Melodrama-Rama: Local Feelings
A few weekends ago I drove to the teeny beach town of Oceano, part of the greater San Luis Obispo community, for a theater performance. I had received a tip that, somewhere on California’s Central Coast, someone was performing live melodramas. Upon Googling, I found the Great American Melodrama, a theater operating since 1975 and offering entertainment for the whole family: Victorian-era stage melodramas, adapted Sherlock Holmes stories, original plays, musical revues, and other assorted tidbits. I bought tickets for The Mark of Morro, co-written by Melodrama standby Eric Hoit. The play appeared to satirize Zorro.
Before the play proper began, one of the actors came out and told us that like melodrama audiences of old, we should use our voices: boo and hiss at the villain, cheer for the hero. She explained that the live pianist would play a particular cue when we were meant to cheer at a heroic action. This only happened once, but the audience made other noises, too: groaning at puns, cooing at romance, whooping at local references.
I liked the show. It reminded me of how rarely silliness enters my life—how infrequently I get the chance to laugh at G-rated humor—and how much pleasure there is in surrendering to basic narrative. The story was utterly predictable, about a group of college kids who encounter a greedy dean (literally named DeVille), expose his bad deeds, and save the day. I rooted for the hero to win the student council race, hoped the bad cheerleader would get her comeuppance, urged the various side characters either to entertain me or to do the right thing.
All this did happen. The narrative snapped to its guidelines almost audibly. The stock characters (hero, villain, love interest, sidekick) performed as prescribed. Since the play was set on a college campus, these Victorian stock characters mixed and matched with those of John Hughes: the jock, the theater kid, the nerd, the weird girl.
Yet instead of feeling impatient with these cardboard cutouts, or exasperated that I had to sit through a narrative tic-tac-toe game, I felt relaxed. I was cradled in the warm hands of a force larger than myself, one employed to make me laugh and cheer on cue. It was all so formulaic and harmless, so guileless, so temporary. My brain didn’t have to perform any analysis whatsoever, and the play invoked such a familiar range of human experience that my heart was safe. I gave in.
It was lovely.
Since last we met, I’ve continued trying to find a single definition of melodrama. I underlined phrases that helped: “a fantasy of morality and justice” by Simon Shepherd, for instance, from Melodrama: Stage Picture Screen. Shepherd also says that “melodrama is typecast as a form interested solely in gut reaction, in emotional thrill which has no social significance. Tragic emotion, by contrast—or by Aristotle—is linked to the correctly managed body politic…” I think he means a critic can identify melodrama through its insignificance to society. Translated to current culture, that means soap operas, full of gut reactions and emotional thrills, are insignificant melodramas, while a show like House of Cards, which involves Aristotelian structure and tragedy (to a degree), is a significant drama.
This distinction leaves aside the 20th century feminist argument that the personal is political—meaning, per Carol Hanisch and Audre Lorde, that our private lives can only exist in the context of larger, likely unjust political forces. It also ignores the postmodernist realization that in art and life, everything kinda sloshes together, and there’s no separating high from low, what matters from what doesn’t. When a housewife vacuums while watching Days of Our Lives, she seems to be doing something forgettable, disposable, unimportant. It’s an ordinary action with negligible effect on the great turning world. But each housewife pushing a vacuum is a grain of sand in the hourglass. Eventually, enough grains pile up that the accumulation of them can’t be ignored. The housework matters; the housewives matter; the stuff they use to pass the time matters. It’s all part of the tapestry of American life. Pull one thread and the whole thing unravels. One grain of sand goes missing and we lose time.
That is, Days of Our Lives, although it seems on its face to be filler, like the polyester fluff in a cheap pillow, is nevertheless significant, because it matters to the daily narratives of so many ordinary people. Days of Our Lives has been causing humans to feel things for some 14,000 episodes, since November of 1965. Homes did not have microwaves then. Banks could legally refuse to grant credit cards to unmarried women. That’s a tall hourglass to fill.
Victorian stage melodramas were incredibly popular for nearly a century, but few of those plays are performed anymore. I’m guessing it’s for the same reason no one watches old episodes of soap operas. Perennially, as creators remix and reimagine, old art forms start to seem quaint and inadequate, whether medieval European paintings or Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s. Old stage melodramas would likely seem to us overdetermined and curiously basic, like reading Dick and Jane books in adulthood. You’d see the same predictable plot over and over: villain tricks hero and puts heroine in peril, hero gives heroic speech and steps forward to save the day, villain receives comeuppance, hero lives happily ever after with heroine. And again the next week with a different title. All of these elements have been absorbed by more evolved genres, such that they now seem like building blocks instead of discrete units of meaning.
Victorian audiences were not less sophisticated than 21st century audiences, I am certain, but they needed filler entertainment just as much as we do. Every century contains filler like this, and cultural critics of the moment tend to dismiss it as insignificant junk, which means its examples often vanish with the passage of time. But a culture does not represent itself only in its “highest” art forms. Daily life, even though it occupies most of us most of the time, is not preserved in museums. It would be foolish to study the cultural history of the Victorians without studying melodramas; it would be foolish to study the cultural history of mid-20th century Americans without studying soap operas. Or, indeed, of early 21st century Americans without the Kardashians. A critic can turn up his nose at soaps or reality TV, but he can’t dismiss their popularity, and thus their significance.
What draws us to such filler?
A friend told me once that he watched a particularly upsetting episode of The Bachelor through his fingers as his wife hid behind the sofa, hollering. I asked him why he watched the episode at all if it was so uncomfortable. He said it made him feel something.
The play I saw at the Great American Melodrama, The Mark of Morro, involved the fictional California State University, Oceano. For those unfamiliar with California’s public university system, the state has two tracks: the UCs (University of California) and the Cal States. The former generally has a more highbrow reputation—UC Berkeley and UCLA are among its branches—while the latter grew out of a network of teaching colleges and some branches are considered commuter schools. (I earned my master’s degree from a Cal State and got an exceptional education, better in many ways than the one I got at a tony East Coast college, so I’m sharing reputation/stereotypes only.)
The fact that Mark’s fictional CSO was a Cal State was not lost on me, and I’m explaining this context so it won’t be lost on you, either. This detail gave the audience an idea of what kind of characters they’d be following over the course of the show: students who probably couldn’t get into a UC and couldn’t afford tuition at one anyway, students who may have been the first in their families to go to college. Similarly local jokes abounded: joshing about the weather, ribbing and/or defending various aspects of the Central Coast, song lyrics mentioning the famous giant rock that sits on a nearby coastline. The very title of the show refers to that rock’s hometown, Morro Bay, which neighbors Oceano.
I understood some percentage of these references, but the folks in the audience who drove less than ten minutes to be there understood all of them. These were also the folks who applauded loudest when, at the second intermission, the evening’s emcee asked for the audience to share birthdays and anniversaries so we could all celebrate them. We sang “Happy Birthday” and the unfortunate “Happy Anniversary” to them as a group, and we bonded a little, too, as a group, in the ritual of wishing strangers well. All this gave the impression of locality, of localness—a sense that the evening’s entertainment was grown inside the terrarium of Oceano and happily enclosed there.
The Mark of Morro included multiple musical numbers, both original songs and parodies. The cast sang “CSO” to the tune of “Let It Go” from Frozen, with rewritten lyrics, and the villainous dean did a full disco routine to a modified “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof. As a touchstone, Zorro was as often ignored as invoked, but Zorro adventures overlap with melodrama quite a lot, with their simple stories and mustache-twirling villains, so the idea of Zorro set the stage for this show pretty well. Plus, Zorro is himself part of local history, since original legends of Zorro derived from Mexican social bandits living in the area.
It was all quite recognizable, and lovable, and easy to enjoy. Some of this enjoyability stemmed from familiar music and predictable story structure, and some from the show’s localness. A small story told right where we sat, offering satisfying highs and lows, pleased us all. The writers of The Mark of Morro weaved the everyday life of their audience into their show, both shamelessly playing to the local citizens and attaching their work to stuff we all recognize. The song parodies did this especially well: they took something highly recognizable, something it’s likely most folks in the audience had experienced, and remade it as something local.
As I watched, I kept thinking about how often melodrama concerns itself with the domestic, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries. The element of crowd-pleasing by setting a play locally and cramming in local references—the equivalent of yelling “You rock, [city]!” in any given city on a concert tour—linked up, in my mind, with James M. Cain referring to the price of work shoes in Mildred Pierce. He knew that would be a recognizable detail among his women readers, that they would feel seen and understood by the book they were reading. Get a detail like that wrong, and you lose the audience. Land a San Luis Obispo joke right, and the audience will relax.
What struck me, also, was the interaction required of this audience, a genre tradition that began two hundred years ago. The play wouldn’t work without audience participation—it was part of why the play existed. What effect did that have on us? I guessed, mainly, that it would stimulate us to engage, and especially to feel; there’s no cheering or booing without feeling. Whenever I opened my mouth to react, emotions would spill out. Participation entails emotional investment, which links up with melodrama being an emotionally focused genre. Personal, yet significant.
I did not love the idea of audience participation. I hardly even like dancing at concerts. I refuse to cry in public, except in the dark. Mostly, I engage with art alone, not as part of a community. Uncomfortable as it made me to participate, as a good sport I had to, and that meant feeling things in good faith. Since I knew this play would move in a proscribed shape from problem to solution—I knew it was predictable, and thus wouldn’t shock me into uncontrolled emotion—I opened the little box of my feelings. I gave out what I had, hooting and cheering as suggested. And I felt joy.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (2020) and a monograph on Plan 9 from Outer Space (2021). Her work has appeared in Ms., the Washington Post, the Believer, Conjunctions, NPR, and many other places. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida