Sunday, November 15, 2020

Melodrama

Rollin Lynde Hartt (1869–1946)
From The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner

Poster for John Martin’s Secret: A Tale of the African Diamond Mines, an 1896 four-act melodrama by British playwright Frank Sutton-Vane that debuted in New York in 1898 before going on a nationwide tour. The scene depicted in the poster occurs at the end of the third act, after an accused murderer traps his former mistress in an abandoned mine so she can’t testify against him. As the mine collapses, she leaps twenty feet across a chasm and is caught and rescued by the man’s wife. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.
Most of this week’s introduction is from Laurence Senelick’s headnote to the selection in The American Stage.

A whole library could be made up of sermons, tracts, and similar clerical denunciations of the stage in America. By the turn of the century, some religious leaders were taking a different tack. In his anonymous Confessions of a Clergyman (1915), Rollin Lynde Hartt says of Jesus, “He softened the rigors of Rabbinism, and I think He is not displeased when we soften the rigors of Puritanism.”

Hartt, son of a prominent zoologist, a graduate of Williams College and the Andover Theological Seminary, was influenced by the YMCA movement. His time as a Congregational minister made him a firm defender of Christian “modernism” against fundamentalism. As a contributor to Atlantic Monthly and a staff columnist for the Boston Transcript, he wrote with understanding about Mormons, mountain folk, “the new Negro,” and the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” His progressive defense of the Jews caused him to be attacked by Henry Ford in Ford’s ferociously anti-Semitic paper The Dearborn Independent.

His book The People at Play (1909), which The New York Times called “a valuable and entertaining work of sociology,” was intended to survey the popular amusements of the working class and justify them to the white-collar public that looked down its nose at them. Even novelists such as Frank Norris in McTeague and Stephen Crane in Maggie: A Girl of the Street had portrayed vaudeville as a degrading and sensually arousing diversion. Like an experienced safari leader, Hartt led his readers through the steamy undergrowth of burlesque houses, amusement parks, dime museums, nickelodeons, dance halls, baseball diamonds, and, in the chapter included here, popular melodrama, pointing out the occasional danger, but more often lingering over the benefits to the proletariat of its newfound leisure.

In the introduction to his book, Hartt explains that each chapter visits “an establishment in which a composite arranged by combining details selected from many establishments of its kind will best represent the type.” In “Melodrama,” he calls his fictional composite theater the Grand—although his fellow New Yorkers almost certainly assumed that the establishment Hartt had in mind was the Grand Opera House on 23rd Street in Manhattan, a 2,000-seat theater that had become one of the city’s leading centers of popular entertainment.

Notes: Newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams was also known for his light verse; he later became a member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table and a panelist on the radio program Information Please. The Adams poem reprinted by Hartt mentions a Hacketty hero, a reference to the American stage actor James K. Hackett, whose many roles included the lead in the stage adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda. Edward Hugh Sothern, another American actor, was famous for playing the lead roles of various Shakespeare dramas. Boulevard du Crime was the nickname of the Paris’s Boulevard du Temple, an avenue known for its numerous theaters that mostly staged crime melodramas during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Hartt cursorily mentions four contemporary American authors of melodramas: Charles E. Blaney (Lottie, The Poor Saleslady; His Terrible Secret), Hal Reid (A Working Girl’s Wrongs; A Wife’s Secret); Theodore Kremer (The Fatal Wedding; For Her Children’s Sake), and the prolific Owen Davis, whose 200 plays included the melodrama Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model and the 1923 Pulitzer Prize winner, Icebound. The phrase “if Blaney’s learned sock be on” basically means “if one of Blaney’s comic plays is showing at the theater.” It is an allusion to a line from Milton’s L’Allegro (“Then to the well-trod stage anon, / If Johnson’s learned sock be on, / Or sweetest Shakespeare”), in which sock translates as comedy (a reference to the footwear worn by Greek comic actors).

William Winter was a drama and literary critic who inveighed against the “corrupting” influence of such European playwrights as Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw and of the “vacuous and vulgar trivialities” of lowbrow productions. He reserved a particular scorn for the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who “belonged to her day, and with her day she will pass.” The British critic William Archer, on the other hand, was a strong champion of Ibsen and Shaw—but also disliked Bernhardt, who had become a “money-making machine.” J. M. Barrie was a successful and admired British playwright, now remembered almost entirely for his play Peter Pan. Jerome K. Jerome was a British humorist best known for Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, described as being clad in dollar signs, was a multimillionaire who managed William McKinley’s presidential campaigns by raising money from banks and business executives; as a result, McKinley was often caricatured as being in Hanna’s pocket. Hartt mentions two plays that were considered “highbrow” successes of the decade: The Hypocrites (1906), by English dramatist Henry Arthur Jones, and Leah Kleschna (1904), by American playwright C.M.S. McLellan.

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At the Grand—temple of Melodrama—“the villain still pursues her.” From this you infer that he has been at it for a somewhat protracted period, as is only too true. Curse him!—he has hounded that angelic creature for more than two centuries. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

1 comment:

The Triumph of the Thrill said...

Wordy but picks up at the end. Fascinating and worth reading for the history.