Melodrama Remediated: The Political Economy of Literary Database Paratexts

Melodrama Remediated: The Political Economy of Literary Database Paratexts

Katherine C. Wilson (Adelphi University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6002-1.ch010
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This chapter reconsiders some tenets of Genette's insightful framework for analyzing paratexts, by examining the transformation of paratexts on one kind of published play—a cheaper, nineteenth-century, English-language “Acting Edition”—after remediation into digital form for new purposes: not for producing theatre, but for studying old drama. Invoking Aiken's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dion Boucicault plays as examples of general patterns, the author first fill in gaps in the inventory of print paratexts, delineating a species of theatrical paratext different from the literary paratexts spotlighted by Genette, that, together with the publisher's commercial communications, referred away from the single author or drama and rendered the publication into a hybrid literary-practical commodity. Moving to the twenty-first century, the chapter touches briefly on the pre-digital academic publishing formats, print anthologies and facsimile microform, which involved paratextual and market practices variously inherited by digital successors. While acknowledging the diverse array of digitized playbooks, the chapter concentrates on the proprietary database Literature Online produced by the Chadwyck-Healey division of a conglomerate corporation ProQuest, couching the remediated play paratexts within shifts in global capitalism. These for-profit paratexts partly reveal their political economy basis in fusion with the ideologies of the academic market and the materiality of their medium, including a new species of partly visible protocols that the author calls actuating marks. Overall, the chapter uses old melodrama to open new views of the performances of paratexts across textual media and embedded in political economy.
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During theatre’s last hurrah in the limelight of popular public entertainment, in the 1850s to 1890s, stages were filled with a medley of performances, from weighty verse tragedy to farce, for audiences comprising most social classes. The prevailing tastes were reflected especially in the popular mode of melodrama, with its suspenseful plot pitting villain against hero and heroine that unfolded with the accompaniment of rousing music. Given theatre’s popularity, playbooks were issued by the thousands in print; dozens passed through multiple editions before 1900. While some plays were published as costly, elegant, hardbound editions, the majority came in the form of cheap workaday pamphlets, which surrounded the drama with other kinds of texts—cast list, advertisements, catalogues, instructions for amateurs, costume description, and others. These elements, though often overlooked by scholars, become more significant when examined under the rubric of paratext, the term coined by Gérard Genette (1997) in his influential book by that name.

Theatre styles evolve separately from the format of playbooks, including its paratexts (which pertain more to technology and markets), and the physical scripts often outlive the plays they contain. With the fin de siècle cultural transition to Modernism, the once-appealing qualities of melodrama lost broad popularity: They became stigmatized as déclassé at an upper social tier, while for the general public, they became increasingly accessible in the mass media entertainment vehicles of moving picture and then radio. Dramatic styles of the mid-nineteenth-century found less room in respectable theatre; they were not studied in school and maligned by most drama scholars, if they were mentioned at all (McConachie, 1995). Despite the demise of old drama styles, however, a surprising quantity of outmoded playbooks endured, vouchsafed by libraries and archives for not-entirely-foreseeable purposes (Wilson, 2012, pp. 201–225). New purposes began appearing when, in cultural developments adjacent to seismic shifts in capitalism, dozens of outmoded plays were reprinted not only for amateur or provincial theatre revivals (e.g., Aiken & Stowe, 1959), but for the remarkable emergence of an intellectual interest in pre-Modernist drama—especially the nineteenth-century American drama that was integral to the young nation’s cultural evolution. This interest provoked a spate of print drama anthologies and microform sets produced by the burgeoning industry of academic publishing, a distinct enterprise from play publishing for theatre markets.

Later, with the advent of affordable digital ware and Internet channels, nineteenth-century drama was remediated into digital form in projects that varied in both content—from a few plays, to mixed genre sets, to enormous drama databases—and economic structure—from volunteer network to non-profit institutions to mammoth corporations. This chapter tracks the transformations of paratexts on a cheaper variety of industrial-era playbooks as they were remediated into digital packages in the early twenty-first century, illustrating how paratexts help us contemplate these cross-media pathways, while the media pathways provoke fresh considerations of paratexts, especially in the light of economic processes. Before reaching the digital phase, I first sketch paratext theory, and then survey patterns of mid- to late-nineteenth-century playbook paratexts—a supplement to Genette’s inventory—after which a mezzanine section considers their transitions in pre-electronic academic publishing. Turning to digital media, I contemplate paratextual remediations—cuts, modifications, and additions—in the American and English drama sets of Literature Online, the proprietary database produced by a large information corporation, ProQuest LLC, couching those processes in recent currents in global capitalism. ProQuest’s database adapts digital protocols, especially an active or “actuating” type that I consider briefly in my concluding comments about medial analysis of paratexts.

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