Here comes the “Niagara of blood” [Tracing Sweeney Todd – part 5]

Charles Morgan wrote for New York Times an article “Melodrama as an art: a study in contrasts, Sweeney Todd and Mary Dugan as exponents of diverse styles,” on April 1, 1928, four years after the premiere of Sweeney Todd on Broadway. He compared and contrasted the two plays that shared a similarity of presenting criminals at the heart of the stories. From this essay we can find some information about the style of the Sweeney production, at least based on this writer’s review. By the time he wrote it, it seemed that melodramatic style had become somehow outdated as realism came to the contemporary theatre. However, Morgan said that there were still good things about Sweeney Todd that were worth appreciation. The Trial of Mary Dugan, according to Morgan, claimed to be “the exact reproduction of an American murder trial,” while Sweeney Todd, he argued “on the contrary, does not aim at being an ‘exact reproduction’ of anything in heaven or on earth,” which he thought to be its “outstanding merit.” He went on describing that the piece as obeying an artistic convention of melodramatic style, which was indeed different from realist convention, and therefore, deserved objective judgment. Unlike naturalism’s “slice of life” rules, it presented selected high moments of a life course, and this guaranteed a highly dramatic plot.

The convention of Sweeney Todd is roughly this—the high lights of the picture are required to suggest the whole picture. This is the opposite of the genuinely naturalistic convention that is derived from Ibsen—a convention which often requires imagining of the whole to expand from an accumulation of details each of which, considered separately, might be insignificant and undramatic.

Further, Morgan said that melodrama is “a means of creating emotion by fantastic enlargement, and has nothing in common with plain photography.” He also defended melodrama as a convention having its own privilege despite the change of theatrical trends. “It is true that to us who are experienced in realism and pseudo-realism the melodramatic convention is now so unfamiliar that we are inclined to laugh at it, just as we are inclined to laugh at a Chinese play done in the Chinese manner; but that is the fault of our unfamiliarity, not of the convention itself.”

How exactly was the look of the Sweney Todd production that some reviewers considered melodramatically laughable? We can infer from Morgan that it must be “bigger than life,” exaggeration here and there, something that in the course of naturalist fashion had become ridiculous. Morgan gave examples of the use of elements in the show that indicated the style: the window shadow, the barber chair, the razor and the cut throat. “When Todd lures a victim into his shop, we see the barber, the customer, the razor and the whole tragic event thrown in gigantic shadow on the frosted panes of the shop.” Morgan was aware of how some people might think how absurd it was to do such a horrendous act near the window, risking people witnessing it, even only through the shadows.

And the barber’s chair, which throws men into the vaults, is much bigger and more elaborate machine than ‘exact reproduction’ requires; it is the centre of a huge see-saw, and when it moves, half the floor moves with it. And when Todd cuts a lady’s throat, he turns her straight toward the audience, uses a razor a couple of feet long, and lets loose a Niagara of blood.

All of these descriptions show the exaggeration qualities of the presentation, as comic as they sound, all meant to shock the audience beyond their natural everyday reactions, which was exactly what melodrama aimed at doing to the audiences who came to the performance to be affected particularly in this manner, which is not to be compared to, or confused with, means of naturalism.
The bombastic tendencies of melodrama should also be understood within the socio-economic context under which those techniques emerged at the first place. John L. Fell quoted a melodramatist who explained the “writing for the eye” technique he had learned.

One of the first tricks I learned was that my plays must be written for an audience who, owing to the huge, uncarpeted, noisy theaters, couldn’t always hear the words, and who, a large percentage of them having only recently laded in America, couldn’t have understood them in any case. I therefore wrote for the eye rather than the ear and played out each emotion in action, depending on my dialogue only for the noble sentiments so dear to audiences of that class (25).

And thus, melodrama had its own justification to appear bigger than life to the point of being considered rough and unsophisticated by the high middle class audiences. It was meant to be highly visual because it was demanded to be so. A loud performance for a loud audience, melodrama had been long associated with working class group of audiences.

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