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Is The Octoroon a typical Victorian melodrama?

Is The Octoroon a typical Victorian melodrama?

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by John Joe Gallagher. Originally submitted for BA Internation English , with lecturer Dr Fionnuala Dillane in the category of English Literature
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by John Joe Gallagher. Originally submitted for BA Internation English , with lecturer Dr Fionnuala Dillane in the category of English Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Octoroon
a typical Victorian melodrama?Abstract
This essay seeks to examine whether Dion Boucicault’s
The Octoroon
typifiesthe genre of melodrama. The play is ostensibly a melodrama as it satisfies the motifsand tropes typical of this genre. This essay outlines how
The Octoroon
, though itsatisfies the parameters of its genre, also goes beyond these. This raises the questionof whether it is possible to quantify a work as ‘typical’ to any particular genre, asgenre itself is limited, constituted only of a broad and general set of commonalities.Boucicault’s play displays the features common to what is regarded as melodrama,but has a unique function that is not common to all plays within this category – theplay seeks to incite change and challenge contemporary orthodoxies. Thus, it may besaid that while
The Octoroon
is a melodrama, its function goes above and beyond thatof the general, generic category. Boucicault uses dramatic devices, (mostlymelodramatic) to raise questions that pose a challenge to the social norm. There is anirony in the fact that Boucicault conforms to the genre of melodrama through the useof various general melodramatic features, yet defies this category, usingmelodramatic devices to do so.Victorian melodrama originated, or more accurately re-emerged, during theVictorian era as a form of entertainment for the lower-working classes. Its slapstickcomedy, easy-to-follow plots and stock characters do not require an education to beunderstood but can be appreciated by all. Boucicault takes a genre created for thelower classes and uses it to liberate those who are oppressed. While initially for thelower classes, the genre lent itself to be appreciated by all – high and low – makingmelodrama the perfect genre through which to incite change. The vehicle for socialchange must be a literary form which transgresses the class divide, otherwise
Boucicault is simply preaching to the choir. The catch-all nature of melodramaensures this social impact. This can be seen in the play’s contemporary popularity andthe emotional response from the audience, as the critic Stephanie Pocock outlines inher article. Boucicault’s theatre is highly politicised though its polemic is notoutwardly seditious, but rather subtle in its efforts. Boucicault uses the theatricalexperience and the audience’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, as Coleridge puts it,to suggest radical ideas. The challenge to social codes come through the characters –the powerful image of the creeper and the tree, and George and Zoe’s controversialmixed race relationship. The typically melodramatic climax draws the audience in,involving them emotionally in the play and the issues it raises. The highly chargedpolitical theatre of Boucicault can be seen in the example of one particular audiencemember who ran on stage during a performance, to prevent Zoe taking poison(Pocock). While the play is ostensibly a typical melodrama, what it achieves isextremely making
The Octoroon
one of the most effective melodramas by the simplefact that it, paradoxically, goes beyond its own generic parameters.
Dion Boucicault’s
The Octoroon
is ostensibly a typical Victorian melodrama.It satisfies the quintessence of melodrama through its use of melodramatic tropes andmotifs. However, we must ask whether it is possible to typify any genre of literature?A work may be considered as being of a particular genre, inasmuch as it satisfies the broadest parameters of that genre. How a work functions within a genre may be verydifferent from other works within that genre. It is certain that
The Octoroon
is amelodramatic work as it contains many of the tropes of melodrama. While the playfulfills these requisites, it does so with a difference. The play’s function is quitedifferent to ‘typical’ Victorian melodrama as it uses the tropes of melodrama to present subversive and revolutionary ideas.To understand how the play functions within the genre of melodrama, we must firsttry to understand this genre and its function. Melodrama developed primarily as aform of entertainment for the lower working classes. The form existed previously tothis but experienced a renaissance in the mid nineteenth century in response toincreased literacy rates as people became more educated with the move from countryto urban centres during the industrial revolution. Melodrama emerged as a literaturewhich catered for this section of society. The simple tropes and conventions of melodrama ensured its popularity with the less-educated mass. However, it wasenjoyed not only by the lower echelons of society, but by the upper classes too. Theusually two dimensional characters and simple plot lends itself to be enjoyed byeveryone; the working classes could enjoy simple and straightforward entertainment,while the elite could enjoy a literature not designed by and for their own class. Thereis no in-depth character development as such and the comic motif often pokes fun at

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