Oh! the Melodrama!

I’ve enjoyed watching soap operas over the years but I first read about them after my sound installation Days of Our Lives became part of my PhD. I was recently reminded about the valuing and devaluing of soap opera as well as melodrama while watching the Book Club on ABC and heard a few of the regulars giving a popular book — popular with a mainly female audience I would say — a good trashing because it was ‘soapy’ and ‘melodramatic’. A note that what follows looks at melodrama and soap opera (not too extensively..) with a focus on music in both genres rather than books. (Brook‘s early interest actually centred on how elements of nineteenth-century melodrama entered modern literature and I believe there is nothing so high minded that cannot contain a microbe of melodramatic excess somewhere along the creating production line!).

Many assume soap opera is melodramatic, and while the soap and melodrama share characteristics they are distinct and have quite different histories. In the beginning, soap operas were short dramas that became serials on radio. They were written by a husband and wife team, and later a woman, for a female audience designed to highlight soap powder advertising on American radio in the 1930s. By contrast, melodrama originated in Europe in the late eighteenth century as a popular theatrical form. Melodrama flourished in the early nineteenth century, a century associated with a particular codification — and often exaggeration — of realism. Gledhill (1992) recognises this staged or stilted reality in melodrama as a value that survived continuing to our current era, entwining itself with current plots that diverge from ‘reality’ in mainstream film and TV. Melodrama pushes reality toward fantasy or social relations towards imagination, even as it obeys certain formal popular codes. In this way nineteenth-century melodrama was more than a theatrical form with its attendant conventions but was also an imaginative and epistemological mode, informing social and intellectual thought (Gledhill 1992). It initially addressed a broad audience — the disadvantaged, working and upper-middle class men and women — until a division in the mid-nineteenth century became apparent. Melodrama continued to attract the working class, women and children as a form of entertainment while tragedy was the genre accorded to an intellectual elite and, for the most part, middle class men. The denigration of the genre took place when the upper-middle class male audience turned their backs; and so value lied elsewhere in the cultural landscape. A similar elitist impulse erupted on the TV discussion on Book Club around show themed ‘Summer Reads’ where a top 10 had been picked by the show’s audience. The top book — the Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullouch — was quickly dismissed by one member for being melodramatic, for not being literary enough, for its drama and personal conflicts.

In a theatrical context, melodrama’s imaginative elements involved music, tableaux and visual signs. For people participating in melodramatic culture, these musical signs were a significant part of the program, with verbal discourse relegated to lesser importance. As Gledhill puts it: “[m]usic carries climactic moments, giving an emblematic quality to the resounding cliches that arise from confrontation, recognition, declarations of identity” (1992, 108). Melodrama, a combination of drama and melos (music), or a “play with music”, was designed to exaggerate the emotional through “the liberal use of music” (Melodrama Films). According to Brooks (1976), music was used by dramatists to “strike a particular emotional pitch or colouring” as well as to “lead the audience into a change or a heightening of mood” (49). This strikes me as a kind of preparation or priming. It is music that lends melodrama its heightened emotive effects; music emphasises and confirms the meaning of a particular relationship, a dastardly deed, a judgment, an argument, a declaration of love. Music underscores tension while audience wait for relief. It is reasonable to assume that if soap opera carries melodrama within it, then these interrelations between drama, emotion and music continue to occur during exaggerated emotional interactions. This then is a feature that overlaps.

An important element of distinction between soap opera and melodrama is that melodrama “demands an ending” to its protagonists’ struggles whereas soap opera does not reach a conclusion, and in the process, affirms the primacy of a family in constant turmoil (Modleski 1979). Tableaux in melodrama were often used at the ends of scenes and acts — frozen physical signs — as a resolution of meaning (Brooks 1976). Characters would stand, sit or balance, arranging gestures and bodies, so as to illustrate the “emotional situation”, punctuating the pace of the drama. Additionally, music in melodrama would be used to mark a character’s entrance suggesting changes in character’s strong emotions, to underlie “dark plottings” or to guide the audience as “breathtaking peripety” — the quick and almost unlikely reversal of circumstances (Brooks 1976). In contrast, although music is scored underneath conversations and at times emotional outbursts in soap opera, the soundtrack stops short of heralding every character’s entrance with a distinct orchestral hue; perhaps this is an element that is too theatrical for television. The soap opera may be exaggerated in its emotional cues and family conflict but it does not retain these features of melodrama. In American daytime serials such as Days of Our Lives, music does not offer relief in terms of large climaxes, rather, it is scored in accordance with a soap’s many small climaxes. For example, repeated semiquaver motives play under a conversation between two ex-lovers or a long sustained minor triad may crescendo at the end of a scene where conflict has occurred between two women who are adversaries.

Despite their differences, melodrama and soap opera are interrelated via two elements. The first is that an everyday understanding holds that melodrama and soap operas are histrionic and melodramatic. The term melodrama has various contemporary or informal uses such as ‘don’t be so melodramatic’ implying an emotional overreaction or an inability to think rationally, or a not-very-worthwhile piece of art as demonstrated by the book club response to the Thorn Birds. Overreactions and inabilities to think with reason have also, of course, historically been associated with women, mental illness and non-White Anglo-Saxon cultures. Irrationally and overreaction continue to be embedded in stereotypes about women’s character and women’s voices and we should continue to question this. Much feminist research into soap opera has shown how in many cases it is resistant to dominant gender and narrative norms. Those who call themselves feminist and yet judge the idea of melodrama, day-time soap opera and/or its predominantly female audience from the outside should not underestimate practices of value, particularly as this pertains to popular genres and people with lower social and cultural capital than themselves.

The second interrelated aspect concerns parts of Brooks’ (1976) analysis on the melodramatic imagination as a phenomenon that functions in soap opera. Despite melodrama demanding certain narrative endings, endings that soap opera is resistant to, language is employed in melodrama that finds parallel in soaps. The way language is used in melodrama is worth examining as, in Brooks’ (1976) account, it is a theory of disturbance. Although soap characters may be wrapped up in everyday actions, ordinary language is not always primarily used, rather, it is disturbed in two ways. Firstly, melodrama may overload language by presenting an element of the excessive or of the bombastic, thus breaking through a ‘reality principle’ and its own “linear logic” (Nochimson 1992, 146). This revisits the idea of melodrama pushing through reality as introduced above. Secondly, melodrama may engage in what Brooks (1976) calls the “text of muteness”. This is the language disturbance that best resonates with Days of Our Lives as both a soap opera and my own music-based project. In this case, there is a vocabulary that speaks “in spite of the word, around the word, or instead of the word — the tableau, the gesture, the mute character (including children and animals), and, certainly, music” (Nochimson 1992, 146). Music is key here as an element that can move and interact with our sense and understanding of what is happening, in place of direct expression.

For Nochimson (1992), soap opera takes up the ‘text of muteness’ in staging, visual organisation and direction. Furthermore, Nochimson develops the idea to include the technology of ‘partial vision’, entailing close-ups, enclosed spaces, horizontal organisation and broad depth-of-field in TV production (Nochimson,1992). This technical framework is significant and I expand this towards sound, music, space and gender in tandem with epilepsy and aspects of the tableau — the melodramatic pose. The ‘text of muteness’ functioned, at times, in my sound installation through the inclusion of close mic-ed breathing, samples of character dialogue, reverb-less percussive plastic sounds. ‘Partial sound’ was achieved through the sampling of Days of Our Lives soundtrack mixed randomly with other melody files. In the four-channel spatial layout of the speakers, the space was relatively small and intimate as the sound and music panned around listeners. This means that the installation had elements of an ‘enclosed space’, however it was without the aural equivalent of a ‘broad depth of field’ (distance between near and far that appear in focus of a shot). In addition to these text-of-muteness characteristics, my installation shares a potentially unending narratives with soap opera.