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Theatre History (Part 2)

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Shakespeare   ::   Neoclassicism   ::   Romanticism   ::   Realism   ::   Activities


Romanticism does NOT refer to candlelight, holding hands and gazing into one another's eyes. Romanticism is an artistic movement that began in the late 1700s and climaxed in the mid to late 1800s. It is still with us today!

Imagine a poet. Since most—but not all—poets were men in the 1800s, let's suppose our poet is a man. Where does he write his poems? Where does he go for inspiration? If you were to write a poem, what would it be about?

If you adhere to statistics, you probably thought about nature in the above questions. Our society often thinks of poets going off into nature, or writing about nature, or at least alluding to nature. This is because many of our thoughts about poets are still Romantic and have been derived from the Romantic period by such poets as Walt Witman, Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau.

For the sake of simplicity let's make an equation: NATURE = ROMANTICISM.

Now let's think about nature a little. What is nature? Or more precisely, what is natural ? To poets and playwrights of this period, to be natural was to be free. To be natural was to follow one's gut emotions. You see the clash this creates with Neoclassicism? Neoclassicism was based on RULES. But Romatic poets based their plays on EMOTIONS, because emotions are more natural than rules.

So when the first major Romantic play, Victor Hugo's Hernani , opened in , there was a violent reaction. Scholars and others who loved the rules of Neoclassicism hated the play and booed and hissed the actors (and playwright) while new-thinking scholars and others who loved the new-fangled Romanticism booed and hissed the Neoclassicists. Not much of the play was heard, and there were a lot of black eyes and bruises, but in the end the Romantics had won.

Romanticism & Melodrama

With a new artistic movement came a new kind of play, a play in which the protagonist was strong of character and often succeeded because he or she was true to his or her feelings or gut emotion. Nature ruled the stage in all of its often tempestuous glory. This kind of play was called a melodrama.

No doubt you've seen what I call "mellerdrammers," plays in which the damsel in distress (sigh: "Aaaaah") is somehow persecuted by the Villain (boo and hiss!) but is saved by the hero ("Yay!"). This type of play is an oversimplification of a real melodrama. Both were popular in the mid-to-late 1800s. And real melodramas were only different in that they can actually, I feel, be well written plays. Melledrammers are almost always ludicrous nowadays, and are so played.

Real melodrama has some distinctive elements that are still attractive to us even today, making it by far the most popular kind of drama one sees in films and movies.

First of all, the protagonist is led by his or her gut feeling. He or she is close to nature and does not usually like or conform to the inane rules of society.

It is always clear in a melodrama who is good, what is good and who and what is bad or evil.

Melodrama's also had a sense of poetic justice: good guys won, bad guys were defeated. Even if a good guy died or something, he or she still managed to make the world right.

Melodrama has often been characterized by spectacular special effects.

That said, Melodrama is still the most popular form of drama today, appearing as films such as Star Wars, in which Luke, who must "use the Force" (an embodiment of all "good" aspects of all living things: nature) to defeat the evil Empire. Trusting the Force means essentially trusting one's instincts. The popular film Titanic is also a modern melodrama. One of the co-protagonists, Jack, enjoys nature and rejects the high society life with all of its rules. In the end, he dies, but not before changing his love's life forever. Note how she also rejects her stifling rules-oriented society. The most popular play of the 19th century was Uncle Tom's Cabin . Its strong abolitionist message made it popular among the many folks who still considered theatre to be evil. It had strong characters, lots of special effects (like the protagonist leaping over icebergs and a few horse chase scenes—yes, it was a big stage!), and the good guys win. Kind of. It is significant to note that more people in the 19th century saw the play than read the famous book. It was the play that Abraham Lincoln was referring to when, in the middle of the Civil War, he is purported to have remarked to Harriet Beecher Stowe, "So you're the woman who started this war..."
Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 06). Theatre History (Part 2). Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License