Eugene O'Neill and Melodrama

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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. 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, ingénues, 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,...
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