"Melodrama: The Politics of Excess"

This course will study literary and artistic expressions of melodrama (including paintings, film and opera) as a means of investigating the role emotion plays in our judgment of good versus bad art. We will undertake close readings and provocative interpretations of canonical examples of melodrama, including Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Aiken's astonishingly successful stage adaptation of that novel, but we will also consider works that do not fit within the traditional parameters of this genre, and yet feel nonetheless to be melodramatic--for instance, Shakespeare's King Lear, Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis, Melville's Billy Budd, and selections from Plath's The Bell Jar. As we arrive at a working definition of melodrama, we will consider why this designation has attracted such suspicion and disdain by reading selections from Brecht's and Shaw's theories of the theatre, and by consulting the arguments of literary critics like Peter Brooks and Linda Williams.

The questions that we will ask of the works on our syllabus will also inform the way we discuss our own writing. For example, we will examine the place of emotion in the scholarly essay by considering how the academic standards of impartiality and formality can be reconciled with our desire to write with charm, warmth, and enthusiasm. The goal of the course will be to analyze with new sensitivity the relation of meaning to feeling in the objects we study, as well as the work we produce.

The course requirements include regular attendance and participation in class discussions, six very short (1-2pp) essays, two of which must be revised, and one longer, comparative essay of no more than 7 pages.