Monday, September 15, 2014
Answers to Chang's Questions
1. In pointing out that melodrama is too often associated with childhood, Williams points out some of the ways that melodrama is disregarded as a viable and modern art form. When people refer to melodrama “as occupying the childhood of the nation” (14), they are focusing on its origins and immense popularity on the 19th century stage. Yet while Williams acknowledges that an understanding of 19th-century plays is essential to the study of melodrama, she believes it is wrong “to perceive a form as contemporaneously vital and adaptable as melodrama as only a reprise... of the nineteenth-century stage.” She believes that melodrama has adapted to become a viable and, in fact, dominant form not only on stage, but in literature and, especially, in cinema.
Henry James's association of melodrama, specifically the stage production he saw of Uncle Tom's Cabin, with his childhood, further points to the tendency to disregard melodrama as a serious art form. James is identified in the second line of his Wikipedia article as “one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism,” and he is known for examining the complexities of human psychology in in works. However, Williams cites a study by Peter Brooks that shows ways in which James himself makes use of melodramatic elements. Thus, she argues that melodrama is not so inherently juvenile and simplistic as James may have believed, and has a great deal more in common with realism than most people recognize.
2. “Mickey's Mellerdrammer” embodies probably only two of the elements of melodrama that Williams maps out. It does include a thrown-together “space of innocence”, with a record playing “Dixie” in the background and a two-dimensional cabin for Uncle Tom. It also includes characters with clear roles in the conflict between good and evil—so much so that the audience cheers whenever the good characters appear onstage, but throws fruit as Simon Legree. However, it leaves out the three other, perhaps more nuanced elements, not waiting to reveal the virtue of any character, nor doing much to mix pathos and action (the heroes hide, cower, and flee throughout the staging), nor mixing any realism into the consistently ridiculous and tacky presentation of the play. The cartoon shows that by the time it was released in the '30s, melodrama was already considered a painfully outdated, foolish, low-class form. However, Williams would likely point out that adopting a less simplistic view of melodrama would reveal that some of the biggest hits of that same era (The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington come to mind) could fit into that very category.
3. I would say that melodramas of race differ from other melodramas in at least one crucial respect. Early French melodrama, we have learned, gave a positive portrayal to the lower economic classes and made villains out of aristocrats, and since then melodrama has very frequently dealt with conflict among economic classes. However, while racial differences have historically played a role in determining economic differences, and in some instances continue to do so today, melodramas of race are not chiefly concerned with addressing economic differences. This is particularly clear of Thomas Dixon's The Leopard's Spots, in which the mulatto George Harris gets a Harvard education, yet is still unable to find work anywhere, and eventually turns to crime. George is not unable to find work because he was brought up poor, or because he lacks skills or an education. He is rejected by employers, and, also importantly, by the father of a white woman he wishes to marry, simply because he is mulatto. Through this character, Dixon shows his belief that even when economic differences are put aside, it is impossible for a dark-skinned man to be integrated into white American society.
That being said, I believe neither melodramas of race nor melodramas that deal with economic differences are categorically more important or influential in modern society. Race discrimination is certainly still an issue in many areas of the modern world, and economic inequality is still widespread and drastic. Therefore, it is probably ultimately the ability of a melodrama itself to engage, move, and persuade its audience that will determine how influential it becomes.