Memory and Political Melodramas

Political melodramas underwent a political radicalization from the 1880s to the 1900s, represented by their transition from comedy to tragedy.  This shift can be seen in the expansive career of  playwright Dion Boucicault.  Earlier in the nineteenth century, Boucicault’s plays tended to portray reconciliation between Ireland and England.  Transforming Irish history into a comedy belies the author’s engagement with Irish nationalism.  Benefit performances of his plays were staged to raise money for families of imprisoned Fenians.[1]  Arrah-na-Pogue and The Shaughraun, plays concerning the 1798 Rebellion and the Fenian uprising respectively, both espouse an optimistic “mythology that Ireland can be unified socially, politically, and religiously.”[2]  Rather than being rejected, Boucicault’s optimism resonated with Irish audiences.  With the production of Robert Emmet in 1884, however, his work took a darker turn.  No one rescues the eponymous hero from his fate, a breach with historical fact that had been used earlier on for Michael Dwyer and Anne Devlin.  Emmet situates himself within a tradition of resistance by calling upon the nation to “march as children of Erin, as United Irishmen, whose one hope is freedom…The green flag that led our countrymen at Fontenoy under Sarsfield has never been dishonored, and it shall not be under Robert Emmet, so help me God.”[3]

Later playwrights including Whitbread and O’Grady built on this political turn.  Like contemporary American musicals dealing with historical subject matter, their melodramas celebrated individual historical figures including Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Wolfe Tone, and Henry Joy McCracken.  Though distinguished from other characters by their formal speech which points to their Ascendancy background, these martyrs become national figures.  “Bravery and self-sacrifice are conventional attributes of Whitbread’s historical Irishmen” which kindled a sense of pride among audiences.[4]


Memory and Literary Revival

Memory and Musicals

Political Melodramas

Identity and Political Melodramas

Reception and Political Melodramas

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

[1] Stephen Watt, Joyce, O’Casey, and the Irish Popular Theater (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991), 72.

[2] Watt, 75.

[3] Quoted in Watt, 79.

[4] Watt, 77

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