Melodrama and Cultural Politics

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The men and women sent to New South Wales in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were the objects of punishment and dishonourable exile. They were meant to be ashamed of themselves; to undergo repentance. They were not meant to participate actively in the creation of a new nation state with cultural values of its own. By the early 1830s, however, it was clear that that was precisely what they were doing.

This paper argues that a vital component in the resistance of convicts and former convicts to what were meant to be shaming and silencing processes was the melodrama. In Sydney in the 1830s, as former convicts joined with newly arrived free settlers to press for political representation, English melodrama was used for political purposes. In the theatre, the dominant political culture was subverted; the subversive were encouraged and reinforced. Those attempting to create a local aristocracy from the backs of indentured or slave labour, found themselves thwarted by what was seen as the outrageous defiance of the lower orders; the refusal to be shamed.

In the theatre established by a former convict's brother, ideological warfare was waged. The politics and morality of the aristocracy and upper classes generally were derided; those who had suffered imprisonment were frequently represented as the victims of cruelty, callous indifference of malicious lies. On the stage, they were vindicated. Through the melodrama, they began to construct an alternative story of their disgrace and exile - and thus of their right to full citizenship.


Keywords: Theatre, Cultural Politics, Culture Creation
Stream: History, Historiography
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
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Dr Margaret Lindley

Lecturer, School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Dr Lindley lectures in History at the University of Tasmania, having previously lectured at Monash University. She has also been a teacher of music and of gifted and talented children; a research fellow on Australia's national literacy survey; and manager of strategic projects for the Tasmanian state government. Dr Lindley also comments regularly on sport and current affairs in the Australian media, and provides pre-concert talks for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. She teaches European political history from 1660 to 1945; gender and film history. Her particular research interest is in the nexus between theatre and political life in the broader sense.

Ref: H08P0363