A Raucous Entertainment: Melodrama, Race, and the Search for Moral Legibility in Nineteenth-Century America
Date of Award
Clark Davis, Ph.D.
Melodrama, Race, Moral legibility, Nineteenth century America
Gathering together episodes from American theater history, my dissertation focuses on the destabilizing identities and paradoxical resolutions of so-called "Indian" and slavery plays to address nineteenth-century melodrama's fundamental engagement with race. Melodrama is a spectacular form that uses iconic images to move audiences to feel powerful emotions and to assign moral legibility to societal problems. Given the significant role of territorial expansion and chattel slavery in US history, race has always presented Americans with crucial moral dilemmas. Melodrama has long provided a dominant mode of representation for addressing such dilemmas that hinges upon racially inflected conceptions of good and evil. Yet melodrama's search for moral legibility depends upon contentious performance rituals that make this search far more complex than it is generally conceived to be. I argue that its paradoxical resolutions provide a ritualized framework for the staging of contested identities and ideologies during the period of America's national formation. My view of melodrama accounts for the interactive and raucous nature of nineteenth-century performance culture. It also incorporates the contributions of Native Americans and African Americans, which deserve more attention in studies of antebellum melodrama. I argue that melodrama has its origins in a colonial history - fraught with genocidal wars against indigenous peoples and the theft of African persons for slave labor - that shapes America's socio-political structures throughout much of the nineteenth century. My account of melodrama's rise throws into sharp relief how central the moral dilemmas posed by racial conflict have been to this influential American form since its beginnings. Placing Indian and slavery plays alongside one another, including Metamora (1829), Nick of the Woods (1838), The Forest Princess (1848), The Escape (1858), The Stars and Stripes (1848), and The Octoroon (1859), I emphasize the important points of connection between their representations of racialized victimization and vilification. Melodrama still influences the way we think and talk about race in America, and a look at our contemporary cultural moment shows that melodrama's paradoxical search for moral legibility continues to unfold.
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Olivier, Sarah M., "A Raucous Entertainment: Melodrama, Race, and the Search for Moral Legibility in Nineteenth-Century America" (2017). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1271.
Received from ProQuest
Sarah M. Olivier
American Literature, American Studies, Theater History
American Studies Commons, English Language and Literature Commons, Theatre and Performance Studies Commons