'Melodrama' is often used by me and by most theatregoers as a pejorative term. Today the word suggests a form of drama that relies on over-intense emotions, improbable plots and thinly drawn characters. But in the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, melodrama was the most popular theatrical genre, until cinema came along, followed by television. On the stage, the goal became drama rather than melodrama, which migrated to the screen. Eugene O'Neill seems to me to combine the two genres while Tennessee Williams can be seen as the last outstanding melodramatic playwright.
The House That Will Not Stand is a new American play by Marcus Gardley, staged at the Tricycle in a typical piece of bold and innovative programming by its director Indu Rubasingham. The risk she has taken in putting on an unknown play about women in New Orleans in 1836 pays off brilliantly. There are all kinds of good things to say about this production, but the one that intrigues me is the way it uses the cliches of 19th century melodrama to tell a story and make it come alive.
The idea of a house full of women and a dominant widow controlling her daughters carries echoes of Lorca's House of Bernarda Alba, and the name of the dead father is Albans, reinforcing the connection. But this is far from being a new version of Lorca; its theme is the complexity of race, gender, colour and class in America in the days before black/white became a binary social division. The play is set among the mixed-race free Creole elite in the years when Louisiana was still being absorbed into the United States, and most blacks were still slaves.
The tripartite racial system -- with similarities to the longstanding structure in apartheid South Africa between blacks, whites and coloureds -- allowed a white man to take a Creole woman as his common-law wife who became 'placée' in the jargon of the time. Lazare Albans' widow is determined that her daughters should not follow this path, although it has provided her with economic security. The insecurity and rivalry facing her daughters is compounded by their different skin colours. One is dark, one is light-skinned and the third somewhere in between.
One of the delights of the play is seeing Tanya Moodie on stage again after her wonderful performance earlier this year in Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel. Here she plays Makeda, the enslaved house servant who dreams of her freedom, and once again she becomes the focal point of the action. While some of the other acting in this production is a little over-emphatic, Moodie is a exceptionally gifted and subtle actor who relies on understatement -- a tiny pause, a raised eyebrow, a moue of the head to achieve her effects.
I was a little confused in the first act by the mixture of genres. There is plenty of comedy and raw emotion, some of it a little over the top. The language is mostly strictly in period, and the writing style is rich and redolent of O'Neill's purple passages. In fact Gardley seems to have deliberately set out to use the melodramatic conventions of 1830s theatre and shape them. There's a disputed inheritance, a half-mad aunt locked in an upper room, a mysterious romantic suitor, a sister bound and gagged by her siblings, a dead body, a hoard of jewels, a hint of poisoning, a voodoo incantation and a ghost. By the second act it all starts to fall into place, and the heightened emotions seem just right.
The only thing this production with its spare design doesn't quite conjure up the atmosphere of the deep South. The sweaty over-ripeness of the Mississipi delta and New Orleans with its heat aren't as palpable as they might be. But the strongly written characters and the subtle way in which the writing exposes their choices easily makes up for this. It's a play that speaks volumes to an audience of black heritage in just the same way as Lynn Nottage's writing does, delving into a particular historical moment and making the people trapped in it seem universal. Melodrama or not, it clicks into top gear.