Eugene O’Neill and Melodrama
Eugene O’Neill has been a essential author in the life of the melodramatic genre. In contrast to other “pure” melodramatic authors like Boucicault, he has transcended the limitations of this dramatic form and has given it a new dimension. If we take into consideration the Greek conventions and the Aristotelian six elements to create a well-made play, we could affirm that Melodrama emphasizes every of those elements except for character, and so the main contribution that O’Neill made to this genre is the development of this missing Aristotelian element in melodrama (character).
With his contribution, the new melodrama became richer and less extravagant in terms of production, but it still kept the flame of the style and the overwhelming emotions. By contrasting Boucicault’s The Octoroon and O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon, I am going to explore O’Neill’s gift to melodrama, and his place on the developmental continuum of western drama. In the words of the Encyclopedia Britannica, melodrama, in Western theatre, refers to “sentimental drama with an improbable plot that concerns the vicissitudes suffered by the virtuous at the hands of the villainous but ends happily with virtue triumphant. In the melodrama genre, emotion is exaggerated and plot and action are emphasized in comparison to the more character-driven emphasis within a drama. Melodramas can also be distinguished from tragedy by the fact that they are open to having a happy ending, but this is not always the case. The melodrama focuses not on character development but on sensational incidents and spectacular staging. Originally it was a genre of theatre in which music was used to increase the spectator’s emotional response or to suggest character types.
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As technical developments in the theatre made greater realism possible, more emphasis was given to the spectacular—e. g. , snowstorms, shipwrecks, battles, train wrecks, conflagrations, earthquakes, and horse races. Among the best known and most representatives of popular melodramas in England and the United States is The Octoroon (1859) by Dion Boucicault. The Octoroon is a melodrama that aimed to please pro and antislavery factions: the author presented both bucolic plantation scenes and the horrors of slavery.
Dion’s play “deploys the conventions of popular theatre toward a critique of social injustice. ” (Worthen p965). The Octoroon has all the elements of a good melodrama; murder, threatened poverty, a defeated love affair and a suicide, or “if playing to a British audience,” a happy ending. All its characters are stereotyped; and the rest of the Aristotelian elements, with the exception of character, are inflated. This makes the plot very absolute, transparent and predictable.
In nineteenth-century melodrama, morality was rigidly defined, and the course of the action confirmed that the moral order would prevail, in spite of the chaos of the world. People were punished and rewarded as they deserved, and characters were instantly recognizable to the audience as types (heroes, ingenues, and villains). As we can see in The Octoroon, there is very little “subtext” in characters’ speeches. Instead, characters declaim— either in dialogue or in soliloquies— exactly who they are and what they are feeling. Internal emotional journeys are all expressed on stage somehow, either verbally or visually.
In the twenty-first century, audiences are used to more subtle forms of theatre, and so the melodramatic form exposed in The Octoroon does not contemplate any challenge for the audiences, who, for the most part, are able to guess what is going to happen from the exposition of every subplot. Sometimes, in order to resolve some plot issues, Boucicault uses “Deus ex machine” such as the one in act four, when Pete and Scudder find the photograph that proves what they “believe in their hearts”: that Wahnotee is innocent and McClosky is guilty of murder.
The text is very explanatory, and so there is no place for the audience to collaborate, to put any imagination into it. The Octoroon was intended to be pure spectacle so its purpose was to entertain the audiences to an extent that even the most evident actions were explained. That is why this genre made me think of Erika’s illustrative in-class performance that I dare to title “I spray myself” where she did not just spray herself, but she made the explanatory note in case of someone’s doubt.
In Beyond the Horizon, Eugene O’Neill may have his characters “spraying themselves” in several situations, but at least he frees us from explanatory notes. Beyond [pic]the Horizon, written in 1918, was O’Neill’s first successful full-length play, and it signaled a change in American drama. O’Neill’s tragic vision contrasted sharply with the unrealistic melodramatic plays of the day. O’Neill’s theatre exchanged melodrama of action for melodrama of character, in replacing the sentimentalities of the nineteenth century with his naturalistic style.
He wanted to transcend the “banality of surfaces,” and in Beyond the Horizon, he portrayed characters straining to make sense of a life whose dominant mood is one of loss and whose central need is for a sense of belonging. In Beyond the Horizon, O’Neill expresses his own feelings on family relationships, love, predestination and following dreams. He recognized the need to address the sometimes more difficult aspects of life, which he achieved so eloquently in this play. He was concerned with the tragic spirit: “to me, tragedy alone has that significant beauty that is truth.
It is the meaning of life and the hope”(Wintle p390). Tragedy for him emerged essentially from the gulf between human aspirations and their consistently denied fulfillment, a transcendence that derives from the greatness of the dream and the persistence with which it is pursued. But the same gulf that generates tragedy also reflects a feeling of absurdity. Beyond the Horizon is not about a glorious struggle against fate or a heroic pursuit of the unattainable, but it rather concerns the desperate illusions which are the acknowledgement of defeat.
The visions are willfully abandoned as mind intervenes to take away all aspirations and replace them with an ironic feeling of what is not been achieved. Through O’Neill’s contribution to melodrama, many of the elements that originally constituted this genre were transformed: – From now on, we don’t find a simplified moral universe. Good and evil were originally embodied in stock characters, but now, once added the complexity of character, there is no such thing as good and evil: they are not as easy to identify. Each character has its own reasons to behave the way it does. The melodramatic episodic form is not easy to identify: the villain cannot pose a threat anymore since there is not a real villain, the hero or heroine does not escape because they are not heroes anymore and they decide to submit to their fate. Of course, the idea of a happy ending is also reconsidered by O’Neill, who seems to be more concerned about showing the real and cruel bitterness of life. – Many special effects, such as fires, explosions, or earthquakes disappear. Sensational incidents and effects are diminished.
However, O’Neill keeps using spectacle as a dramatic resource to emphasize some intense moments such as the death of Robert in Beyond the Horizon: “He suddenly raises himself with his last remaining strength and points to the horizon where the edge of the sun’s disc is rising from the rim of the hills. ” – In “pure” melodrama, all physical actions, many of which were part of a complex codified system of gestures, had emotional connotations. In O’Neill’s melodrama, all those emotional connotations are now only transferred by the words, which make them more subtle.
Nevertheless, melodramatic elements are still recognizable in O’Neill’s plays. However, they are slightly changed due to the necessary transformations that O’Neill made in the genre: – For instance he did not write the five acts normally reserved for “serious” drama. Instead he chose to work with a lower number, according to the melodramatic convention. Beyond the Horizon, for instance, is composed of three acts (two scenes within each). – He does not focus on the morality of the tale as much as “pure” melodrama does, where virtue triumphs and/or evil is punished.
However, a moral lesson still remains in his plays. In Beyond the Horizon, we may consider the moral is to follow one’s dreams in order to live a complete life. – He keeps a strong plot, with high, intense, emotional stakes, but characters are not identifiable types anymore. The whole plot of Beyond [pic]the Horizon is, as in any other melodrama, strongly dramatic. However, it is based on O’Neill’s own experiences, including his tuberculosis and his sea voyages. During one of these sea trips, he met a Norwegian sailor who criticized his choice of going to the sea as opposed to staying on his family’s farm.
The fact that the plot is based in real facts approaches to the genre of realism. As a form, melodrama has been minimized and looked down upon; nowadays, the word itself suggests a criticism. But melodrama is far more complex than these stereotypes would suggest. “Melodrama retains the energy and depth of emotion of the earlier work, while contributing a grace in writing and complexity often lacking in its ancestors. ” (Hays p35). With the growing sophistication of the theatre in the early twentieth century, the theatrical melodrama declined in popularity.
The exaggerated gestures, dramatic chases, emotional scenes, simple flat characters, and impossible situations were later revived and parodied. O’Neill tried to adapt Greek tragedy into a twentieth-century model. He introduced a number of new techniques, including the use of masks, asides to the audience, unusual staging, yet these techniques were always carefully wedded to the purpose of the story. Despite the experimentation, the dramatic development of the plays was classical and carried a similar impact as ancient Greek tragedy.
O’Neill relied heavily on dialogue for dramatic development and “traced the climax of a play by the psychological or spiritual events within the characters themselves rather than by the resolution of external circumstance. ”(Wintle p411). He used plot to paint psychological portraits and he significantly modified his views on the issues of guilt and responsibility: the emphasis in his later plays shifts from attributing guilt to absolving it. “The world is a dark abyss; man suffers because he cannot penetrate this darkness. The tragic hero makes the attempt. He stares into the void.
Ultimately, he stumbles and falls, for in striving he dooms himself to failure. The attempt, however, ennobles him. ” Wintle, p. 410. In conclusion, Eugene O’Neill inherited the form of melodrama and transformed it, making it a more complete, interesting form. O’Neill struggled to create a new dramatic form for the American stage, one which transcended melodrama and achieved tragedy. He abandoned the obviousness of melodrama and tried to develop a richer genre upon the same principles. What is clear is that he will not spray himself. And if he does, he will not tell.