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Gothic Drama in the Romantic Age, 1760-1830
PROGETTO COFIN : Il Teatro della Paura



Materiali Didattici Online


Section 1

Show me the horrid tenant of thy heart

Gothic and Melodrama
The development of Gothic drama and that of melodrama are closely interrelated. Both forms aim at affecting spectators through the use of theatrical effects and a dramaturgy based on excess and display. And both were extremely popular between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although melodramatic forms will continue to be popular throughout the Victorian age, whereas Gothic drama will gradually disperse into other theatrical and dramatic manifestations. The passages available here represent two important instances of the intersection between melodrama and the Gothic.
Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery was first performed at Covent Garden on 13 November 1802 and is the first English dramatic work to be explicitly called a “melodrama”. A translation and adaptation of Guilbert de Pixérécourt’s Coelina, ou l’enfant du mystère, Holcroft’s play presents the themes and devices that will become recurrent features in nineteenth-century melodramatic texts. Instead, Maturin’s Bertram (Drury Lane, 9 May 1816), one of the outstanding Gothic dramas of the Romantic period, illustrates how the languages of the melodrama – its verbal excess, physical display of emotions, set characters, etc. – are also crucial constitutive features of legitimate drama.
The Bibliography section lists references to a series of useful studies on the melodrama and its links with Romantic or Gothic theatre. The section on Insights offers some excerpts from these studies: Michael Booth on the relationship between English Gothic drama and melodrama and French melodrama; Allardyce Nicoll on the origins of the melodramatic form and its typologies; and Joseph Donohue on melodrama as a theatre of excess, display and a peculiar balance between order and disorder.
Thomas Holcroft, A Tale of Mystery in J.O. Bailey (ed.), British Plays of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Odyssey, 1966)
Act I
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Charles Robert Maturin, Bertram; or, the Castle of St. Aldobrand in Jeffrey N. Cox (ed.), Seven Gothic Dramas, 1789-1825 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992)
Act II.1
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Michael Richard Booth, English Melodrama (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1965)
Michael Richard Booth, Prefaces to English Nineteenth-Century Theatre (Manchester: Manchester University Press, n. d.)
Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess(1976) [L’immaginazione melodrammatica, trad. ital. di D. Fink, Parma: Pratiche Editrice, 1985]
Jeffrey N. Cox, In the Shadows of Romance: Romantic Tragic Drama in Germany, England, and France (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1987), pp. 38-51
Joseph W. Donohue, Theatre in the Age of Kean (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975) [Chapter Six: The Plays of the Early Nineteenth Century: The Rise of Melodrama, pp. 105-26]
Elaine Hadley, Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace 1800-1885(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995)
Allardyce Nicoll, A History of English Drama, 1660-1900, 6 vols., vol IV: Early Nineteenth-Century Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930).

Michael Richard Booth, Prefaces to English Nineteenth-Century Theatre (Manchester: Manchester University Press, n. d.), pp. 24-25
"What gave melodrama impetus were Gothic novels of terror and the supernatural, and Gothic tragedies, some of them adaptations of the novels performed both before and after 1790. Melodrama’s rigid moral pattern, character types, and much of its machinery were derived from eighteenth-century sentimental, tragedy and comedy with their excess of moral sentiment, exaltation of virtue, exhaustive exploitation of pathos and distress, generous but erring heroes, suffering heroines, comic servants, surprising revelations, mistaken identities, long-lost orphans, and missing documents. The English sentimental drama and novel in turn influenced the French comédie larmoyante and drame bourgeois; indeed, there was considerable interaction between these forms and current English drama on the one hand and English Gothic, German Gothic, and French boulevard melodrama of the post-Revolutionary period on the other. […] Parisian melodrama was in turn derived from English Gothic, and it would be wrong to say that English melodrama was a French product. By 1800 the pattern of melodrama was set, and the rest of the century made additions and variations only. French plays continued to supply plots for melodramatists, and the novel proved fruitful for the adapter. The tendency of much nineteenth-century fiction is to the same extremes of vice, virtue, sensationalism, and pathos that one finds in melodrama. Scott’s romantic Gothicism and Dickens’s domestic sentiment were enormously popular on the stage, and from The Castle of Otranto to East Lynne and Trilby the melodrama of the novel provided melodrama for the theatre."
Allardyce Nicoll, A History of English Drama, 1660-1900, 6 vols., vol IV: Early Nineteenth-Century Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), pp. 100-101
"Roughly, the melodramas of the period may be classed in three main divisions: the romantic, the supernatural and the domestic; and we may consider this dramatic form as a whole to have developed chronologically from one division to another in the order which is given above. Pixérécourt, who […] gave the final impetus to the melodramatic movement, was primarily romantic in aim, and that romantic atmosphere was consolidated in the English theatres through the influence of Sir Walter Scott. Romanticism, however, always loves the strange and the uncanny, and we do not feel surprise when we discover ghosts and goblins freely mingling with more material personages on the romantic stage. These ghosts and goblins, however, soon come to assume a predominant position, and thus is evolved the Freischütz drama, in which the interest definitely centres in the supernatural effects. Perhaps the domestic melodrama may be regarded as a kind of reaction to both these types, although in essence it is but the enunciation by illegitimacy of that realistic tendency which ever accompanies romanticism. On the one side, the fanciful kingdoms, the gloomy castles, the ruined abbeys; on the other, the dingy cottage, the slum tenement, the poverty-stricken alleys.
Joseph W. Donohue, Theatre in the Age of Kean (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975), pp. 111-112
"The basic rhythm of melodrama serves to make plain what is ordinarily hidden or ambiguous; typically, this rhythm is felt through the climactic display of the immanent. As a contemporary observer put it, melodrama ‘places characters in striking situations, leaving the situations to tell for themselves’… The objectification of emotion in character and action, then, suggests the implicit operation of providential forces. In melodrama, character is destiny, but the laws of the form require this destiny to be manifest from the beginning. In this context, the individual role – heroine, hero, villain, good old man, comic servant and so on – becomes the dramatic equivalent of a lucid predestination. Since the moral posture of the characters is initially clear, the play itself is occupied essentially with a series of events which will cumulatively and finally demonstrate the justness of these characterizations. The ethical purpose of melodrama is to reorder the material world so that it mirrors inherent truths.
p. 125

[…] a consistent relationship develops in melodramatic dramaturgy between the disruption of society and its final restoration to harmony. In traditional comedy this movement from disorder to order enables certain characters, often a young man and woman in love, to learn something about themselves and the world and to accept their place in it. Melodrama, on the contrary, does not move towards eventual enlightenment. The reconciliations it provides are of a hostile or uncertain world to the just deserts of already ideal human beings. The more desperately irretrievable the situation, the more satisfying its climactic reversal. The miraculous recovery, the obscure technicality, the sudden shower of gold (as in Jerrold’s The Rent Day) – all accident only certifies the nature of a world whose charted course is hidden from our eyes but unswervingly true.

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september 2003