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Imitations of Life: Two Centuries of Melodrama in Russia

Imitations of Life: Two Centuries of Melodrama in Russia

by Louise McReynolds

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Imitations of Life views Russian melodrama from the eighteenth century to today as an unexpectedly hospitable forum for considering social issues. The contributors follow the evolution of the genre through a variety of cultural practices and changing political scenarios. They argue that Russian audiences have found a particular type of comfort in this mode of


Imitations of Life views Russian melodrama from the eighteenth century to today as an unexpectedly hospitable forum for considering social issues. The contributors follow the evolution of the genre through a variety of cultural practices and changing political scenarios. They argue that Russian audiences have found a particular type of comfort in this mode of entertainment that invites them to respond emotionally rather than politically to social turmoil.
Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including plays, lachrymose novels, popular movies, and even highly publicized funerals and political trials, the essays in Imitations of Life argue that melodrama has consistently offered models of behavior for times of transition, and that contemporary televised versions of melodrama continue to help Russians cope with national events that they understand implicitly but are not yet able to articulate. In contrast to previous studies, this collection argues for a reading that takes into account the subtle but pointed challenges to national politics and to gender and class hierarchies made in melodramatic works from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Collectively, the contributors shift and cross borders, illustrating how the cultural dismissal of melodrama as fundamentally escapist and targeted primarily at the politically disenfranchised has subverted the drama’s own intrinsically subversive virtues.
Imitations of Life will interest students and scholars of contemporary Russia, and Russian history, literature, and theater.

Contributors. Otto Boele, Julie Buckler, Julie Cassiday, Susan Costanzo, Helena Goscilo, Beth Holmgren, Lars Lih, Louise McReynolds, Joan Neuberger, Alexander Prokhorov, Richard Stites

Editorial Reviews

James von Geldern
Melodrama bore all the defects and virtues of its parent, the French Revolution. Given to wild flights, neck-breaking twists and turns, stark judgements of good and evil, the genre also brought public attention onto private life and the vicissitudes of underprivilege. Melodrama taught much to the Russians who appropriated it. As the contributors to the present volume demonstrate, it taught them how to see, to understand and even how to accomplish history. An imitator surely, but also a creator of life-we can all be grateful to Neuberger and McReynolds for bringing this to our attention.
Macalaster College
From the Publisher
“Melodrama bore all the defects and virtues of its parent, the French Revolution. Given to wild flights, neck-breaking twists and turns, stark judgements of good and evil, the genre also brought public attention onto private life and the vicissitudes of underprivilege. Melodrama taught much to the Russians who appropriated it. As the contributors to the present volume demonstrate, it taught them how to see, to understand and even how to accomplish history. An imitator surely, but also a creator of life—we can all be grateful to Neuberger and McReynolds for bringing this to our attention.”—James von Geldern, Macalaster College

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Imitations of life

Two centuries of melodrama in Russia
By Louise McReynolds

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2790-2

Chapter One

Richard Stites The Misanthrope, the Orphan, and the Magpie

Imported Melodrama in the Twilight of Serfdom

O, So Melodrama!

Traditional soviet readings of melodrama were not much different from the older, simple ones written in the western world. The Theater Encyclopedia of thirty years ago offered an elitist and politicized discussion of melodrama-barely admitting the genre's existence in Russia. Melodrama's cardinal sin was that its alleged concern for the poor and the weak was offset by an affirmation of the "bourgeois" order and a preachy message of class peace. The genre thus masked real, systemic social evils behind a war between abstractions of good and evil. In actuality, the opposite may have been the case: Russian audiences who regularly saw legally permitted productions about the struggle of the poor and the weak against the rich and the strong in a secular setting may have become as attuned to social evils as did the far fewer readers of antiserfdom novels and essays. In any case, there is no denying melodrama's enormous popularity in the last half century of serfdom when it flourished on the Russian stage.

Today's viewers come equipped with a well-established antimelodrama lexicon bulging with as many cliches as are found in the genre itself. In a world where horseopera has been with us for a century and soap opera for seventy years, it is not hard to be "sophisticated" about melodrama. Even some of its avid consumers utter the word as a sneer. Original melodrama as it emerged out of the French Revolution, the storm and stress of early romanticism, and "bourgeois sentimentalism" had its instant critics, but not a long history of dismissal. Melodrama was born on stage-a story in dialogue spoken by actors, visually decorated, and accompanied by music. The European public enthusiastically devoured vaudevilles and melodramas along with operas-many of which had melodramatic story lines. All evidence shows that audiences enjoyed the wonderfully outrageous plots. They identified with characters, wanted a certain plausibility, and accepted colorful exaggeration of that plausibility. When the genre was young, consumers of all classes were able to suspend disbelief. One did not have to be a gruff merchant or a poor clerk to immerse oneself in the toils of Pixerecourt or Kotzebue or Scribe.

In melodrama, certain character types and situations recur constantly. A useful typology, although not rigorous or unfailing, suggests the melodramas of the grotesque, the adventure, and the family setting. The first drew on gothic novels of the eighteenth century, ruled in the "bloodbath theater" of London, and culminated at the turn of the twentieth century in the Paris Grand Guignole. The "cape and sword" adventure journeyed out to exotic places and back to historical times imagined. The family or domestic melodrama differed, and still does, from these two. In fact a more basic division lies between the melodrama of effect (or action) and that of affect (or emotion)-or, more bluntly, that of blood and that of tears. The gender appeal for the latter seems clear, and the playwrights of the age were fully aware of the growth of female audiences everywhere. Of the three works I will discuss, the Kotzebue domestic melodrama is of the second type and the two French pieces are of the first. Each partook of the other's modes; and all employed sensational devices. These devices were especially effective-because unexpected-in the family or domestic play, whose finale was often acted out in a wild place-from the mountains of Savoy in Pixerecourt's Coelina (1800) to the rushing ice floes of D.W. Griffith's film Way Down East (1920).The sensation could also be provided in the gritty urban version of domestic melodrama by a contrastive visit to back alleys and slums.

Melodrama is replete with much-scorned coincidences, with deus ex machina, and with the tricks of switched babies, mistaken identities, and the stirring moment of reconnaissance, or discovery of true identities. Such features are also found in classic drama, but in melodrama, justice-usually poetic-triumphs, wrongs are righted, and villains are punished. Tragic catharsis, the property of high art, never occurs. In the moral sphere, early European melodrama effected a transfer of revolutionary virtue and justice and populist values to the stage. Added pathos arose from inflicting evil on the already afflicted-the poor, the female, the weak, the child, the orphan, the blind, the deaf, the slave, the convict. The villains could come from outside the law-bandits and pirates; or they could emerge, slimy and unambiguously wicked, from respectable social milieux. A recurring conflict was that between a maiden ready to sacrifice her life to preserve her purity and the villain who falsely denounces her after his sexual advances are rebuffed. This surely resonates with Christian hagiography: Saints Agatha, Lucia, Margaret, and many others were martyrs not only to their faith but to the frustrated lust of men who brought about their deaths.

Scholars of great drama enjoy the advantage of being able to supplement textual study with live performance, however different the present versions are from the originals. It is now almost impossible to see melodramas of bygone days on stage. There is no market in the theater, and no interest in the academy. Historians must thus be doubly alert to what audiences might have seen and heard when melodramas were performed, including the setting, the seating, and the theater building itself. Stage effects in the more successful houses played for sensation: exotic locales and elaborate machinery imitating warships, fortresses, grottoes, alpine crevices, jungles. When the taste for historical, biblical, and mythological themes declined, more weight was given to urban contemporary settings, particularly in the 1840s in France under the influence of Eugene Sue's novel Mysteres de Paris. Acting styles are hard to imagine even when we have script notes: the story was told by declamation, exaggerated gestures, coded movements, tirades, soliloquies, and asides-in which, for example, the villain would confide to the public his evil designs. A feel for the style may be gotten by watching the silent film melodramas of the 1910s.

Music is often overlooked in theater history, and it is all but gone today on the drama stage where it was a vital component in the nineteenth century. Beethoven's incidental music to Goethe's Egmont and Mendelssohn's to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream was the fruit of a common practice even in high drama. Melodrama always used music, not only in the overture to get people seated but to signal entrances, exits, and dramatic moments; and as a means for emotional and character underlining-a plaintive flute for the innocent heroine, growling double basses to announce the villain, a lively tune for the comic. These devices were drawn straight from German musicological doctrine of the eighteenth century, a code known as Affektenlehre according to which minor slow meant elegiac; major slow, majestic; major fast, vigorous and triumphant; minor fast, menacing. This code guided composers of nineteenth-century melodrama music (and opera) and, later, of film scores.

What follows is an attempt to delineate the experience that Russians had with European melodrama in the early nineteenth century, those last decades of serfdom when Russian theater was in fact a theater of war-a war of classic and romantic, state and private, elite and popular, capitals and provinces, declamatory and "natural" acting. The Russian experience of culture-what people saw and heard-is as important as Russian cultural production itself. This is particularly true for the melodrama of this era, which was largely imported. As in all other arts, when Russians came late to a genre they consumed what was available-in this case the French and German products. I offer in this essay a triptych of European melodramas that were popular everywhere in Europe and became an integral part of the Russian stage. Russian histories of theater usually dismiss them scornfully, yet without some understanding of these and similar works, what can we ever understand about the people in the theater itself-the cast, the writers, the translators and adapters, and those who outnumbered everyone else: the audience?

Mellow Drama: Kotzebue's First Hit

August von Kotzebue (1761-1819) is a name known-if at all-to students of European history as the German playwright in the service of Tsar Alexander I who was stabbed to death by a German nationalist student in 1819-a deed that launched Prince Metternich's infamous Carlsbad Decrees. But to hundreds of thousands of theatergoers in places ranging from the United States to Siberia, Kotzebue was a household name. Better known than Goethe and Schiller in his day, Kotzebue wrote about 230 plays and boasted of being able to write one in a three-day period. All but forgotten now, his plays were translated into French, Russian, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, Romanian, Italian, Dutch, Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, and English. In the German states, they made up one-fourth of the repertoire of plays performed in the years 1795 to 1825; in New York, fifty-two of the ninety-four theater performances in 1799 were of Kotzebue's plays. A student of his work has called Kotzebue "a phenomenon of literary and social history." In Russia, Kotzebue effected a reorientation of theater taste as surely as did Beaumarchais in France a few decades earlier. His characters populated Russian stages in the capitals and in the provinces and helped launch the careers of well-known actors during the reign of Alexander I and Nicholas I.

The great appeal of Kotzebue's works lay in their stageability, spectacle, immediacy of sentimental expression, and in their sense of empowerment and agency that was wholly absent in the neoclassical genre based on Greek models where the gods were in charge. Kotzebue wrote crisp dramatic material in plain language. His success-and his badge of shame to critical scholars-arose partly from his willingness to cater to a public weary of the tirade in rhymed verse of French neoclassical drama and comedy. The entertainment quotient of his work was provided by exotic settings in South America, the Near East, and on the ocean. Viewing his comedies, operas, one acts, farces, adaptations, and melodramas, audiences gaped at the animated impersonations of pirates, Gypsies, slaves, Peruvian Indians, uprooted Asians, rebels, impoverished nobles, and misused women-to say nothing of kings, sultans, and innumerable pseudohistorical figures attired in colorful costumes and backed by elaborate sets. Interwoven into the spectacle was the open expression of "naturalistic" feeling, with an occasional hint of sex and a down-to-earth sentimentalism. The socially expanding Russian audiences who were surfeited with-in Beaumarchais's scorching words-"the death of a Peloponesian tyrant or the sacrifice of a young princess of Aulis" could readily identify with his works. People reared in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century could relate more easily to everyday dramatic situations and to heroes who could triumph over evil than they could to exalted ancients locked in an uneven battle with the gods.

Kotzebue was a well-traveled bourgeois man of the world who claimed no depth of intellect. He skillfully played the strings of a sentimentalism that was already in literary vogue, and he spiced it with high adventure. Born into a family of Weimar petty officials in 1761, he moved in the environment of Schiller and Goethe, studied law, and became entranced by theater. He took up a minor post in St. Petersburg under Catherine II and began his dramatic career there with Demetrius the Impostor, one of many plays on this theme penned by European writers. Settling in Estland in a judicial post, Kotzebue immersed himself in amateur productions and founded the first theater in Reval (Tallin). For two decades from 1781 onward he lived on and off in the Baltic or in other parts of Russia before settling most of the time in Germany. Arrested under Tsar Paul in 1799, he was sent to Siberia on an unfounded suspicion of radicalism. Pardoned after a few months, Kotzebue returned, made his peace with Paul, and later became a favorite of Tsar Alexander I.

An enlightened conservative, with a humanist outlook at least in his youth, Kotzebue in his works frequently criticized abuses of privilege and even of monarchical power. But in later years, like many of his contemporaries, he became an apologist of the Restoration and a keen foe of liberalism, democracy, constitutions, student rights, and a free press. Although not exactly a "spy" for Tsar Alexander I, he was certainly on his payroll as a nominal state councilor and supplied him with political intelligence, mostly in private correspondence. For all these reasons, Kotzebue was assassinated by Karl Sand in 1819. And this dramatic demise obscured Kotzebue's importance in history as a successful dramatist who dominated the stages of two continents for decades in all genres of melodrama.

Misanthropy and Repentance (1788), Kotzebue's first international sensation, premiered in Reval and then opened in Berlin where it was acclaimed by audiences composed of, in Oscar Mandel's words, "kings, lords and ladies, wealthy merchants, humble spectators-everyone except disgruntled intellectuals." European readers and playgoers had been steeped in sentimentalism for decades before this play opened. As a "melodrama of affect" it was designed to appeal to popular sentiment, especially to female audiences. Misanthropy and Repentance was the ultimate gusher melodrama-both dialogue and stage directions are soaked in tears. It contains no villain and no violence, only the emotional turbulence in the finale when an errant wife repents to her husband in a lengthy dialogue and is forgiven. Baron Meinau, the male protagonist known as the Stranger, has spent three years of bitter hatred of self and of the human race as a result of the aberrant infidelity of his young wife, Eulalia. Repentant, she has gone into humble service to atone. The reunion is coincidental, their reconciliation organized by noble friends. The play presents an affecting dramatic treatment of the utter desolation of the two protagonists. Meinau, "an ice-cold man of clever mind" in the words of his servant, is an ancestor of those hard-faced, harsh-talking heroes with a soft heart who later inhabited westerns and crime melodramas on film. Eulalia, whose "heart bleeds and [whose] tears flow" at her fate, was an early model for heroines endowed with kindness, charity, and chaste modesty. In the very final moment of the play, after extended speechifying suspense, the afflicted couple are reunited in the presence of their children.

The extraordinary impact of this play, and especially its heartwarming and eye-wetting finale, was conditioned not only by the sentimentalist literary movement of the time, but probably also by liberal life-affirming philanthropic currents among the bourgeoisie-the mainstay of Kotzebue's European and American audiences. This ideology encapsulated the antislavery crusade (Kotzebue wrote Negro Slaves [1796] on that theme) and other reformist movements. Eulalia was a perfect stand-in for the repentant convict so beloved of the penal reform movement of the time in many countries-especially in the Anglo-Saxon ones where Kotzebue flourished luxuriantly. Having fallen afoul of the moral law, Eulalia has "paid the penalty" by years of separation from her loved ones, is now ready to "re-enter society" (family), and is given "a second chance." The emotional interplay of Misanthropy has direct analogies in prison literature. Meinau's friend and comrade-in-arms describes Eulalia in terms of her underlying virtue, her momentary lapse, her prolonged penance, and her worthiness of pardon. Eulalia, in the dialogue with Meinau, emphatically contrasts her own remorseful and atoning posture with that of "a hardened criminal," the unredeemable element in progressive penological discourse.


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Meet the Author

Louise McReynolds is Professor of History at the University of Hawai’i.

Joan Neuberger is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas.

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