Political Melodramas

Irish Victorian theater has traditionally been distorted by the evaluation of more respected playwrights from the modernist movement, especially Yeats and Lady Gregory.  Critics have repeated their assessment of the genre as low-brow escapism, offering little more than a constellation of clichés and stereotypes, till only recently.  While the plays produced by authors such as J. W. Whitbread, Hubert O’Grady, John Baldwin Buckstone, Edmund Falconer, and P. J. Bourke may lack literary merit, they provide a unique insight into the mentalities of their time.  These plays were extremely popular, not only among Dublin audiences but also in London and American cities with significant Irish émigré populations including New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.  Like contemporary American musicals, these productions were international in focus.  Also like present-day musicals, their popularity stemmed in part from their lavish production, comedy, and incorporation of song.  The term melodrama itself, coined in the early nineteenth century, referred to the blending of drama and music.

Beginning with Dion Boucicault in the mid-nineteenth century, Irish melodrama adopted more a political focus.  He reapportioned what had been considered a foreign art form into a vehicle for nationalism.  Ancient Ireland provided no artistic equivalent to drama, branding that form as artificial to Ireland regardless of its subject matter.[1] Boucicault’s plays emphasized reconciliation between colonizer and colonized, often symbolized by a marriage between an English officer and an Irish woman.  Villains also tended to act according to their own selfish interests, ‘rogue colonialism’, rather than as agents for a system of oppression.  Plays written by authors like Whitbread, O’Grady, and Bourke in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century did away with these aspects of Boucicault’s drama.  Their works became more militantly political and nationalistic.  “[There] was an Irish drama before Yeats: a political, in numerous respects anticolonial, drama” that emerged “from the most serious events in the lives of historical Irishmen.”[2]

Memory and Political Melodramas

Identity and Political Melodramas

Reception and Political Melodramas

Hamilton and Cathleen Ni Houlihan?: Irish and American Dramatic Representations of Colonial Rebellion

[1] Christopher Morash, “Irish Theatre”, in The Cambridge Companion to Modern Irish Culture, ed. Joe Cleary and Claire Connolly (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 323.

[2] Stephen Watt, Joyce, O’Casey, and the Irish Popular Theater (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991), 88.