Rambling Thoughts About Melodrama

The discussion about The Seagull has got me thinking again about the differences between 19th- and 20th-century theater. I don’t really believe in the timelessness of art, and Chekhov’s plays, like any works of art, will change in the feelings and thoughts that it evokes in its audiences over time, because the audiences themselves change over time.

This is unavoidable because art itself depends on making use of the audience’s unconscious expectations, symbolic meanings, conventions, shared attitudes and experiences, and so on. The artist’s use of those things, both skillfully and intuitively, to evoke thoughts and feelings in the audience is the very thing that gives art its power.

One major reason, I think, that Chekhov can seem puzzling to a modern American audience is that we no longer have the same expectations of the theater and the same history of shared theatrical experiences and attitudes and references that Chekhov’s audience did. I think this is also an obstacle to our really understanding Ibsen and Shaw and even David Belasco and all sorts of playwrights from around that period. The theater was going through enormous changes, and all these playwrights were writing very much in reaction to the older theater. Shaw, for example, loved to start a play with a clichéd situation of the popular theater of the time, and then turn it on its head and say, you’ve seen this in the theater a hundred times but now I’m going to show you how it is in real life. And a lot of the comedy stems from the counterpoint, the differences, between the familiar expectations of the audience and what actually happens this time.

It’s the same thing that happens in, say, Into the Woods, where a lot of the fun comes from the way our knowledge and expectations derived from the familiar fairy tales comes into conflict with what we see really happening. We’re set up to expect this, and then that happens. If we’d never heard of, say, Little Red Riding Hood before, a lot of the fun of her part in the musical would be lost.

But in the case of these late 19th-century/early 20th-century playwrights like Chekhov and Ibsen and Shaw, the theater they were rebelling against has been thoroughly dead for so long that the audience doesn’t come in with the same expectations. They see that happen, and all they think is, Look, that happened. They weren’t expecting this to happen in the first place, and half the point of that is invisible to them.

Here’s one important way in which I think Chekhov overturned the unspoken conventions of the theater of his time: The popular melodrama of the 19th century was about characters who did things to get what they want. Characters were straightforward: Each character had a goal and each character acted so as to try to get what he or she wanted. If the hero wanted to marry the heroine, he put on his best behavior as he wooed her; if the villain wanted to break up the engagement and force her to marry him instead, he forged the hero’s signature on a love letter to another woman and purchased the mortgage to her father’s farm so that he could threaten to foreclose. The interest came from watching the conflicts among these cross purposes work themselves out; if any one character were free to pursue his or her goals without the interference of the other characters, he or she would surely achieve them.

Chekhov, though, wrote about characters who are constantly shooting themselves in the foot, who do have goals but either those goals are unrealistic and unachievable or else the characters will not act in ways that would bring those goals closer. Chekhov’s characters suffer, but he shows us that nearly all of them have created their own suffering. They have created their own ruts, but he makes it plain to us that each of them could escape his or her rut simply by stepping out of it and walking away. None of them ever does.

To audiences accustomed to a theater in which characters behaved sensibly in order to achieve their stated goals, this must have seemed baffling. But Chekhov was, I think, saying, People aren’t like that in real life! This is how they are: They shoot themselves in the foot and they refuse to change even when change would plainly alleviate their miseries!

Nowadays, though, the idea that people can be neurotically unable to break out of recurring and self-defeating patterns of behavior is commonplace, and we have every expectation of seeing it represented in the theater. And I think people go to something like The Seagull and of course they know, they’ve been told that the play is a great classic and that it was revolutionary and so on, but they only know that intellectually, they don’t feel what it was about the play that caused such strong reactions at the time.

Which may be a shame, or maybe it isn’t. It seems inevitable to me, in any case. Society changes from one place to another and from one time to another. Somebody in the discussion last night used the word “evolved”, but that has a connotation of progress that I’m not sure I agree with. I don’t think modern theatrical taste is better than the taste of 19th-century audiences; I think it’s just different, and if the “progress” in theater had run in the opposite direction, I’m pretty sure that we would have no trouble believing that our taste for good strong melodrama was superior to the taste for psychological truth.

It is just the opposite in, say, painting, isn’t it? 150 years ago, the paintings that got the most praise from critics and academics were naturalistic; today they are abstract, and the critics and academics will remind you at every opportunity how superior it is to appreciate a painting for its own sake, as an arrangement of fields of color, than as a reflection of reality. While 150 years ago, the plays that got the most praise from critics and academics were unrealistic — abstract, you might say — and were praised for their skillful construction, and actors for their larger-than-life qualities; nobody even dreamed of going to the theater for a dose of lifelike psychological truth. And nowadays what we value in theater and in acting is naturalism, and it’s accepted as a commonplace and obvious truth that this is artistically and even morally superior than the popular farces and melodramas of 150 years ago.

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with the theater of the last 150 years, or that I’d rather trade away Ibsen and Shaw and Chekhov to get back those farces and melodramas. I’m just saying I think a lot of what gets touted as progress in theater is really just change.

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