In this article we investigate the astonishing variety of emotions that a brief scene in a film melodrama can evoke. We thus take issue with the reductive view of melodrama that limits this genre’s emotional effects to sadness, pity, and tear-jerking potential. Through a close analysis of a melodramatic standard situation—a “news of death” scene—in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams (2003), we reveal the emotional dynamics and the high density as well as rich variety of affective phenomena likely to be experienced during the trajectory of this two-minute scene.
“‘She killed not from hate, but from love’: motherhood, melodrama and mercy killing in the case of May Brownhill” by Lizzie Seal
This article examines press portrayals of and public reactions to a ‘mercy killing’ in 1930s England. May Brownhill, sixty-two, killed her ‘invalid’ adult son by giving him an overdose of aspirin and poisoning him with coal gas. Through the conventions of melodrama, May was portrayed in the press as a respectable, devoted and self-sacrificial mother deserving of sympathy. The case also resonated with contemporary debates about euthanasia. It is an historical example of popular leniency, whereby although guilty of a crime, an individual is not seen as deserving of punishment. The case contributes to our understanding of how popular leniency was shaped by gender, class and age, and by contemporary views on ‘mercy killing’.
“Melodrama, Masochism, and Biopolitical Encounters in The Fosters“ by Jaime Brunton
“Since the television drama The Fosters, which centers on the daily struggles of two lesbian moms (Stef Foster and Lena Adams) and their multi-ethnic family of foster and adoptive children, debuted on ABC Family in 2013, the show has garnered numerous awards and nominations, including honors from the Teen Choice Awards, The Television Academy, and the Television Critics Association. More notably, the show has been nominated for three awards by the Imagen Foundation (whose mission is “To encourage the positive portrayals of Latinos in all forms of the entertainment media”), has one win and two nominations from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Awards for Outstanding Drama series, as well as a GLAAD Vanguard Award for its executive producer, Jennifer Lopez. Add to this acclaim the show’s popularity, and its clear that The Fosters has struck a chord with American television audiences and critics. While part of the show’s appeal no doubt rests in its representations of LGBTQ people and people of color (as its awards suggest) and its dealing with topical issues such as gay marriage and racial profiling, it is also worth noting that the specific ways in which these issues are handles are also perhaps part of the attraction for audiences. Working against simplistic victim-perpetrator narratives, the show instead presents characters who work the biopolitical system from the inside—in ways that, in typical melodramatic fashion, are masochistic and destructive, and yet ultimately result in a complicated form of agency and power. In doing so, The Fosters offers a not-so-subtle critique of the biopolitical state as well as of traditional models of “resistance” to power.”
Replaying and Rediscovering The Octoroon by Lisa Merrill, Theresa Saxon
For over 150 years, productions and adaptations of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s explosive 1859 melodrama The Octoroon have reflected differing and sometimes contentious meanings and messages about race and enslavement in a range of geographic locations and historical moments. In this melodrama, set on a plantation in Louisiana, audiences witness the drama of Zoe Peyton, a mixed-race, white-appearing heroine who learns after the sudden death of her owner/father that she has been relegated to the condition of “chattel property” belonging to the estate, since she was born of a mother who had herself been enslaved.2 Rather than submit to a new master after having been sold at auction, Zoe poisons herself and dies, graphically, onstage. [End Page 127]
The play is famous in the annals of theatre and performance history for reactions to its depiction of slavery in antebellum America, and for the various rewrites to which the script was subjected in a Britain that had already abolished the slave trade. In London, in 1861 Boucicault famously rewrote the ending, allowing the heroine to survive and be united with her white lover in another (presumably more just) country, ostensibly England. Critical accounts of this adaptation have relied upon newspaper reports, as the playscript itself was never published. Within a short time Boucicault changed the ending again, this time leaving Zoe silent in the arms of her lover as both witnessed the burning of the steamboat Magnolia. This four-act edition was published widely, and it and the original US version have formed the basis for most critical assessments of The Octoroon. A key assumption so far has been that this four-act version became an authoritative text for UK productions and thus Zoe died no more on British stages. But we have found this not to be the case.
Here, we discuss our archival discoveries of Octoroon promptbooks and playbills that reveal previously unknown aspects of the play’s stage history and critically illuminate the ways that the transatlantic theatre of the mid-nineteenth century portrayed enslaved mixed-race figures and interracial relationships. Although theatre historians have known about Boucicault’s original adaptation for over 150 years, no extant script for that original “British” version has heretofore been discovered. Now, however, our recent archival discoveries reveal portions of that long-missing script. At the University of Canterbury Kent we have discovered promptbooks of a later 1871 production of The Octoroon that provide specific textual evidence and blocking details that represent the first amended version as witnessed by London audiences a decade earlier, and described at the time in the London press. In addition, in the same archive we have uncovered evidence, which we discuss below, establishing that multiple versions of The Octoroon were being staged simultaneously, thereby further decentering nineteenth-century perceptions of both mixed-race bodies and contemporaneous binary definitions of race, thus complicating the received narratives of race and reception regarding this play.
Moreover, in other archives we have found evidence that The Octoroon appeared on the colonial stages of Australia a full ten months before it was staged in London and therefore before Boucicault changed the ending. Our exploration of the performance history of The Octoroon in Australia further illustrates the potential shifting meanings of racial categories and representations of enslavement in nations whose colonial histories were built on differing constructions of racist oppression, genocide, and slavery. Thus we discuss the ways that productions of The Octoroon have served as a unique vehicle for depicting the transatlantic and colonial cultural attitudes that surrounded, and tensions that emerged from, antebellum representations of racialization, racial hybridity, interracial desire, and enslavement on both sides of the Atlantic and across British colonies in Australia.
Furthermore, the actors’ promptbooks we have located contain several different endings written into the same script. Such promptbooks demonstrate the tensions between archive and repertoire so powerfully articulated by Diana Taylor.3 Although constructed in the form of printed scripts, these objects were used repeatedly by a number of…