Melodrama, Convention, and Rape

Melodrama, Convention, and Rape

Branca, R Rene

Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787), Fanny Wright’s Altorf (1819), John Augustus Stone’s Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags (1829), and Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion; or, Life in New York (1845) are all examples of early American dramas that, despite belonging to different genres, employ certain melodramatic conventions that were successful with audiences. Some of these conventions have become formulaic through their popularity, and it isn’t surprising that these four plays share the usual characteristics of traditional melodrama, including highly feminized, passive heroines; virtuous, ideally masculine heroes; treacherous villains who threaten the happiness of others; stark contrasts between good and evil; and, often of central importance, the sexual wrongdoings of men (Dudden 74). An important similarity in these plays, also, is the attempted rape of heroines in Fashion, Metamora, and The Contrast, and the perceived rape of a heroine in Altorf. In order to understand how a situation involving violence against a female character frequently found a place on the stage through the conventions of melodrama, it is necessary to explore how audiences interpreted the situation.

As Bruce McConachie states in Melodramatic Formations, theatrical communication is successful when the spectators can identify with and affirm a particular set of values, roles, and assumptions when they are acted out on the stage. As with all ideologies, these affirmations and identifications serve to both limit and sustain the behavior and belief of their historical subjects (x). Modern readers may find it disturbing that a rape situation is present in comedies at all, but more startling is that these violent situations play a minor role in relation to the rest of the drama, and carry light consequences for the villains in two of them. In all of the plays, the rape (or perceived rape) is interrupted by a male . character, saving the heroine from being victimized or, in the case of Altorf, cursing both parties and demanding vengeance. The threat and consequences of rape were not, however, issues most contemporary audiences raised about the productionsrather, their concerns were focused on staging these situations as they related to the characters involved, and discerning whether or not those characters behaved in accordance to the social beliefs of the time.

In The Contrast, the earlier of the two comedies, the attempted rape of Charlotte by Dimple is played out in a rather traditional way. The melodrama thematizes men’s sexual wrongdoings, patriarchal domination, and inability to keep implicit promises to protect women (Dudden 74). In the middle of the last scene of the last act, Charlotte is left alone with Dimple, when she expresses her sadness at seeing him about to marry another character. The following conversation ensues:

DIMPLE: Have I not already satisfied my charming angel that I can never think of marrying the puling Maria?

But even if it were so, could that be any bar to our happiness; for, as the poet sings

“Love, free as air, at sight of human ties, Spreads his light wings, and in a moment flies.”

Come then, my charming angel! Why delay our bliss?

The present moment is ours; the next is in the hand of fate. (Kissing her)

CHARLOTTE:Begone, Sir! By your delusions you had almost lulled my honour asleep.

DIMPLE: Let me lull the demon to sleep again with kisses! (He struggles with her, she screams) (Act V scene i)

The struggle is interrupted by Manly, Charlotte’s brother, who draws his sword against Dimple. Soon he is joined by other male characters, Jonathan and Van Rough, and the action that follows (not the assault on Charlotte) constitutes the climax of the play.

The lines between Charlotte and Dimple illustrate the melodramatic tendency to give gender to vice and virtue. According to Dudden, the villain must be male, and virtue must be at least partly embodied by the female. The struggle to defeat the villain invites the audience (and particularly the audience’s female members) to identify with the embattled woman on the stage being persecuted by the evil man and to relish his downfall (70-71).

Significantly, with these lines Tyler also makes the distinction between rape and seduction clear. According to 18th century social beliefs, women who were victims of seduction inspired pity for their moral weakness rather than outrage for crimes committed against them (Clark 79). Therefore, it is not fitting to have a seduced (i.e. morally weak) character presented on stage whom the audience expects to embody virtue. The stage directions clearly indicate a physical struggle between the man and the woman, and call for Charlotte to scream out for help rather than to submit quietly to Dimple’s advances. By this action, she makes herself the least passive heroine in the three dramas staging an attempted rape. Because of her earlier portrayal of being “coquettish” and a “libertine”, Charlotte’s scream and willingness to fight offer the audience proof that she is, after all, a virtuous woman. Manly’s entrance onto the stage just in time to prevent the “undoing” of his sister also allows the audience to entertain the melodramatic fantasy that “cruel and powerful men, in time, would be punished” (Dudden 71).

A staging of an attempted rape would also draw a crowd, always a point of consideration for any playwright. It is not accidental that the most popular advertisement for The Contrast is William Dunlap’s engraving of this scene. Dunlap’s work shows a traumatized Charlotte (the only female present) at stage left, leaning for support on the arm of Manly, whose sword is drawn. Jonathan, Manly’s servant, physically blocks Charlotte from Dimple while standing in a fighting position, center stage, with his fists balled. Van Rough, on the right, is trying to separate Jonathan and Dimple with raised hands, but is physically upstaged by both men. Dimple, with an enraged look, has a sword drawn against the unarmed Jonathan (Wilmeth 10).

Anyone completely ignorant of the plot would gather enough from this advertisement to see that the woman was in danger from the aggressive Dimple, and was being shielded by the other men. According to Anna Clark, who has done extensive studies into rape trials in late 18th and early 19th century Britain, illustrations showing this sort of imagery were often used in both England and America for publicizing rape trials. These trials had high public attendance and were often viewed as a sort of “titillating performance”, especially for wealthy men. A popular late 18th century novel, Mount Hennetb, claims that for certain gentlemen, “a trial for rape is an excellent pastime” (Clark 35). Worse, the trials for rape themselves at this time were viewed as a sort of public performance, presented as dramas, and were often the main social event in provincial towns. The pomp and ceremony of the courts attracted well-dressed audiences, and the transcripts of trials were printed in play-form. Often, prosecuting victims faced laughter from the galleries when they attempted to give a detailed account of the assault, as though they were acting out a lewd comedy (Clark 54). The fact that the exchange between Charlotte and Dimple is of minor importance to the play calls into question its selection for the engraving for any reason other than to entice a primarily male audience with an implicit promise of some degree of sexual violence. McConachie argues that although men in the audience saw melodramatic villains as embodying their sexual drives, they did not like to believe that their own actions were motivated by sexual desire: They applauded plays that allowed them to “heap their fantasized, sexualized sins on the backs of villains” who were then driven from the stage (51).

It is easy to miss the threat of rape in the second act of Fashion, since it is so fleeting and inconsequential. In scene two, Gertrude is alone in the conservatory when the Count enters. After a verbal exchange in which Gertrude’s disdain for the Count and her desire to be left alone have been made clear to the spectators, she attempts to leave. The Count prevents her, and the following dialogue occurs:

COUNT: How (preventing her from leaving) Don’t run away, my immaculate petite Américaine! Demme , you’ve quite overlooked my condescension- the difference of our stations- you a species of upper servant – an orphan – no friends.

GERTRUDE: And therefore more entitled to the respect and protection of every true gentleman! Had you been one, you would not have insulted me! C

COUNT: My charming little orator, patriotism and declamation become you particularly! (Approaches her) I feel quite tempered to taste (ActII scene ii)

Here the action is interrupted by the intrusion of Trueman, who thrashes the Count once with a hickory stick. After making a hasty excuse to Mrs. Tiffany in which the blame for the abortive attack falls entirely upon Gertrude, the Count escapes. Although the encounter is brief and quickly forgotten by both victim and aggressor (Gertrude is later seen dancing with the Count at the Tiffany’s ball), there are some telling points in the conversation that mirror late 18th and early 19th century British and American views on the subject of rape and female sexuality of which Mowatt’s audience would have been aware.

The first word the Count uses to describe Gertrude in this scenario is “immaculate”. This word refers to, naturally enough, the purity and cleanliness of female chastity. That Gertrude is a virgin is never called into question-she is a heroine and must therefore be chaste. Mowatt takes care to use the melodramatic convention of the white-clad virgin in her stage directions: Gertrude appears on stage dressed in white with a white rose in her hair. This makes a visual statement to the audience about Gertrude’s primary trait, her chastity, before she delivers any lines revealing her character. Gertrude’s sexuality is of such primary importance that when others erroneously believe she has seduced the Count, her lover spurns her, her grandfather disowns her, and Mrs. Tiffany fires her, claiming she is no longer fit for their home (Watt and Richardson 105-7). Because Gertrude is ultimately a commodity, cut off from her supportive female community of aunts, and submitting, through a formal act of obedience, to be given in marriage (without consent) by her grandfather, her chastity is of even more importance (Kritzer 17). In fact, when Gertrude’s “dishonor” seems apparent, she is denied not only the right to speak, but also the rights to basic human treatment. When her grandfather shouts at her:

How dare you have the face, girl, to talk of rights? You had more rights than you thought for, but you have forfeited them all! All right to love, respect, protection, and not a little else you don’t dream of! (Watt and Richardson 106-7)

his reaction seems to indicate that he, also, has been damaged by Gertrude’s imprudence; that is, she has cost him something so valuable that she is no longer worthy of decent treatment.

According to Anna Clark, rape at this time could be punished by death because it was a type of murder: a woman’s chastity defined her worth as a person, and without it, she herself was worthless (47). American views were similar, and the instant abandonment by everyone of Gertrude, who is not allowed to speak in her own defense, can be seen as a reflection of this belief.

Although the Count’s mention of his condescension is, of course, meant to be humorous, it also marks out the distinction between his social sphere and Gertrude’s, emphasizing her solitary position. Clark claims that rape and the threat of rape provided reassurance of the “naturalness” of separate spheres for men and women, in order for women to be “truly protected”. The ideology is false, because women were attacked in their homes as often as they were outside of them (3)-the fact that this scene takes place in an indoor conservatory and not in an outdoor garden reinforces this. However, the Count is making the distinctions between his place and Gertrude’s clear-she is a domestic servant, (and a particularly vulnerable one due to her lack of male connections), while he is truly a “man of the world”. As a man of the world, the Count seems to represent the 19th century notion that he can “take” any women he wants as part of the masculine privilege of belonging to the dominant sex (34).

Perhaps the most revealing part of the Count’s speech is his announcement that her protest “becomes her particularly” (Watt and Richardson 94). He says this while approaching her, and Mowatt is using his line to provide the audience with insight into the Count’s mind. These lines need to be spoken out loud so that the audience may learn by what means he is justifying himself. Clark notes that Manusseh Dawes, a London barrister on the criminal law, claimed that rape was the “artless sincerity of natural passion.” He went on to say that, in the rapist, “desire is whetted, importunity fails, passion increases, opportunity is favorable, and natural force is employed.” Dawes blamed the female victim because “her endearments alone excited” the violence committed upon her (34). The Count’s speech makes it seem as though Gertrude’s charms are tempting him to his action-an action that he would not otherwise feel the need to employ. The play is a comedy, and to remain so, this justification of his actions is needed for him to be seen as “redeemable” at the end of the play, and allow his menacing of a woman to go largely unpunished. It also enables the audience to downplay the importance of what could have happened.

One further noteworthy point is Trueman’s “rescue” of Gertrude. He represents the male with a blood claim on the heroine, who is responsible for avenging any crime committed against her. Theatrically, Trueman’s entrance is necessary because it is unlikely that Gertrude, as a highly feminized and nonassertive heroine, would have been able to do much to defend herself other than scream, and the Count has already informed the audience that everyone else is gone (Watt and Richardson 93). Gertrude is sensible of this and exclaims “Oh! Now I am quite safe!” (94) when Trueman intervenes. He returns with a paradoxical (and prophetic) comment “Safe! Not a bit safer than before! All women would be safe, if they knew how virtue became them!” (94). He has overheard Gertrude asking to be left alone, action that a virtuous woman would take to prevent the assault, and yet he claims that although virtue should protect her, she is not safer. His comment can mean that Gertrude will not be safe from the Count until she recognizes the temptation her resistance poses for him, feeding into the prevailing belief of 19th century spectators that women are responsible for the way men perceive them.

In the romantic tragedy Metamora, the evil actions of the villain differ from those in the comedies primarily in that the villain pays for them with his life. One way to account for this difference is to look at how this melodramatic theme functions between genres: Dudden claims that in a comedic melodrama, the heroine’s virtue is only threatened and the male villain must be undone. In a tragedy, however, there is the distinct possibility of the heroine losing her virtue through rape. Should this happen, her death becomes necessary; therefore, the threat of rape cannot be viewed with the same lightness warranted by the comedy. Interestingly, the stage directions for Fitzarnold’s attack on Oceana when he finds her alone at her mother’s tomb are not as clear as in the comedies-rather the action must be determined by the lines.

FITZARNOLD:Thou hast no choice…my stripling rival in thy love has left thee here defenseless and alone. I deem as nothing thy unnatural hate, and only see thy fair and lovely form; and though thy flashing eyes were armed with lightning, thus would my arms enfold thee!

OCEANA: (clings to tomb) Now, if thou darest, approach me-now whilst with my mother’s spirit hovering over me-whilst thus with tearful eyes and breaking heart I call on heaven to blast the bold audacious wretch, who seeks a daughter’s ruin o’er her parent’s grave.

FITZARNOLD: Aye, despite of all.

METAMORA: (in tomb) Hold! Touch her not!

OCEANA: Hark to that voice! Kind Heaven has heard my prayers! (The door of the tomb opens, METAMORA appears, OCEANA faints and falls) (Act V scene i)

Present as usual is the villain’s justification for what he is about to do; he sees only the physical beauty of Oceana, and does not acknowledge her disdain for him, deeming her refusal “as nothing.” However, Stone is using a subtle tactic to evoke the audience’s sympathy on Oceana’s behalf by the way he has her respond. Not only is her reference to her departed mother’s spirit and tomb meant to reinforce how alone the heroine is-it is also meant to reinforce her position as a child, even though she is of marital age and is referred to by other characters as a “woman” and a “lady”. In the 19th century, the rape of children was viewed as much more unacceptable than the rape of adult women for a number of reasons. Because the rape of children was unprocreative it was considered “unnatural,” and thus carried with it a heavier penalty and heavier social stigma (Clark 42). Also, it was believed that a child, once violated, would have no other recourse than prostitution for survival (42).

Because this scenario takes place within the traditions of a tragedy, the “ruin” of Oceana could result in a similar fate for her, one an audience would not wish for a girl obviously representing virtue. Her identification as both orphan and child should serve as a double source of protection from Fitzarnold and sympathy from the viewers. When Fitzarnold claims that he will have her “despite of all,” his villainy becomes irredeemable and his death necessary to avenge his treatment of the female characters. However, his attempt to rape Oceana, like those of the evil men in the other plays, is downplayed when Metamora makes it known that Fitzarnold has wronged him, and not the girl. When Fitzarnold asks what he has done, he is informed that by striking Nahmeokee, Metamora’s wife, he forfeited his life. The two then fight and Fitzarnold is slain.

The stage directions here specifically call for Oceana to faint the moment she feels she is out of danger, a tactic also used by Wright for the character of Rosina in Altorf. Although the fainting heroine is another stereotype of melodrama, a woman fainting while she is in danger of being raped posed a quandary for 19th century spectators. Clark points out that a woman who claims to have fainted during an assault had two major advantages over a woman who remained conscious-she was spared from giving a detailed (and often humiliating) account of what happened to her before a primarily unsympathetic male courtroom, and her chances of receiving justice from the court were better because her action (or lack of action) during the attack could not be used by the defense against her (82). It seems horrendous from the point of view of a modern audience, but Stone’s spectators (at least the women) would have realized that for someone in Oceana’s position, fainting was the most effective form of self-defense. It would have made it easier for Fitzarnold to attack her, but the audience would know that at least she would be spared the painful memory, and that perhaps some justice would be afforded her later. Although Oceana believes she is safe when Metamora appears, she still has no way of knowing who will win the altercation. By fainting, she preserves herself threefold-she is protected from witnessing the consequences if Fitzarnold wins, she is spared the sight of his death if he loses, and she is absolved of the responsibility of trying to stop the men from murdering one another, as she did with Mordaunt and Walter, which her role as heroine requires of her.

There may also be another motive for the playwrights’ inclusion of the attempted rape of their heroines. Clark claims that in the thousand cases of sexual assault during the late 18th and early 19th century in England she examined, there was only a 7-13% conviction rate for men accused of rape. However, when the men were charged with attempted rape, the conviction rate leapt to 25% (47). The reason for this is intriguing: a woman who fought off her attacker still retained her chastity, and was therefore considered a credible witness and her testimony worthy. Also, she demonstrated her worth as a sexual possession for her current or future husband. Consequently, by presenting heroines who find themselves imperiled but manage to escape from their attacks with virginity intact, Tyler, Mowatt, and Stone give their audiences women who increase their own worth and the feminine virtue they embody.

Franny Wright’s tragedy Altorf puts the question of sexual morality on the stage in a different light for her audience. In her play, the heroine Rosina is not sexually threatened by Altorf, who is also not a villain (rather, he is a flawed hero). However, as Rosina and Altorf meet in the wilds during war, Rossberg, the heroine’s father, surprises them after overhearing the already-married Altorf “claim” Rosina as his own. When he enters, he believes that the act has already been committed, and both Rosina and Altorf are guilty not only of her loss of virtue, but also of adultery:


ALTORF: Who art thou, cursed intruder?

ROSINA: Support me, heaven! It is-it is my father.

ROSSBERG: Well may you both stand blank!

Daughter, is’t thus-Is’t thus thou dar’st insult thy father’s name, his rank, his honor, blood and dignity? [ROSINA faints]

ALTORF: Spare-spare reproaches! God of heaven, she dies!

ROSSBERG:Die? Let her die! Leave her, I say, vile traitor! Thou base ravisher, dost not fear a father?

After Altorf revives Rosina, Rossberg orders him to draw his sword for a duel. Rosina interjects, placing the blame on herself:

ROSINA: Only I am guilty, if guilty either be! Oh, sheath it father! Altorf, thou dars’t not draw.

ALTORF: No, fear it not. Rossberg, a moment’s audience.

ROSSBERG: Audience, traitor! Is’t not enough to see my daughter’s shame, but must I hear it? (Act IV, scene I)

Here Wright uses melodramatic convention to assign moral value to characters who do not traditionally fit into the categories of good and evil. Paye Dudden suggests that women found melodrama appealing because its heroines often “displayed extraordinary initiative, tenacity, and grit,” despite the presence of many passive women needing to be rescued by male characters (71). Certainly, Rosina demonstrates “grit” breaking the traditional confines of a “woman’s place” by deserting her father, dressing as a man, and roaming the wilds alone in search of her lover, who is irrevocably bound in marriage to another. Such behavior from a woman in Wright’s day was deemed inappropriate. In the first half of the 19th century the myth that rape served as “punishment’ for a woman leaving her “proper place” (Clark 1) focused attention on the sexual dangers facing women in public. It is no accident that Rossberg’s first assumption upon meeting Rosina and Altorf together is that his daughter has been ravished; nor is it accidental that he blames her for the perceived attack. Wright’s audiences knew that for a woman to be seen “walking out” with a man to whom she was not related meant that her moral character was questionable, therefore making her liable for any violence she experienced (112).

In Rosina, Wright has presented a moral problem: On the one hand, as the heroine, her intentions are good-she leaves her home and risks personal injury for love of a man who should have been her rightful husband. On the other, Rosina is shaming her father by her liberties and is soliciting undying love from someone else’s husband. Wright effectively works around this by having Rosina face the “consequences” of her own actions (i.e. her father’s belief in her dishonor) while sparing a “good” character from an actual rape and allowing her to be redeemed in her father’s eyes later on in the play.

Like Trueman, Rossberg’s initial reaction to what he sees is one of anger. His accusations that his daughter has “insulted his name” along with his “rank, honor, blood, and dignity” indicate that the crime has been as much against him as it was against her. In fact, he is perfectly willing to let Rosina die while he simultaneously attempts to avenge his name rather than his daughter.

However, Rosina’s reaction to the situation varies from the heroines in the previous plays in that she takes the blame for what has happened from Altorf and places it solely on herself. Laura Mandell in Misogynous Economies claims that melodramatic scenes in which a woman chastises herself indicate the author’s implicit belief in the victim’s responsibility for the crime committed against her (38). This conviction would not have been uncommon in Wright’s day. Clark reports that due to common views of women being at fault for an assault, other women were less likely to sympathize with and support a rape victim at this time (30-31). Victims themselves were less likely to mention the crime because of feelings of shame and self-blame (29).

Rossberg’s claim that his witnessing of his daughter’s shame should be enough and that he should not have to bear of it as well can be easily overlooked by modern readers as part of the audience’s perception of the rape dynamic in this play. Society branded as “immodest” any woman who had enough sexual knowledge to describe clearly what had happened to her-erasing all doubt as to the stainlessness of her character, and subsequently bringing further shame upon the family (Clark 63). In an 1826 edition of the Morning Chronicle a writer went so far as to excuse any father who preferred to let “the injury of his daughter escape punishment” rather than to hear her answer the questions aloud which would inevitably be put to her (63). This avoidance left no room for daughters to justify themselves. By encouraging fathers “not to hear the details” in an attempt to preserve their fragmented sense of peace, this cultural attitude undermined the importance of justice for women who had been violated, as well as reinforced the value of appearances. This strengthens Wright’s choice to have the “appearance” of a rape cater to the audience’s moral perception of the characters within the confines of the play’s action in lieu of an attempted rape.

Although it may be disheartening now to see how frequently the threat of sexual danger against a helpless woman was presented on the stage in early American theatre, it is a mistake to view that threat as a melodramatic stereotype, an expression of patriarchal desire or misogyny, or even as “something the viewers expected.” Each reenactment of an ancient struggle between man and woman sheds light on several widely held social beliefs concerning morality, femininity, and sexuality that the authors and audiences contended with, regardless of how outdated or “wrong” they may seem today. The conventions of melodrama continue to provide modern readers with a tool for examining these situations as the playwrights’ audiences would have understood them.


Clark, Anna. Women’s Silence, Men’s Violence: Sexual Assault in England 1770-1845. London: Pandora, 1987.

Dudden, Faye. Women in the American Theatre. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.

Kritzer, Amelia Howe. “Comedies by Early American Women”. Cambridge Companion to American Women Playwrights. Ed Brenda Murphy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999: 19-30.

Mandell, Laura. Misogynous Economies: The Business of Literature in 18th Century Britain. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1999.

McConachie, Bruce A. Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society, 1820-1870. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1992.

Mowatt, Anna Cora. Fashion, or; Life in New York. American Drama: Colonial to Contemporary. Ed. Stephen Watt & Gary Richardson. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1995. 83-115.

Stone, John Augustus. Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags. American Drama: Colonial to Contemporary. 55-79.

Tyler, Royall. The Contrast. American Drama: Colonial to Contemporary. 21-51.

Wilmeth, Don B. Staging the Nation: Plays from the American Theatre, 1787-1909. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.

Wright, Franny. Altorf. Plays by Early American Women, 1775-1850. Ed. Amelia · Howe Kritzer. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995. 217-78.

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