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March 16, 2006
Nothing mellow about
melodrama at Dell'Arte
WILLIAM S. KOWINSKI
Blood and thunder, Sturm und Drang, cheap
thrills, sentimental tearjerker, not to mention a major source
of overacting and inflated visual effects: Melodrama can't get
Yet while analysts
of dramatic forms can't even agree on a definition, even in outline
melodrama describes most of the drama we've seen for the past
200 years. With outcast heroes and suffering heroines overcoming
apparently impossible odds and immovable obstacles, or solving
seemingly insoluble problems and mysteries, melodrama defines
nearly every dramatic television series in existence, and most
movies -- not only the obvious tearjerkers and "chick flicks,"
but also most "guy flicks": sports movies, space operas
and comic book adventures. While "melodramatic" definitely
describes soap operas or Plan Nine From Outer Space, it
also can reasonably be applied to Lord of the Rings, Rocky,
CSI and ER.
Historically, melodrama developed in festivals
and popular (rather than "high art") theaters, associated
with spectacle and with roots in pantomime. (So silent films
were often quintessential melodramas, including their use of
musical accompaniment. The "melo" in melodrama is the
same one as in "melody"; the word simply means drama
Those roots in the same tradition as comedia
del arte make melodrama a natural component of the curriculum
at the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, where
32 students in the Professional Training and MFA programs have
created an evening of melodrama, Thunder, Tears, Daggers and
Rage, which they present to the public this weekend.
Ronlin Foreman, the school's Director of Pedagogical
Research ("a teacher of teaching," he explains) describes
the theory and process of the five-week program of study that
led up to this performance, which he taught along with Dell'Arte
co-Artistic Director Joan Schirle.
Foreman delineates the four themes in melodrama:
the love triangle, the neurotic obsession (his example is the
Bette Davis movie, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), family
melodramas and the theme of oppression in society.
The social theme may be the least familiar as melodrama,
but historically it is among the most consistent and important.
Stage melodramas were popular and powerful in the French Revolution,
served to expose the ills of industrial society in 19th century
England and 20th century America, and were put to use by the
Communist government in China. But probably the most telling
example was Uncle Tom's Cabin, seen in various stage versions
by some 3 million Americans. Some historians say that the stage
melodrama, more than the novel, turned popular sentiment in the
North against slavery in the decade before the Civil War.
These themes, Foreman explains, are often combined.
"There's the family drama of trying to better themselves
in an oppressive society, or the love triangle combined with
a neurotic obsession. These themes help us to understand the
larger dimensions of human experience."
Melodrama, Foreman continues, also consists of
grand emotions (love, duty, honor, justice, deceit, vengeance,
virtue, vice) pushed to the moment of the irreversible change
("Someone is driven from their home forever")
but ending with the triumph of virtue.
In portraying the circumstances of these rewarded
virtues, suffering is inflicted from outside, while in tragedy
the heroes takes responsibility for their fate. When oversimplified
into stock characters representing the innocent good versus the
evildoers, melodrama versus the complexities of the real world
But there will be no Dudley Do-Right moments in
the Dell'Arte show. Though melodramas often contain comedy (or
vice versa -- think of Charlie Chaplin's great features, like
City Lights) Foreman insists it must basically be played
"In this exercise we ask students not to play
with parody or satire," he said. "We're coming out
of a time of irony, when society doesn't hold to very many strong
absolutes." In order to understand the role of melodrama
in theatre, students need to represent these absolutes with conviction.
"Otherwise we don't have a context for understanding honor
or duty or justice. We don't have clear virtues, or a way to
understand deceit, or the play for justice and revenge unless
we have loyalty."
Audiences will see four separate melodramas, each
about 20 minutes long, all conceived and written by the ensemble
of students performing them. They will see how grand emotions
"live in an extreme of physical action."
The students of Dell'Arte International School
of Physical Theatre present Thunder, Tears, Daggers &
Rage: An Evening of Melodrama, March 16-18, 8 p.m. at the
Carlo Theatre in Blue Lake. Thursday's preview is pay-what-you-can.
Friday and Saturday, $7 general, $5 students/seniors. Reservations:
Also this weekend: Shakespeare's King Lear,
an Arcata Parks & Recreation production directed by Linnea
Conway, at the D Street Community Center in Arcata. It plays
March 16 & 17, 23 & 24 at 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee
on March 19 at 1:30. Admission is $15. For information about
dinner and Sunday tea specials go to www.arcataparksandrec.com.
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