Please join the Theater and Performance Studies Workshop for:
Ph.D. Candidate, English | Rutgers University
Who will Present:
Play it Cool: Masculine Reimaginings of American Melodrama, 1895–1915
Respondent: John Muse, Associate Professor of English, University of Chicago
Wednesday, March 10,
12:00 – 1:30 PM
We are committed to making our workshop fully accessible to persons with disabilities. Please direct any questions or concerns to the workshop coordinators, Arianna Gass (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Catrin Dowd (email@example.com).
Abstract: This chapter examines a moment during the 1910s when American stage melodrama increasingly began to resemble realist theatre. In these “social melodramas,” as they were called, the emotional rollercoaster of melodrama was increasingly contained within a play structure that emphasized character development, dialogue, and minimalistic sets. Critics bemoaned these plays and lambasted them as “effeminate” and promoting the cultivation of an audience that lacked “the intellectual and esthetic stability of the Saxon-American.” In turn, they looked back fondly at the theatre of the late nineteenth century — most notably William Gillette’s 1895 Civil War spy thriller Secret Service — and began to champion a period when melodrama was not “ashamed of itself.”
My chapter/article stakes three main claims. First, that the disdain for social melodrama came, in part, from the formal hybridity of such works, which short-circuited the critic’s ability to champion a generic hierarchy that was seen as necessary for the establishment of “modern drama” in America. Second, that the collective nostalgia for Secret Service marks a crucial recuperation of melodrama in the United States, allowing some works to be championed as successful performances approximating a white, masculine theatrical ideal. Third, in turning to a close reading of Secret Service itself, I suggest that the nostalgia for and recuperation of this particular play is symptomatic of a decade marked by a rise in white nationalist policies, terrorism, and artistic production in the United States.