Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Great Melodramas, edited by Robert Saffron with an introduction by Vincent Price (1966)

My next trip through the unread books on my extremely full bookshelves is the anthology Great Melodramas, edited by Robert Saffron with an introduction by Vincent Price (1966) that I bought at a library book sale. The volume contains four late nineteenth-century / early twentieth-century full-length plays, each of which lives up to the name of melodrama, although some are greater than others. The reader also gets a lovely introduction by Vincent Price (!!), where he briefly, but eruditely, talks about his experience playing the villain in Angel Street, and the differences for an actor when playing melodramatic roles (a type of role that Price obviously enjoyed). Here's a bit about each play:

Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, as adapted by Charles Fechter (1868)
Fetcher was a famous nineteenth century British actor (via France) who adapted Dumas’ tale of the ultimate revenge plot for the stage. This one was my least favorite of the four, having read The Count of Monte Cristo, and not particularly adoring Fechter’s pretty drastic changes. Still, if you were only tangentially familiar with the novel, you might get into this one. It was a semi-hit on the stage for Fechter, but saw greater acclaim after his death when James O’Neill (the father of Eugene) played the role for many years.

Secret Service by William Gillette (1895)
This Civil War melodrama was written by the actor / inventor / playwright and extremely fascinating guy, William Gillette. Gillette is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes on the stage after writing a Doyle-authorized play about Holmes and Watson to meet public demand for the enigmatic detective after the sad death of Holmes in The Final Problem (don’t worry, he came back to life later). Gillette is the one who gave Holmes his distinctive pipe and his original catch phrase, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.” He also invented several much used stage effects and equipment, and wrote several melodramas, including Secret Service.

This play was extremely successful and Gillette played the lead role in it over 1,500 times. It was made into a film version in 1931 and again as a filmed play in 1976 starring John Lithgow and Meryl Streep. The play turns on a romance between a Confederate officer and a lovely young woman in Richmond during the civil war. Unfortunately, the officer is suspected of being a Union spy – but is love stronger than loyalty to a cause? There is, as you might imagine, some pretty cringey racial attitudes in this play, which is unfortunate because the action is pretty amazing. The scene with the telegraph practically jumps off the page. I know that sounds kind of dumb, but if any scene about sending a telegraph has ever been dramatic and exciting, it’s this one. You can read some details of the plot at this very nicely researched movie review, or read the whole play here.

The Letter by William Somerset Maugham (1927)
Maugham based this play on one of his short stories, and it literally starts with a bang when a woman fires a gun, a man yells “Oh my God!” and the woman shoots him again and again and again. The woman is Leslie Crosbie, the wife of Robert Crosbie, and the man is their neighbor, Geoffrey Hammond. Leslie claims Geoffrey tried to rape her and she killed him in self-defense, and she is taken into custody as a matter of procedure. It looks like a clear-cut case until a letter comes into play that casts some doubts on Leslie’s story. The action takes place in a British colony on the Malay Peninsula and the island of Singapore and, much like Secret Service, there is racist dialogue and plot points in the play. Still, Leslie is a pretty intriguing character, and the audience isn’t always sure who they should believe (or root for). This was made into a 1940 film starring Bette Davis and it looks suitably melodramatic.

Angel Street (aka Gas Light) by Patrick Hamilton (1938)
All the action in this play takes place in the living room of Mr. and Mrs. Manningham. The wife seems nervous and overly concerned with how the husband is feeling. The husband is confident and brash. Gradually the audience notices a pattern where the husband promises a reward (theater tickets, a nice dinner) and then takes it away due to the wife saying a wrong word or reacting in the wrong way. A big scene is made over a painting that has been taken off the wall, even though the wife denies having moved it. When the husband finds it behind the cupboard, he insists that she must be losing her mind, just like her mother. After he leaves for the evening, a strange man shows up – he’s a detective, and he has some very interesting information for Mrs. Manningham about her husband’s past life and his late night activities. This one was made into a film in 1944 starring Ingrid Berman, and is probably even more famous nowadays as the inspiration for the term “gaslighting” to describe the same kind of mental abuse Mrs. Manningham experiences in the play.

I would have loved to see Vincent Price in this one

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