Blake and the European (Pre) History of Melodrama: Beyond the Borders of Time and Stage
Theatrical melodrama’s emergence is typically dated as 1800 in France, followed by 1802 in England. Yet I will focus on its so-called prehistory and the seemingly lesser heroes of the piece — Rousseau, the German Sturm und Drang writers, and the French dramatists who were adapted for the English and American stage — as well as a new protagonist — Blake — in order to shift the spotlight that shines brightly on the birth of melodrama away from its nineteenth-century dating to what has generally been considered only prologue. For instance, in the early 1790s, before René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt and Thomas Holcroft, the reputed fathers of French and English melodrama produced their landmark dramas, Blake was establishing the Illuminated Books, which employ melodramatic techniques and concerns of eighteenth-century European drama. Identifying Blake’s works with melodrama shows the possibility of the genre beyond the stage and prompts a rethinking of its origins. This pan-European perspective of melodrama, which ties this unexpected figure together with earlier practitioners, reorients its narrative, giving credit to its prehistory as more than just prehistory. While there are almost certainly material connections from one writer to another and one play to another, I examine, instead, resonant themes and strategies that cross national borders, revealing a potentially radical spirit of the form: artistic creation and its capacity to spark life, rebellion, intense emotionality, spectacle, and visuality.1
KeywordsFrench Revolution Artistic Creation Stage Direction Radical Spirit Late Romantic Period
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