Sunday, 3 August 2008

Reflections on the project so far...

Our exploration of the melodramatic aesthetic has profited greatly from the involvement of colleagues and students from a variety of disciplines (Music, Drama, Modern Languages, Film & TV Studies), and from practitioners (singers, players, directors, actors) as well as historians and theorists. We have considered issues of contemporary practice and reception together with modern approaches and taste. Although music has been a focus of the project, we have examined its changing function and importance in different contexts and in relation to the other components of drama. Silence, gesture, stage movement, tableau, psychological motivation have each emerged as prominent themes for discussion.

Although we have tried to resist generalising about what melodrama might mean (given its variety), constants have emerged in the works we have examined: the depiction of evil, the juxtaposition of contrasting moods/characters, the use of cliches (in terms of plot, character, gesture, music, etc) as shorthand indicators of 'meaning'. Each of these have in some senses been perceived (since the 19C) as ‘negative’ characteristics, tainted by their associations with popular culture. A trajectory might be traced from early stage melodrama, in which music is a vital tool in creating character and movement, through later nineteenth-century drama and opera in which the relationship between gesture/movement and music is disrupted - e.g. gesture becomes internalised (as seen in Sweeney Todd), or gesture is turned against the grain of the music (as seen in Opera North's interpretation of Verdi's Macbeth). This disruption might be understood as part of a modern desire to smooth the stark juxtapositions and characterisations, to investigate psychological motivation, and to present a more sophisticated, 'realistic' approach to drama – in other words, to tame melodrama. (Mary Ann Smart draws a more subtly nuanced and argued trajectory of internalisation of gesture through 19C opera, culminating with Wagner, in her book Mimomania.)

During the project, other central issues have emerged, opening up more positive avenues for research, not least the relationship between the different senses. Julie Sanders argued that this might be understood as a central feature of melodrama: that touch and smell merge with sound and sight in Shakespeare's Macbeth through the resonant imagery of the hand, a relationship that has evolved in subsequent adaptations of the text, including Verdi's opera and modern kunju interpretations in China. Philip Carli examined how the aural could function as a trigger for the visual in his examination of phonograph recordings in which sounds (formulaic music and special effects) triggered memories of what audiences might have seen at stage performances. In this manner, he suggested, spectacle can be understood as a sonic experience. The different components of sound were considered by Jake Smith in his examination of 'reaction' shots in radio melodrama, and he illustrated ways in which emotion and meaning can be communicated in vocal timbre (and musicality) as much as in words and physical actions. In other words, music can be understood not only as supporting, enhancing, subverting the text, but also as a substitute for, a memory, a component, even a sublimation of the spoken word and of the drama as a whole.

Edward Rushton's new composition On the Edge engaged with different traditions of melodrama and the melodramatic, employing spoken text, still and moving images and a continuous score. Strikingly, it foregrounded the evolving relationship between word, music and image: the audience's attention is drawn to the different components which come to the fore at given moments of the narrative. Although Rushton eschewed the idea of strict synchronisation - favouring a degree of free association - one was much more conscious of the way in which the different elements worked with/across/against each other, and of the 'pure' beauty of certain passages of music and images (escaping from the narrative). The nineteenth-century melodramatic aesthetic was concerned with melding the different elements (one barely notices the music in stage melodrama or in silent film, and it works almost subliminally; Verdi proclaimed his desire to 'fuse' music and drama in Macbeth); Rushton turns this idea on its head, drawing attention to the process.

The issue of realism was raised in a number of contexts. At one level, the plots of melodramas (and 19C operas) are extremely unrealistic. At another level, actors and singers in the early 19C were praised for their 'realistic' or 'naturalistic' expression of emotion; Verdi aimed at bringing out every nuance of the drama in his score, magnifying and heightening rather than merely imitating the 'real'. Joe Austin suggested that Verdi was in some senses pushing against the melodramatic formula towards dramatic realism; Cynthia Marsh suggested that 'fantastic' realism might be a more appropriate label for Macbeth.

The way in which we understand realism is key to how we understand melodrama as an aesthetic today. David Mayer reminds us that if we laugh at the melodramatic acting style for being 'hammy' and over the top, we are missing an important point. The gestures of actors were part of various explicit aesthetic criteria: for many who were performing between 1903 and 1915, the years in which cinema established its permanent hold on the public, gestural codes were aligned to the flourishes and scroll-work of art nouveau. Film directors such as D.W. Griffith, Mayer continues, would specifically invoke the postural and gestural vocabularies of the Ballets Russes as an oppositional style to current screen acting, but neither Griffith nor most theatrical actor-managers and film directors were rushing to become 'real'. There was a gradual diminution in the scale of gesture, but this diminution arose from recognition that the camera was closer to the performer than the audience ever was and that an actor's large gestures went beyond the camera's frame. Finally, Mayer reminds us that 'the real' made its appearance from two quarters: from Naturalism, as a part of a comprehensive scientific, political, sociological, and aesthetic outlook on the world and from photography which captured the everyday and the mundane and offered true likenesses.

At a fundamental level, music had (and retains) an important role in mediating between the stage/screen and the audience, guiding them in their understanding of the action, to some extent determining their reactions and acceptance of the drama as 'real'.

This project has effectively opened up some new ways of thinking about melodrama and its legacy in the theatre and on film, giving us all food for thought. I am extremely grateful to all those who have taken part, both as participants in the various workshops, study days, panels and performances, and those who observed and contributed to discussion. It is hoped that the conference that concludes the project will address some of these issues we have raised, exploring them in more depth and with reference to other works, and also open up alternative avenues for further research.


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