Nowadays, when someone accuses you of being “melodramatic,” it’s got a pejorative connotation, and usually means you’re acting in an overly emotional and hyperbolic way. But melodrama, which emerged during the French Revolution, was a rich and complicated theatrical genre. Now, the team behind the University of Warwick’s Staging Napoleonic Theatre project, which includes Dr. Katherine Astbury, Dr. Diane Tisdall, and Dr. Sarah Burdett, is working to both study and stage melodramas. They’ve already performed Roseliska, a unique piece written by French prisoners-of-war in England, and they’re preparing to stage La forteresse du Danube, one of the many hits written by Renè-Charles Guilbert de Pixerècourt, who claimed to have invented the genre. They joined us to talk about melodrama’s origins and how it worked onstage, as well as to demonstrate how music was an integral part of these spectacular plays.
- Learn more about the Staging Napoleonic Theatre project, including information about their upcoming performances, and follow them on Twitter @ActingMelodrama.
- Examine the Victoria & Albert Museum’s holdings records for its collection of material related to French prisoners-of-war and their theatricals.
- Learn the story behind the French prisoners-of-war who staged Roseliska at Portchester Castle, which the project recently performed there.
- Read important works related to early melodrama, including Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery, considered the first English-language melodrama, and Henry Siddons’s Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action, a nineteenth-century acting handbook used by Staging Napoleonic Theatre.
- If you want to learn more about melodrama, the project’s members suggest these sources for additional reading:
- Music for the Melodramatic Theatre in Nineteenth-Century London and New York, by Michael V. Pisani
- Melodramatic Voices: Understanding Music Drama, edited by Sarah Hibberd.
- Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, and Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess, by Peter Brooks.
- This special issue of Nineteenth-Century Theatre and Film from Winter, 2002.