Staging Nineteenth-Century Melodrama at the Georgian Theatre Royal
The Fortress on the Danube is being performed at the Georgian Theatre Royal, Yorkshire, on Friday 25 August, 7.30pm. Director: Sarah Wynne Kordas; Musical Director: Diane Tisdall; Dramaturge: Sarah Burdett. Tickets can be purchased here.
By Sarah Burdett (University of Warwick)
For the past five months, I have been working as a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Warwick on the exciting practice-based research project ‘Staging Napoleonic Theatre’. The project, led by Dr Katherine Astbury, and funded by the AHRC, has involved staging two nineteenth-century French melodramas in translation. Roseliska, a melodrama of 1811, written and performed by French prisoners of war at Portchester Castle, was revived at the site of its original production in July 2017; and La Forteresse du Danube, (translated as The Fortress), by prolific French playwright Guilbert Pixerécourt, initially staged at the Théatre de la Porte Saint-Martin in 1805, is being revived at the Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, on 25 August 2017. One down, one to go!
As a British theatre historian who has spent the last four years hunched over manuscripts of Georgian play-texts in dark and silent libraries, the experience of bringing these scripts back to life in my role as dramaturge – of furnishing them with the spectacular and aural vibrancy that the written text alone cannot provide – has been both exhilarating and enlightening. Recent Romantic theatre scholarship has stressed the need for the play text to be read alongside its visual, aural and oral elements, in order for its theatrical impact to be adequately comprehended. Nowhere is this statement more true than in relation to the nineteenth-century melodrama, as I have discovered first hand while working on this project.
Popularised in both France and Britain in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the melodrama sought to provide entertainment emotionally powerful enough to stimulate the minds of a public traumatised by the recent violence in France. In order to achieve this, the genre fully exploited all that the nineteenth-century theatre, its actors and musicians, had to offer in terms of scenic and musical extravagance. As well as making full use of advancements in technology, which enabled the inclusion in melodramatic performances of explosions formed by fireworks, and naval battles performed on flooded stages, the melodrama’s elaborate spectacle was enhanced by a style of acting that consisted of large and elaborate gestures. In the melodrama, nothing is left concealed. Characters are open books whose emotions are externalised clearly and unambiguously through the use of entirely demonstrative gesticulations, movements, and facial expressions. Bodies do the talking: they tell us what characters are thinking and feeling without the need for monologues. Essentially, the body surpasses the script in terms of emotional expression.
The emotional intensity enabled by this expressive style of acting is strongly accentuated by the use of stirring, provocative music. Melodramatic music, provided by an orchestra, plays an integral function in shaping audiences’ responses to the scenes exhibited on stage. Like the actor’s body, music provides another form of non-verbal communication. As well as serving to enable sound effects for occurrences including dramatic storms and battles, music can also anticipate forthcoming events, hark back to previous scenes, magnify a character’s inner thoughts, accentuate externalised feelings, and encourage audiences when to cheer, when to boo, and when to remain silent. Lengthy interludes of instrumental music often accompany moments of high drama within melodramatic performances. Actors move in sync to the orchestra’s music, creating scenes that, while entirely lacking words, and therefore occupying little space in the play text, can last for a good three to four minutes when exhibited on the stage. The melodrama, therefore, becomes an entirely different beast when experienced in the theatre, than it does when confined to the page.
How then do you go about reviving a nineteenth-century melodrama to be staged before a twenty-first century audience? This is the question that myself and the Staging Napoleonic Theatre team continue to grapple with as we approach our performance of The Fortress at the Georgian Theatre Royal. One of the biggest challenges we experienced when staging the first of our two melodramas, Roseliska, was encouraging modern day performers to act in a manner that they considered at first to be grossly over the top. With twenty-first century acting styles being dominated by the influences of Stanislavski and naturalism, it is entirely unsurprising that melodramatic techniques tend not to sit too comfortably with twenty-first century actors. To accommodate this, we have been working with our performers on exercises revolving around mime and tableaux. These were largely inspired by the wonderful collection of essays published in the special edition of Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film (Winter, 2002), edited by Gilli Bush-Bailey and Jackie Bratton, documenting the process of reviving melodramas by nineteenth-century British playwright Jane Scott, as part of the ‘Jane Scott Project’. I drew heavily on Dick McCaw’s essay in this collection, on training actors for melodrama, at the workshop/audition we held at the Georgian Theatre Royal back in June, from which we acquired our Fortress cast.
To kick off the workshop, we had each of our participants describe how there morning had been thus far, in the form of mime. The exercise got participants thinking immediately about how to express themselves physically, using entirely non-verbal signs. Scheduling this as the first activity of the day, and using it as much to introduce participants to one another, as to get them thinking about melodramatic techniques, the exercise also quickly banished any inhibitions that the actors might have held about externalising their feelings in this peculiar manner, in front of a group of strangers. We then moved on to look at how narratives might be formed using freeze frames. Entirely pilfering McCaw’s ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ exercise, I gave our actors the task of acting out popular nursery rhymes in small groups, using a series of tableaux. These tableaux were then put into motion, creating a fluid sequence of movements. This exercise built on the opening ice-breaker, by encouraging actors to think about how they might go from conveying one very specific emotion/action to another, without allowing the narrative they are creating to become staccato. Fluidity of movement and of emotional expression are crucial skills for melodramatic actors. As I hinted previously, actors are often required to convey an entire series of emotions within the space of a single piece of music. Therefore, the ability to shift swiftly, coherently, and melodiously from one clearly defined pose to another, is a technique that must be mastered.
Accordingly, a lot of our workshop was devoted to musicality. Our musical director, Dr Diane Tisdall, played tunes on her violin from the original Forteresse score, and our actors were tasked with the challenge of responding to these tunes in character. Music was shown to play an incredibly authoritative role in determining the manner in which the actors interpreted the character they were playing. At one point in The Fortress, the lieutenant Olivier is faced with a moral dilemma: should he obey love or duty? While he silently contemplates this choice on stage, orchestral music helps to externalise his feelings. At the workshop, we experimented with changing the pace and tempo of this music. We found that doing so had a profound impact on the way that the role of Olivier was played. When the music was at its slowest, actors tended to play Olivier as a mournful, indecisive, and somewhat self-pitying character, distraught at the prospect of having to make such an unfair decision. When the music was at its fastest however, Olivier was shown to deal quickly with the emotional turmoil caused by the conflict, and to reach a frantic but firm resolution by the time that the music had ceased. This exercise indicated to our actors the collaborative role played by composers, musicians, and performers, in dictating the narrative’s meaning.
We went on to introduce our actors to popular nineteenth-century acting manuals including Henry Siddons’s Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture, and the anonymously written Thespian Preceptor. These manuals offer visual and verbal descriptions of the ways in which certain emotions were externalised by performers on the nineteenth-century stage. While by no means offering prescriptive guides, the manuals provide valuable insight into the expressiveness of the poses, gestures, and facial expressions conveyed by performers of the time. Reviews of nineteenth-century melodramas printed in contemporary British newspapers, periodicals, diaries and letters have also been shared with performers. One brilliantly fun review of a melodrama staged in London in 1832 pokes fun at an actor’s incessant use of his arms, by comparing them to the sails of a windmill! This review was particularly helpful in assuring our modern day actors that, despite how ostentatious their gestures might feel, they are entirely in keeping with melodramatic extravagance.
This week the Staging Napoleonic Theatre team is up in Richmond, Yorkshire, ahead of our performance of the Fortress at the Georgian Theatre Royal on Friday 25 August. For this performance, we are working with a community cast, many of whom had never heard of Pixerécourt prior to their involvement in the play, but have quickly become experts in the dramatic genre that he pioneered. Following the fantastic reception that Roseliska received when performed at Portchester castle last month, we have discovered that there is definitely still a place for nineteenth-century melodrama on the twenty-first century stage. And what better stage to perform this on, than that of the country’s oldest working Georgian theatre, upon whose boards the likes of Sarah Siddons, Edmund Kean, and William McCready have previously stood? So, if you’re still wondering how one might go about reviving a nineteenth-century melodrama for a twenty-first century audience, come along and see for yourselves! We’d love to hear your thoughts!