In my quest for the “back story” to “The Noble Outcast” a local drama presented by Arline Kinsel and friends, I have been doing a bit of research on the genre of the melodrama.
Long before the ladies of Wisteria Lane were spreading dirt in the neighborhood and decades before J.R. Ewing and fiends were riding rough in Dallas, the heroes and villains of 19th century melodrama were thrilling audiences in big and little towns throughout the United States, England, and Canada. The stock plot included mistaken identity, property swindles, and love lost and found.
The melo-drama (melody and drama) was characterized by music and drama, one playing off the other. Piano accompaniment was standard fare, and the heavy dramatic notes became associated with the genre, even when theatrical productions gave way to films such as The Perils of Pauline. Eventually music became less essential, but the melodrama remained “characterized by sensational incident and violent appeals to the emotions, but with a happy ending”.
The drama featured a set of stock characters as well – the hero and the heroine, the villain, the old man, an old woman, a comic man, and a comic woman. Three couples and an odd man out. What a great opportunity for tension.
The 1888 melodrama, “The Noble Outcast” by John A. Fraser “enjoyed a long run in England” and “delighted audiences in New York, Chicago, and, in fact, all the principal cities of this country,” according to the 1888 show notes.
Curry County, New Mexico Historian Don McAlavy recently sent me a copy of the original script and a typewritten copy prepared by his wife for the 1994 revival of the drama at the Lyceum Theatre in Clovis, New Mexico. The McAlavys became interested in the play after learning that Kathy McAlavy’s grandfather, Levi J. Whiteman, played the villain in a 1906 production in Portales, New Mexico. In a scene where fact follows fiction, Whiteman and the leading lady fell in love and were married in 1909. After considerable sleuthing, McAlavy was able to locate the original script and worked with local actors to produce the drama in 1994.
The plot of “The Noble Outcast” follows the prescription faithfully. The villain, James Blackburn wants France Lee (leading lady) who has fallen in love with noble Jack Worthington [more on the value of names later]. France is the daughter of the proper Colonel Lee and his frail wife, Mrs. Lee. Comic relief is provided by the maid, Sadie, and Jerry the Tramp. The drama is played out in three acts.
Act One – In front of Colonel Lee’s southern Mansion
Jack asks France to marry him; she accepts his proposal after teasing him a bit. Blackburn arrives planning to propose to his cousin [France] and inherit the Colonel’s estate. We learn that he gambles and has recently lost a sizeable sum. Jerry the Tramp comes to the door; Blackburn taunts him, France invites him to have a meal in the kitchen. Jack and the Colonel have a private conversation where the Colonel reveals that France is not his daughter. While traveling on a steam ship, Mrs. Lee gave birth to a stillborn child. The same night, the ship caught fire and another woman was fatally scalded after giving birth to a little girl. The doctor urged Col. Lee to substitute the dead woman’s child for his own and spare his wife further grief. The living child’s father never knew he had a daughter. Jack gladly agrees to keep France’s identity a secret, and reaffirms his desire to marry her. Blackburn overhears the entire conversation and concocts a plan to reveal all. He has recognized Jerry the Tramp as an escaped convict and threatens to turn him in to the police if he does not go along with his plan. Jerry must claim France as his daughter.
As a literature teacher, I can’t resist a little analysis of the play. First, the characters are perfectly presented. The villain bears a villain’s name – he is BLACKburn. Like the bad guys in westerns, the villain is associated with the darkest color. In contrast, the hero is WORTHington, he will be worthy of Miss Lee. The Colonel and his wife are noble southerners who value family and name. Lee calls to mind the great General Robert E. Lee, heroic confederate soldier and leader. France is more modern than Frances, and is perhaps a nod to the Eiffel Tower under construction at the time. The name “Jerry” was at its peak of popularity in 1888 ranking 162 by the Social Security Administration, to be surpassed in 1896 (#171) and then not until nearly 100 years later in 1992 (#183). Jerry, then, is the common man in the same way that Sadie is the common woman. Both Jerry and Sadie provide a light element of relief when Blackburn’s treachery is most villainous.
…to be continued
Harvey, Sir Paul. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932. Quoting the OED.