The Devil’s Advocate: Melodrama is Good!

In the 2004 film Troy, after a climactic battle where Achilles kills Hector, Andromache, beset by grief for the death of her husband, basically does nothing. The actress gives a performance of subdued shock, blinking heavily before slacking against the parapet wall. This is in stark contrast to the way Homer describes the scene in the Iliad:

stunned to the point of death, struggling for breath now and coming back to life, [Andromache] burst out in grief among the Trojan women: “Oh Hector—I am destroyed! . . . would to god he’d (her father) never fathered me! . . . and leave me here to waste away in grief!


and just look at how Hector’s mother, Hecuba, reacts:

And now his mother began to tear her hair . . . she flung her veil to the ground and raised a high, shattering scream.

In the Iliad, Andromache’s reaction is an example of melodrama. Like cliche, writing melodramatically is one of those things writers are warned never to do. It’s been taught to me by many a teacher and many a book. We are told that melodrama is exaggerated behavior, that real people in real life don’t act that way. In written fiction as well as in film, there seems to be a growing fashion of subdued emotion. Almost never does an actor cry with rage, as Charlton Heston used to in movies like Ben Hur. Tonight I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; and while I did enjoy the movie, Harry, Ron and Hermione’s portrayals left me cold. But I don’t blame the actors or the director. They did what resonates with American and English audiences today.

Examples of melodrama abound not only in Homer, but throughout Greek literature. In Euripides’ Medea, a wife slaughters her own sons to punish her husband’s infidelity. If you watch the play in the original Ancient Greek, women in the chorus run around the stage screeching (even in modern Greek soap operas, there is a lot of this going on). The Greek tradition of melodrama did not remain unique to Greece, but extended throughout Europe. The way Hamlet admonishes his mother for betraying her dead husband can only be called melodrama. Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries also falls into this category. After the turn of the century, however, the trend was to move away from such theatrics. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot, the author describes, with great pride, how calmly the British make for the life boats after their ship is sunk by a German U-Boat. It was not long before subdued emotion turned from a virtue into the only behavior accepted to be realistic.

Despite my sincerest efforts to adopt it, the notion that melodrama is over-the-top has never sat well with me, because my personal experience differs greatly. There are certainly people who take pain and suffering with quiet reserve, damning up their emotions and keeping a “stiff upper lip” so to speak. But I grew up in a Greek household, where screaming and hair pulling and table smashing was not too uncommon. My wife, who is from a much more subdued Moroccan culture, was horrified when first witnessing an argument in my family. She couldn’t understand how, the following day, we could all be chummy as if nothing had happened. Greece has a long storied history of civil war and reconciliation, because we are a passionate and forgiving people. One of my favorite movies, I Love You to Death, a dark comedy about an Italian family (which could have just as easily been Greek), illustrates the point beautifully. In the film, a wife attempts to murder her husband (played wonderfully by Kevin Kline) for his infidelity. After several failed attempts to kill him, and much hilarity, she is arrested. When her husband finds out about it, from the hospital where he is being treated for the bullet in his head, he immediately bails her out of jail—then begs on hands and knees for her forgiveness.

I am not opposed to the American and British ethos of subdued emotion, or subtext. In fact, I find it quite refreshing, because I am not a fan of arguments that leave your vocal cords sore (or having my wife try and kill me). But to be taught, for the sake of fiction, that people simply “do not behave that way” is absurd. Maybe not in your household, but they do in mine. If I were to write a piece of fiction portraying typical American life, a lot of hair pulling might be inappropriate. But in a fantasy setting, where cultures vary greatly from our own, how can we expect the characters to always react the same way we do? If we are to place our characters in settings inspired by ancient time periods, how can we not expect them to behave the way we are told by Homer people of that time behaved?

What constitutes melodrama is a matter of culture. In the early days of Fantasy and Sci-Fi, there was a bias towards women and sex. Today, we take for granted that women can play the roles traditionally reserved for men; women don’t have to be the damsels in distress; they can fight, even play the hero. We have also come to accept diverse sexuality as aspects of culture. No longer do we limit sex to monogamous man/woman relationships. And yet, the same cultural sensibility is not applied to verbal and emotional behavior. To me, it seems, every character, in every fictional universe, no matter how bizarre and alien, must conform to this credo of reserved emotion. Without even realizing it, a lot of fiction today is limited by American cultural biases. My wife has suggested that my novel might be better appreciated in foreign markets, since they can better appreciate its Greek influences. After all, I was not raised on a diet of Tolkien. My Lord of the Rings is the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Arabian Nights and the Kalevala. I’ve done my best to portray a spectrum of cultural diversity in Ages of Aenya, but I am unwilling to ignore my own social experience.

Often, critics will say, Who talks like that? And I have an answer for them. Greeks do. Or, more specifically, my father does. My father has been known to stand at the dinner table to recite, with perfect clarity, from Socrates or Solon or Herodotus. Nobody in my family finds this the least bit unusual. For the longest time, my father has asked me to write his life story. It is something I have been putting off due to my busy schedule, and to the fact that my writing style hasn’t prepared me for a biography. Still, I grin whenever I think of all the melodramatic things my father has said over the years.

2 thoughts on “The Devil’s Advocate: Melodrama is Good!

  1. Nick, I think your writing style has *uniquely* prepared you for biography (or at least for autobiography.) It makes your stories about yourself vastly entertaining. If you can depict your father's life with that kind of flair (without outraging the family too much,) it will be a story well worth reading. Sometimes style really *does* make all the difference, and yours is a style that does.

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  2. I appreciate your comments; I only wish I knew your name, but I know Blogger makes it a hassle to do so. It's also kind of odd, in a nice way, to get feedback on something you wrote 3 years ago! I would like to write my father's story, but I am still busy working on Aenya. Fantasy is still my forte.

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