This 500-level course offers an introduction to the history and theory of 19th-century melodrama. We’ll examine melodrama’s cosmopolitan emergence as a theatrical form in the latter part of the 18th-century, its Romantic-era formation and early development as a dramatic genre and narrative style, its Victorian evolution and appropriation as a literary mode and a social and political rhetoric, and its late-nineteenth-century emergence as what Peter Brooks described as a “central poetry” of modernity.
Although our primary focus will be theatrical drama, we will look at the diverse ways in which melodrama was derived from and adapted to other genres, media, and modes, including opera, popular music, painting, prints, the novel, film, digital art and storytelling, psychoanalysis, and political discourse. Along the way, we’ll explore the vexed history of melodrama criticism and theory, from early Romantic attempts to comprehend the form’s irrational appeal to contemporary efforts to make sense of the outsized and seemingly irresistible effect it has had on modern culture and consciousness. We will, finally, take stock of the conceptual challenge that melodrama’s history poses to our understanding of the larger history of the arts in modernity; and we will take stock, too, of the ways in which that history calls into question the methodological and disciplinary structures and practices of critical inquiry.
While this course is most obviously relevant to those interested in theatre and drama, it would be valuable for students whose work is concerned in any way with modern narrative and culture – especially for students working in late-18th to 21st-century genres such as the novel or film.
Primary texts will include a broad range of plays, as well as operas, graphic works, novels, and films, from the 18th- through the early 20th-century, including works by Rousseau, Sedaine, Kotzebue, Pixérécourt, Holcroft, Lewis (“Monk”), Barrymore, Pocock, Moncrieff, Planché, Fitzball, Jerrold, Buckstone, Cruikshank, Boucicault, Taylor, Dickens, Eliot, Lewis (Leopold), Ibsen, Sims, Jones, Lottie Blair Parker and D. W. Griffiths. Secondary reading will include a wide range of scholarship on melodrama from the 19th-century to the present, including work by Charles Nodier, Michael Booth, Peter Brooks, Martin Meisel, Carolyn Williams, Matthew Buckley, Amy Hughes, Joseph Roach, Douglas Jones, David Mayer, Christine Gledhill, and others. One highlight of this course is that it will introduce our students to the unusual concentration of scholars in our department and at Rutgers who work on melodrama.
We plan to mount a symposium of invited speakers in late October, which will be part of the course.
The volume of reading will not be excessive, and students will not be expected to have any prior exposure to the works and contexts we will explore. Course requirements will include active participation, a class presentation, and two short papers (the latter on topics of the student’s choice).