Path 2: De Witt’s Catalogue

To develop a critique of melodrama and to encourage a self-reflexive practice of historical inquiry amongst my students, I want to return to melodrama when study the Black Arts Movement. To do this, I will share the story of my discovery of De Witt’s catalogue of “Ethiopian and Comic Drama,” along with the research that I am currently compiling, in order to unpack the abuses of melodramatic acting. Despite his curmudgeonly attitude and his dated study of the genre, Lacey provides a starting point for this critique. “Strictly speaking, “ he writes, “there are no characters in melodrama, there are only types, easily recognized and constantly recurring, such as the villain, the hero, the ‘persecuted innocent’ and the clown or ‘niais’. There are also, besides these four principles, two other prevailing types, the ‘accomplice’ and the faithful friend’” (20-1). From here, one need only look to the cast list of Pixérécourt’s Christopher Columbus in order to see the problem of these “types.” How did French actors play the “Savages” encountered by Columbus? What gestures and facial expressions did the acting manuals suggest for playing non-French roles? Along with the knowledge that melodrama was used to foster a nationalistic pride in the European countries where it emerged comes the knowledge that national identity relies on the formulation of the Other against which to cement its traits.

The popularity of the “Ethiopian” type in America during the eighteenth century attested to the racist ideology undergirding the American project of nation building. De Witt’s catalogue offers ample evidence that black people, though not exclusively, filled the subject position of Other to counter-balance the white male subject position engineered as dominant. There’s no need to rehearse the scholarship on this topic here, especially because I am by no means an expert on the topic, but I would like to share my findings on the “Ethiopian” type. I would also like to ask for assistance in compiling source material on the “Ethiopian” farce or sketch from those who are more active in this field of study. Or, if you have knowledge of melodrama acting manuals, I would love to learn more about that as well.

In “‘The Trouble Begins at Eight’: Mark Twain, the San Francisco Minstrels, and the Unsettling Legacy of Blackface Minstrelsy” (American Literary Realism vol. 41 No 3 (Spring 2009): 232-248), Sharon D. McCoy tells us that, “In the stage parlance of the day, ‘nigger,’ ‘Ethiopian,’ or even ‘negro’ (uncapitalized) referred not to actual African American performers but to white blackface performers. ‘Colored’ referred to African Americans” (240). John William Mahar offers similar information in Behind the burnt cork mask: early blackface minstrelsy and Antebellum and American Popular Culture (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999). Thus, the long list of play titles in De Witt’s catalogue refer to plays of the minstrel tradition, though not all of them featured blacked-up white performers exclusively. As Mahar states, “it is not clear how many of the characters actually appeared in blackface in any particular skit because the ‘Cast of Characters’ sections of the published Ethiopian sketches rarely indicate whether all the characters blacked up or only those with identifiable African American roles” (157). He points out that, “The sketches were also adaptable to various ethnic groups through slight changes in costuming or dialect,” meaning that these plays also mocked the French, Irish, and Dutch members of New York City’s populace.

Completely by accident, then, I have come across a list of plays that feature disparaging representations of black people and other members of the immigrant population in America paired with Jerrold’s text of Black-Eyed Susan. It seems reasonable to assume that the type characters created in the melodramatic form pioneered by Pixérécourt and then exported to Britain influenced the types portrayed in minstrel plays, and, therefore, that the melodrama form infiltrated the American imagination via racist depictions of the Other. By rehearsing this history with my students, I hope they will find a foothold in the work produced by the Black Arts Movement, which sought to destroy the image of black people created through this European theatrical tradition.

In recent years, when teaching works by black artists, I have discovered that students have little to no understanding of the history behind depictions such as Sambo or Aunt Jemima. Due to the structure of the theatre curriculum, students rarely take classes in Cultural Studies or American Studies where they might encounter materials like Marlon Riggs’s Ethnic Notions and a culturally-specific critique of aesthetic form. As such, teaching material from the Black Arts Movement and more contemporary artists such as Suzan-Lori Parks or Aishah Rahman has proven difficult. The fortuitous, though disturbing, discovery of De Witt’s catalogue has provided me with new material that might help to connect two seemingly distinct plays such as Baraka’s Dutchman and Pixérécourt’s Dog of Montargis, thereby strengthening the critical historiographical methodology I want to teach in my class.


Path 1: The Dog of Montargis

I entered Pixérécourt’s play with the help of three sources: Alexander Lacey’s Pixerécourt and the French Romantic Drama (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1928), Louis James’s “Taking Melodrama Seriously: Theatre, and Nineteenth-Century Studies” (History Workshop no. 3 (Spring 1977): 151-158), and Marvin Carlson’s “The Golden Age of the Boulevard” (The Drama Review: TDR vol. 18 no. 1, Popular Entertainments (March 1974): 25-33). The Dog of Montargis seems to epitomize the genre with its transparent struggle between Aubri (the hero) and Macaire (the villain), its depiction of virtuous love in the amorous coupling of the mute Florio and the young Lucille, and its crew of type characters such as Blaise (the niais who provides local color) and, of course, Dragon, Aubri’s faithful canine friend without whom Macaire would surely get away with his vile deeds.

With that ensemble, the play may appear completely ridiculous for students. But wait! Before we pass judgment, we should watch the trailer for Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse ( and ponder how precisely melodrama has infused popular culture with its simple yet effective depiction of an ordered world in which everyone can tell right from wrong and good from evil.

Carlson tells us that the genre emerged from the feuds between Audinot and Nicolet on the Boulevard du Temple at the end of the eighteenth century when France was reeling from the Reign of Terror and preparing for the reign of Napoleon. While extremely popular, the melodrama had to compete against an eclectic assortment of entertainments, from tightrope walkers and dancing elephants to children drinking boiling oil and Daguerre’s diorama (Carlson 26. 30). To do so, it combined tableaux mouvant, musical leitmotif, horror-provoking scenarios of injustice, and stage spectacle such as erupting volcanoes and floods with high-grade pathos in order to tug at the hearts of its audiences.

Scholars cannot dispute the popularity of the genre, but they can belittle the means with which it attracted its audience. For me, Lacey’s vociferous dismissal of the “plebian” melodrama provides a great introduction to the detractors of melodrama: “[O]ne may say that the Revolution forced ‘le drame bourgeois’ to find refuge on the boulevards, there to surrender itself to a process of transfusion, as it were, but means of which it yielded up its life-blood to its more plebeian descendant, the melodrama” (19). His book charts the success of Pixérécourt as an innovative writer, entrepreneur, designer, and producer, but repeatedly paints the public for which Pixérécourt created his plays as downright stupid. On the topic of melodramatic violence, for example, he writes, “Physical conflict is, moreover, a means always ready to the hand of the dramatist, and especially the second-rate dramatist, by which he can create a sort of emotional response, particularly in the minds of the less cultured of spectators” (9). I found in these types of statements an opportunity to stop and reflect on the historical effects that may have produced this affinity for violence. I gave students a sheet of several comments by Lacey and asked them to first unpack the subtext of Lacey’s commentary and then to theorize why melodrama may have staged violence for its throngs of spectators. The students had little trouble realizing that after the French Revolution violence on stage would help audiences to process the violence in the streets.

To move beyond text to the embodied dimension of melodramatic acting, I turned to James who asks us to think through the contemporary manifestations of kitsch melodrama (think soap operas) back to the time before last-minute reprieves from death and the stock characters were made into conventions. James endeavors to take melodrama seriously, and he picks up that task by discussing the specificity of the melodramatic acting vocabulary:

Despair is not expressed as horror, pride is different from contempt. Moreover, the movements are dynamic. Gestures move through a spectrum of intensifying emotion; performers react to each other as if each produced a magnetic field. The whole has a rhythm—the music is of central importance—closer to ballet and opera than to modern acting: Dickens wrote that watching melodrama was like opera to a deaf observer. It flows towards significant tableau, it shatters a mood abruptly in a style closely related to the violent juxtaposition of feelings deliberately produced by Eisenstein with “montage.” (James 154)

Building on this description of the acting, I invited student to act the scene in The Dog of Montargis that contains this stage direction: “FLORIO answers by the most expressive pantomime that it is not gratitude but love, the most passionate, that he feels for LUCILLE.” It was, to say the least, difficult, but everyone laughed as the students failed to embody the enormous emotional weight of that stage direction.

I wanted to access the embodied dimension along with the historical context of melodrama in order to illustrate how the genre worked hard to fabricate affective belonging in its audiences. Charles Nodier, the nineteenth-century poet and critic, spells out this affective production in some detail in his introduction to Pixérécourt’s Théâtre Choisi:

What is certain is that in the circumstances in which it arose, melodrama was a necessity. The entire people had just enacted in the streets and on the public squares the greatest drama of all history. Everyone had been an actor in this bloody play, everyone either a soldier or a revolutionary or an outlaw….And make no mistake about it! Melodrama was not something to take lightly! It was the morality of the revolution! (cit. Pixérécourt: Four Melodramas, trans. and ed. Marvin Carlson and Daniel Gerould [New York: Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications, 2002] xv.)

He continues to praise Pixérécourt’s plays for diminishing crime on the streets of Paris and for imparting to its audience a spiritual clarity: “I say this because I have seen them, in the absence of religious worship, take the place of the silent pulpit, and bring, in an attractive form that never failed of its effect, serious and valuable lessons to the soul of the spectators” (xi-xii). Interestingly, even across the Channel in England where people suffered to rebuild after the onslaught of Napoleon, the melodrama, a French import, served the same purpose as a tool for nation building and spiritual repair.

Having never encountered Pixérécourt’s work prior to this semester, I was intrigued by James’s challenge to take melodrama seriously. I presented selections from all these documents I’ve mentioned to my students and I asked them to take up that challenge with me. The result was a fascinating discussion of the migration of the melodramatic form from the days of Pixérécourt to our own. Interestingly, the University of Minnesota Show Boat has delved into the repertoire of nineteenth-century melodramas for its recent productions, and students were well aware of this. I’d like to end my tour of this path by sharing one of my student’s comments that was emailed to me after our class:

I was just thinking that the reason melodrama seems to stay relevant even today is because of the fact that it attempts to portray ordinary life in a more fantastical way.  At a time when the real world has so much trouble and all fiction attempts to take people even further from the truth of their lives, melodrama tends to bring people back to reality in a way that other forms of entertainment don’t.  This isn’t to say that melodrama portrays real life; it just shows the normal elements of the everyday in a much more exaggerated way.  Since the first melodramatic play, I feel most popular theatre since has at least a little portion of melodrama in it, so we must acknowledge that melodrama, though not the best type of theatre, has a huge effect on how we view theatre today.


Melodrama: A Forking Path

Before commencing this academic year, I decided to populate my syllabus with plays I have never read. One of my favorite occupations, reading, has suffered a tremendous blow at the hands of my teaching schedule (as John Fletcher told me would be the case). I figured I would force myself to read new plays and some secondary source material by teaching individual works and historical periods about which I knew either nothing or very little. (I imagine all of this sounds familiar to you as you read this.) Melodrama as a genre was something I knew almost nothing about. Somehow, after four years at New York University and five years at the University of Minnesota, I came into contact with melodrama only twice. The first time was as a TA in Theatre History when we read Black-Eyed Susan by Douglas Jerrold. The second time was during a graduate seminar on historiography when we encountered secondary source material about the infamously successful adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (here, I’m thinking specifically of Sadiyah Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in 19th-c. America). In both cases, the material was presented as a stepping-stone to the larger concern of historiographical methodology. We didn’t dwell on melodrama proper; rather, we framed melodrama within larger issues of, on the one hand, appropriating revolutionary ideas into the nation-building project and, on the other, the connection between archive and repertoire.

I decided to confront my foggy memory and dearth of knowledge on the subject of nineteenth-century melodrama this semester, but time constraints forced me to split the difference. I would dedicate a week to melodrama, asking my students to read Black-Eyed Susan and something else, something I had yet to discover. With the plan in place I began to look for titles. After numerous searches I located Rene Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt (1773-1844), the so-called “father” of French melodrama, a name I had never come across before. Digging deeper, I found that Daniel Gerould and Marvin Carlson had collaborated as editors on a volume of four works by Pixérécourt. Then I did the math: the “father” of French melodrama + two respected scholars in the field = something I need to look into. I got Gerould’s and Carlson’s book and decided immediately to place The Dog of Montargis on my syllabus.

A play featuring a dog. Perfect. What historiographical challenge awaits me within the pages of this story about Aubri and his faithful companion? Before I had the opportunity to answer that question, I received my copy of Black-Eyed Susan from Inter-library Loan. The book was actually a bound collection of photocopies of the original text published by Clinton T. De Witt in 1854. Looking closely at the first page, I became greatly disturbed. There I found an advertisement for the catalogue of “De Witt’s Ethiopian and Comic Drama,” featuring such titles as Bobolino, the Black Bandit, Dutchman’s Ghost, Noble Savage, Ethi’n Sketch, and roughly ninety more, all grouped under the subheadings of farce or comedy. Suddenly, the historiographical challenge of the Dog of Montargis seemed less important. Should I present this accidental discovery of De Witt’s catalogue to the students? If so, how should I do it? I delved into our library’s databases and indexes to learn more about the “Ethiopian farce” and De Witt, but I found next to nothing. Time was running out because our week of melodrama was rapidly approaching.

To make everything more complicated, I had been receiving pressure from students to lighten the reading load. My current students, as well as numerous comments on my evaluations from last semester, insisted that I made the class too hard and that there was too much reading and writing, especially for a course not classified as writing intensive. Looking over my syllabus, the melodrama week seemed the appropriate time to decrease the amount of reading from two plays to one. Which reading do I eliminate? Black-Eyed Susan? I was already familiar with that play, but this new discovery of De Witt’s catalogue presented a great challenge in terms of linking melodrama to the development of modern racism and discourse on the Other. Do I ditch The Dog of Montargis? It seems like a downright silly play, but I was curious about what lay beneath the silly exterior and I wanted to learn more about the origins (in the Benjaminian sense of the word) of melodrama since I knew nothing about it. Faced with this forking path, I had to choose a direction.

Ultimately, I decided to teach The Dog of Montargis, but I would utilize the discovery of De Witt’s catalogue during our exploration of the Black Arts Movement later in Week Twelve. By covering the historical emergence of melodrama via Pixérécourt, I could lay out some fundamental attributes of the genre. Later in the semester, I could return to melodrama as, on the one hand, a pedagogical strategy for re-visiting ideas and, on the other hand, a way of excavating the historical sediment of the stereotyped movements and images seized upon by the Black Arts Movement. In my next two blogs, I’d like to offer a brief tour of both paths opened by my inquiry into melodrama. The first will visit the ideas I discovered upon meeting Pixérécourt, the second will offer my findings on Ethiopian farces that will eventually culminate in a lesson plan for my class on the Black Arts Movement.