Rituals of Nostalgia:
Old-Fashioned Melodrama at the Millenium

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2005, Volume 4, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2005/cherry.htm



James M. Cherry
The City University of New York

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. (3)

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 the same.”

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 theatrical repertory:

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 community” (19).

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 sprawl.

Notes

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 career.

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Works Cited

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Columbia UP, 2003.

Athearn, Robert G. The Mythic West in Twentieth-Century America. Lawrence,
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Bentley, Eric. The Life of the Drama. New York: Atheneum, 1967.

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Delmont, Jim. “Don’t just sit there. Booing, repeating lines and throwing your
popcorn at the villain aren’t just tolerated at the Mahoney State Park
melodramas — they’re encouraged.” Omaha World-Herald 6 July 2003: 1AT.

Frye, Northrop. “Comic Fictional Modes.” Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays.
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Gerould, Daniel C. “The Americanization of Melodrama.” American Melodrama. New York: PAJ, 1983. 7-29.

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Leacock, Stephen. Over the Footlights. New York: Dodd and Mead, 1923.

Lyotard, François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.
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Reddin, Paul. Wild West Shows. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1999.

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“What is Melodrama?” Diamond Circle Melodrama. 10 October 2005.
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