Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Melodrama and the Interdisciplinary Challenge, 22 April 2008

Jan Butler writes:

This interdisciplinary study day, chaired by Julie Sanders, offered examples of the ways in which melodrama has been studied within different disciplines, looking at different elements – text, gesture, voice and music – in the context of other dramatic forms. In the course of the day, questions were raised about methodological issues that melodrama raises, including bridging the high/low, the visual/aural and performance/research divides. The study day also referred back to elements and issues that had arisen in the previous two Melodrama and the Musical Aesthetic events, which highlighted how the research project as a whole is developing and gave a sense of emerging cohesion to the project’s varied approaches.

Jo Robinson, who had taken part in the first Melodrama workshop in which a scene from Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (1802) was explored in performance, elaborated on her thoughts emerging from that experience. She highlighted that in Victorian theatre, seeing was a privileged mode of audience response in which the actors communicated through gesture as well as speaking a text. In theatre studies, the focus (building on the work of Peter Brooks) has been on the gestural language that actors used. However, during the exploration of a mute character in the workshop, Jo noted that the gestures of the mute were always translated verbally for the audience by characters on stage, and by the accompanying music. She suggested that in the case of melodrama, sight has perhaps been privileged for too long, and that the experience of performing the scene with the music suggests that we need to hear as well as look, a theme which was raised again in the third paper.

Sarah Hibberd’s paper focussed on French grand opera, a genre described by Wagner as “effects without causes”, a reference to the emphasis on visual spectacle and the (perceived) tendency of the music to support this, rather than standing alone as a complex structure in its own right. Sarah suggested that - in contrast to the situation Jo had highlighted in theatre studies - musicologists tend to consider the music in isolation from the other elements of opera. She suggested a more fruitful approach to French grand opera in particular was to explore it in relation to the broader theatrical landscape of the time – including melodrama. Expanding on her paper at the Music from Stage to Screen event, Sarah demonstrated how the cataclysmic conclusions of Pixérécourt’s melodrama La Citerne and Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète worked in similar ways, and each illuminated the broader political (revolutionary) climate of their creation and reception. She suggested that the ‘melodramatic’ can be understood in this context as a specifically French notion of the sublime.

Jake Smith’s paper highlighted another aspect of the melodramatic, focusing again on hearing rather than seeing, but this time the actor’s use of vocal gesture. He explained that, like the bodily gestural language that actors learned, there was also a language of vocal timbres and pitches associated with different meanings. This can be heard particularly clearly in early phonograph recordings. The actor’s body is removed, so he is dependent on vocal gesture to carry meaning. This was demonstrated through comparison of a film and a radio play version of the same scene from Stella Dallas. Jake related the change from presentational to representational acting to the development of the microphone, which allowed a ‘close-up’ of a vocal gesture, such as a sob or a sigh to give the listener a ‘reaction shot’ of the invisible actor. These vocal expressions of emotion led to increasing intensity in the voice, especially in radio soap operas, with an acting style quivering with emotion and supplemented by wordless vocalisation, leading to a situation in which the meaning could be said to be carried almost entirely in the vocal gesture rather than the spoken text.

Each paper focussed on one aspect of the melodramatic, whilst simultaneously highlighting the need to understand melodrama as an organic process. The problem arising from its perception as purely low culture was also raised several times, as was the fact that looking at one element in isolation can seem comedic, whereas looking at the elements in combination can reveal much more significant and compelling aspects of the genre itself and its legacy in other genres.


Participants: Jo Robinson (English), Sarah Hibberd (Music), Jake Smith (Film and TV) and Julie Sanders (English).

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October 06, 2012  

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