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It was not the American Revolution of the 1770s, but the French Revolution of the 1790s, that finally disrupted the dominance of the English classics— and the elite dramatic tendency toward highborn characters speaking in clever aphorisms or blank verse—on the American stage. In his 1843 introduction to some collected works by the revolutionary French dramatist René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt, Charles Nodier describes Pixérécourt’s new genre, the “melodrame,” as “the only popular tragedy befitting the period in which we live” (xi) and as purposefully staging “the morality of the revolution.” Specifically, melodrama featured the plights of common persons, intensifying its moods of pathos, danger, or tragedy with emotion-laden musical cues and assuredly delivering its virtuous hero/ine from the clutches of evil by the final curtain. Notably, melodrama was identified by Nodier as little less than a modern religious experience, a uniquely edifying influence on newly liberated French peasants who had never been “better behaved morally” and among whom “crime has never been more rare” (xii), thanks to melodrama’s resounding assertion that it simply does not pay. From the Puritans’ fear of theaters as dens of vice and depravity, we shift to Nodier’s declaration that “[e]vil-doers would not have dared to show themselves in a place of amusement where everything spoke to them of harrowing remorse and inevitable punishments” (xii); it was exactly melodrama’s tendency, however sensationalized, toward moral uplift that American managers such as P. T. Barnum, profit-motivated showman extraordinaire, latched onto in their efforts to market theatrical entertainment among the religiously or otherwise moralistically oriented middle classes as the nineteenth century wore on. For Nodier, post-revolutionary theater enabled a decidedly post-Christian populace to renewed communion with the traditional values of sexual continence, honesty, humility, and nonviolence, and the melodramatic form itself “lends a skillful and powerful helping hand to providence by demonstrating its working through facts!” (xv).
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———. Autobiography of an Actress, or: Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854.
———. “City Summary.” New York Clipper, November 10, 1860. 238.
———. “City Summary.” New York Clipper, March 28, 1868. 406.
———. “Introductory.” New York Clipper, November 23, 1878. 278.
Stone, John Augustus. Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags. 1829. Metamora and Other Plays. America’s Lost Plays, Vol. XIV. Ed. Eugene R. Page. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1940, 1965. 7–40.
Tyler, Royall. The Contrast. 1787. Representative Plays by American Dramatists, 1765–1819. Ed. Montrose J. Moses. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1938. 431–98.
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