Mr. Cesspool, a damsel in distress and
a dynamic, but naïve, red-coated Canadian Mountie ready to
save the day.
There is a wide gap between this description and its supposed
pre-text, the aforementioned high-brow “villainless melodrama”
of David Belasco that evolved in the late nineteenth century (Gerould
26). Dramaturgically, the “old-fashioned melodrama”
is close in shape to the 10-20-30 melodramas, but if the 10-20-30
melodramas were vehicles for spectacle, the present day “old-fashioned
melodrama” is both medium and message. The clearly distinguished
and exaggerated characters of the hero-heroine-villain triangle
and the simplified plot attempt to summon up the “Gay Nineties”
as filtered through one hundred years of media. Certainly, the
Canadian Mountie figure reads like the title character from the
cartoon “Dudley Do-Right,” itself a parody of melodramatic
extremes. Just as nostalgia can collapse time into itself, it
can also collapse one form of media into another.
Geographically, most “melodrama theatres” are in the
western half of the United States. This setting plays an important
part as audiences are exposed to a condensed, sanitized vision
of the Old West. The audiences that frequent these theatres seek
a vision of the West that is inherently melodramatic and romanticized,
free from the influences of modernity. A century ago, stars like
“Buffalo Bill” Cody summoned up a vision of the West
for Easterners, one abounding with war dances, scalping braves,
and large helpings of fancy rifle-shooting. The success of Cody
and his “Combination” codified the West as a place
where moral absolutes still held fast in the face of danger. As
Robert G. Athearn wrote of the effect of the West on stage: “If
believed ardently enough, long and strongly enough to shape the
way in which we live our days, anything becomes true” (274).
The popularity of melodrama theatres in western communities signifies
an attempt to “shape the way in which we live our days.”
But as François Lyotard suggested in The Postmodern
Condition, the postmodern moment always denies “the
consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively
the nostalgia for the unattainable” (81). Hence, a changeable,
postmodern culture takes the place of Indians as the prevalent
threat to a more “natural” American culture.
It should not be surprising, therefore, that the harsher side
of the American westward expansion is rarely explored in melodrama
theatres. For nostalgia to operate, the displacement and genocide
of Native Americans must remain outside the scope of the invocations
of the American West. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most
significant American play from the period melodrama theatres seek
to invoke, is never performed, symbolizing as it does another
uncomfortable element of the American past. In this way, the melodrama
theatre performances are modern equivalents of the Wild West exhibitions
of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The extravaganzas
of Buffalo Bill Cody were condensations of the mythologized West
for primarily urban audiences, especially “recent immigrants
who had never known the Indian or the West but relished stories
and legends about frontier life and the frightfulness of Indian
captivity” (Brasmer 213). Richard Slotkin has written that
“If the Wild West was a ‘place’ rather than
a ‘show,’ then its landscape was a mythic place, in
which past and present, fiction and reality could coexist; a space
in which history, translated into myth, was reenacted as ritual”
(166). While Buffalo Bill and others brought the West to Brooklyn,
the melodrama theatres continue to perform a similar simplified
version of the West for visitors today. Paul Reddin has described
the Wild West shows as “particularly important reflectors
of American values because they were self-consciously American
institutions devoted to defining their nation’s values and
history through the lens of the frontier experience” (220).
Just as Wild West shows “glossed over the negative aspects
of the westward movement,” melodrama theatres remain engaged
in the performance of a legacy sterilized of the painful events
of the past (221).
The evolution of stage melodrama toward a romanticized, nostalgic
version of itself reveals how a genre deemed dead after the rise
of cinema took refuge in its own outdatedness. The dwelling upon
obsolescence that characterizes “old-fashioned melodrama”
necessarily connects it with the myth of a once-idyllic America.
Melodrama theatres frequently incorporate the use of historical
relics in performance as a way to have the audience engage nostalgically
with the performance. For example, the Virginia City Players of
Virginia City, Montana, include a vintage cremona in performances.
A cremona is a self-contained instrument that attempts to replicate
a full orchestra for small theatre spaces. The cremona of the
Virginia City Players is described in detail on their website:
It is sixteen feet wide and features two side chests containing
flute, violin, and bass pipes, a xylophone, bass drum, crash symbol,
tom tom, tympani, snare drum, sleigh bells, tambourine, castanets,
wind siren, cathedral chimes, triangle and train bell. It was
manufactured in Chicago by the Marquette Piano Company, whose
wide variety of coin operated player pianos, orchestrians, and
photoplayers sold under the Cremona trademark and were regarded
as "top of the line." No expense was spared in their
creation, from the piano keys of genuine ivory, to the double-veneered
hardwood cases, new-scale (imparting the piano with an extraordinarily
rich tone most noticeable in the mid-bass range).
The cremona acts as a trace of a long ago past that continues
to exist and, most importantly, to perform in the present. The
tones of the same cremona are heard upon entrance to the website
dedicated to advertising the group. Its use presents a past that
appears indefatigable even in the present. The gap between past
and present is foreclosed in a way that recalls Jean Baudrillard’s
description in “The Precession of Simulacra” of the
“repatriation” of the cloister of Saint-Michel de
Cuxa from the Cloisters in New York to its original home in Paris.
Baudrillard describes the return of the cloister to its “rightful
place” not as a laudable act of restitution but as instead
“supplementary subterfuge, acting as if nothing had happened
and indulging in retrospective hallucination” (528). For
Baudrillard, acting as if one can ever go home again is an exercise
in pantomime. Similarly, the use of the cremona musically creates
the illusion of the erasure of time passed; in the “melodrama
theatre” “acting as if nothing had happened”
is the mode to ensure its survival.
Given an aesthetic that always makes the past present, melodrama
theatres can also serve as centrifuges of community. The melodramatic
distillation of that which is good and that which is evil encourages
the creation of community, one that Anthony Cohen in The Symbolic
Construction of Community has explained as a conception of
boundary and the manifestation of the similar and the different.
Similarly, Sonja Kuftinec notes in “A Cornerstone for Rethinking
Community Theatre,” “In order for a community to distinguish
itself, its members must differentiate themselves in some way
from other communities through boundaries of land, behavior, or
background” (92). The obligatory audience responses in a
melodrama performance create that very vision of community through
a ritualistic performance of moral binaries, “highlight[ing]
social and aesthetic representations that embody, enact and mythologize
An example of such a communal moment happens
regularly every year during the melodrama performance at Mahoney
State Park in Nebraska. Located in Ashbury, Nebraska, the Denman
and Mary Mallory Kountze Memorial Theatre has been the site of
melodrama performance since 1993 and is part of a trio of melodrama
theatres in and around Lincoln. 3
In a newspaper interview with Jim Delmont of the Omaha World-Herald,
Suzanna O’Hearn, the concessions manager of the theatre,
pointed out a reoccurring trope: “In
the second act of all the shows, the villain is chased into the
audience by the hero — so you can hit him with the popcorn.”
4. The tradition is good-humored
and playful, owing in spirit as much to going to the movies as
the theatre, an elision of different responses to different forms.
It is a part of the response expected from an audience in many
melodrama theatres and a reaction that seems to be an attempt
to call up an outdated performance form. It is watching a play
“in the style of” an earlier audience, underlining
the essential tension of these performances as they attempt to
evoke a prelapsarian past. With hisses and cheers, audience members
take part in a liturgy in which the past is repeated, evoked,
and summoned up, sacralizing an “authentic” form of
theatre. The melodrama theatre is a secular ritual of collective
nostalgia in which a simpler time in America is resurrected, a
vision of communal identity.
Melodrama theatres articulate the sense of
a fixed, sanitized national identity through the presentation
of its plays. Just as the term “melodrama” is synonymous
today with mustache-twirling villains, always-incorruptible heroes
and ever-virtuous heroines, its particular distillation in the
“old-fashioned melodrama” is highly useful for the
propagation of ideology. If, as Northrop Frye noted in Anatomy
of Criticism, “In the melodrama of the brutal thriller
we come as close as it is normally possible for art to come to
the pure self-righteousness of the lynching mob,” the “old-fashioned
melodrama” of popular classification serves as perfect venue
for the propagation of ideology (47). Baudrillard noted that Disneyland
is “a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate the
fiction of the real in the opposite camp” (529).
5. In the Baudrillardian sense, melodrama
theatres act as localized Disneylands that perpetuate the perception
of a true, youthful “America,” beneath the suburban
1. See Thomas Postlewait’s “From Melodrama
to Realism: The Suspect History of American Drama” in Melodrama:
The Cultural Emergence of a Genre, pages 39-60.
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2. The quotation-marked term “old-fashioned
melodrama” will be used for the remainder of this essay
to denote the modern, already-parodic version of the melodramatic
genre. These plays are usually published cheaply and singly. A
rare compendium of “old-fashioned melodramas” is entitled
Gay Nineties Melodramas: A Collection of Old-Fashioned Melodramas
of the Gay Nineties Period, and includes twenty-three plays
by Leland Price, James Floyd Stone, and notably Arthur Kaiser,
the author of “The Filming of Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
(1922). Interestingly, half of the plays in the volume are described
as either “burlesque” or “parody,” yet
they, either in subject matter, dramaturgy, or tone, differ little
from plays described as merely “old-fashioned.”
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3. In addition to the Mahoney State Park melodrama,
the “Freemont Dinner Train” in nearby Freemont frequently
performs melodramas a part of a dinner theatre. In addition, melodramas
are also performed on the Missouri River aboard the “Sprit
of Brownville” riverboat. See “Melodrama!” Melodramas
at Mahoney State Park. http://www.melodrama.net.
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4. It should also be noticed that the expulsion
of the villain from the community recalls Satan’s fall from
the community of Heaven, a scene represented in the English mystery
plays. See John D. Cox, The Devil and Sacred in English Drama,
1350-1642, pages 19-38.
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5. Not surprisingly, melodrama theatres are frequently
a part of exhibits in theme parks. The Bird Cage melodrama theatre
(which has recently closed) located inside Knott’s Berry
Farm in Buena Park, California began comedian Steve Martin’s
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“What is Melodrama?” Diamond Circle Melodrama. 10