Many of us think of summer as the ideal season to catch up on our reading and, when hearing the word beach, immediately think of the best umbrella-shaded ocean spot to bask in paperback fiction. And so it is depressing to discover what Hollywood considers to be the best ingredients for summer movies — violence and sensationalism. But before we bookworms cast aspersions on the lowbrow mentality of popular entertainment today, we need to remember the original source of violent movies. Surprisingly, that source was Victorian England.
In 1886, the earliest films were being shown in London auditoriums—yes, that’s “auditoria” for all you “persnicketies” out there. You might imagine that early cinema might have illuminated scenes of natural beauty or perhaps everyday domestic events, but they did not. The first recorded viewing was of a railroad train chugging faster and faster toward the camera. Viewers feared it would crash through the screen and so they ran screaming from the room, thrilled by the spectacle. These early movie-goers’ horrific retreat predates by one hundred years my same instinct to bolt when forced to watch the endless, loud, ghastly previews before the feature film finally appears.
It is not surprising that nineteenth-century audiences would be seeking thrills. The history of Victorian mass entertainment was one of pure sensationalism on stage. Although there was a superabundance of brilliant Victorian novelists and poets, there was a dearth of decent playwrights. If you examine the plays written in the 1800s you’ll discover that 90% were melodramas of the Little Nell-Snidely Whiplash variety, complete with cheers and hisses from the eager audience. Victorians were either running from locomotives at the movie house or gaping at poor Nell tied securely to the railroad tracks on stage.
Melodrama by its definition is untrue to life in its simplification of character and moral issues and its pursuit of violent sensation and crime. By the 1880s, playwrights and theatre managers were more interested in devising ways that whole cities could appear to be burning on stage than they were in examining subtle psychological issues, such as Sophocles once had done in Ancient Greece or as Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett would later do. Only Oscar Wilde, about five years before Queen Victoria would die and usher out her era in 1901, could lure theatre-goers with wit rather than spectacle.
Ours is not an Age of Melodrama today, but it is certainly an age of its close relation: Hype. Being constantly besieged with Overstatement on the internet and in all advertisements, we perhaps have forgotten that it is Understatement which has proven to be especially effective and memorable in expressing our most spectacular concepts. It is not coincidental that we’ve labeled the most powerful address on earth simply “The White House”; or that we’ve modestly named the most awe-inspiring natural site in America “The Grand Canyon”; or that the tenets of law and morality during the last five thousand years are plainly dubbed “The Ten Commandments.” Would any of us want that last phrase changed to “GOD’S GREATEST GUIDELINES!” as Buy-Our-Bibles.com might prefer to label it? No, the humble three-word phrase, beginning with the drab article “the” and followed by a quiet numerical adjective and straightforward noun somehow more perfectly convey the dignity and majesty of the concept.
We should be grateful that in film’s hundred-plus-year history, most cinema viewers have moved beyond the rather masochistic pleasure of fleeing from an approaching train and instead now enjoy viewing substantial and often understated dramas and comedies of tragedy and triumph. And yet many of us today still seem perversely accomplished at incorporating melodrama into our everyday lives.
One of my favorite quotations from Victorian fiction can be found in a lesser-known work of novelist Wilkie Collins—primarily recognized as a great mystery writer (The Moonstone, The Woman in White) and known for his friendship with (you guessed it) Charles Dickens. He wrote an obscure novel, Man and Wife, in 1870. In a marvelous scene, Sir Patrick Lundie converses with his friend Arnold on a sunny afternoon and perfectly captures this human perversity for turning our blessings into bathos:
“Here is a world,” said the old gentleman, “which a merciful Creator has filled with lovely sights, harmonious sounds, delicious scents; and here are creatures with faculties that are expressly made for enjoyment of those sights, sounds, and scents — to say nothing of romance, dinner, and sleep all thrown into the bargain.
And yet these same creatures — what do they do in life? They hate; they starve; they murder; they toss sleepless on their pillows; see nothing pleasant; hear nothing pleasant; smell nothing pleasant — cry bitter tears, say hard words, contract painful illnesses; wither; sink, age, die! What does it all mean, Arnold? And how much longer is it going to go on?”
If I were Arnold and had to answer Sir Patrick, I’d be stumped. All I know from my 73 years of experience is that everybody else’s life, from my outside perspective, seems to be a manageable and rather subdued drama, but MINE has always been absolute, pure soap opera.
Yours too, right?