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A melodious anti-melodrama–Underscoring, song and parody in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

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Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby (1838–1839) is arguably the author’s most melodramatic novel, as Dickens adopts the grandiloquence and histrionic hyperbole of Victorian melodrama. The narrator repeatedly defines the principal conflict between Nicholas and Ralph in melodramatic terms, and both of these characters (along with the helpless and noble-hearted heroines, Kate Nickleby and Madeline Bray) possess traits that were commonly found in the characters that populated the Victorian stage. Nevertheless, Dickens also satirizes the conventions of melodrama through his humorous depiction of the Crummles Theatre Company; Mr Crummles’s wry observations about how to manipulate audience sympathies are humorously applicable to Dickens’s narrator, and thus to Dickens himself. This dialectic between the genuinely melodramatic elements of the text and the pastiche of melodrama sets up the tensions that would define the most famous and acclaimed adaptation of Dickens’s novel: The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1980). This epic adaptation dramatizes the complete Dickensian text (including the narrator’s narrative prose), but simultaneously eschews the conventions of Victorian melodrama in favour of modern and postmodern performance techniques. The musical score to the RSC adaptation epitomizes this contrast, for composer Stephen Oliver’s score embraces the conventions of Victorian theatre music while simultaneously drawing attention to the absurdity of many of these conventions; although the primary purpose of Oliver’s music is to provide melodramatic underscoring that reinforces the emotion of each scene, the composer likewise incorporates diegetic interludes and randomly placed songs that disrupt the continuity of the Dickensian narrative and draw the audience’s attention to the ‘falseness’ of what is transpiring onstage. The sense of pastiche and Brechtian parody conveyed through songs such as ‘Mrs. Grudden’s Goodbye’ and ‘The Patriotic Song’ further links the adaptation to isDickensian source, as these pastiches, like the pastiches in Dickens’s own text, are directly connected to the Crummles family.
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Keywords: Brechtian theatre; Dickens; Nicholas Nickleby; melodrama; parody; stage music

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: United States Military Academy

Publication date: 2012-10-04

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  • Adaptation, or the conversion of oral, historical or fictional narratives into stage drama has been common practice for centuries. In our own time the processes of cross-generic transformation continue to be extremely important in theatre as well as in the film and other media industries. Adaptation and the related areas of translation and intertextuality continue to have a central place in our culture with a profound resonance across our civilisation.
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