Melodrama Research Consortium Website

Hi all,

Just a reminder to check out the Melodrama Research Consortium’s website:

The Melodrama Research Consortium was founded by Matt Buckley and brings together scholars from several disciplines to foster collaborative networks for studying this pervasive, but challenging, genre. One of its undertakings is the Melodrama Database Project. This will rely on contributions from members to provide data  which allows for the genre to be mapped in space and time.

Matt recently emailed all members to update us on exciting developments and to emphasise that new members are always welcome. You can take advantage of this fantastic opportunity  via this link to the Consortium’s website:




Summary of Discussion on Black Book

Posted by Sarah

The discussion on Black Book ranged widely and encompassed: the film’s relationship to melodrama; the trope of the suffering woman; the family in melodrama; rhythm in melodrama and the film’s unending revelations of betrayals; the film’s characters Akkermans and Muntze; moral ambiguity; costume; women’s fluid identity/ies); melodrama and real life.

Black book Rachel Ellis sufferingWe began by isolating some of the elements which coincided with our understanding of melodrama. The continuous suffering of the main female character Rachel/Ellis (played by Carice van Houten) was especially noted. The group has commented on the suffering female(s) present in previous, and varied, screenings, including:  D.W. Griffiths’ The Mothering Heart (1913), Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson 1940, George Cukor 1944), Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954), Twin Peaks (TV 1990-1991), and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Black Book RachelEllis bombingThe film begins in 1950s Israel but soon a triggered memory causes it to flash back to Nazi-occupied Holland in 1944. At his time Jewish Rachel Stein is separated from her real family and finds shelter with a Christian family.  Her relatively quiet existence is soon shattered as her hiding place is bombed when she is out, presumably along with its inhabitants. Rachel’s real family has been hiding elsewhere but soon they are reunited. This might at first appear coincidental (another important melodramatic trope which is also present elsewhere in the film) but is in fact explained away by a mutual acquaintance (her father’s solicitor Smaal) being aware of Rachel’s plans and informing her family.  Almost immediately after the family reunion Rachel witnesses the slaughter of her mother, father and brother just when they, and other Jewish families, seemed on the road to freedom. After losing her surrogate family and home then, Rachel’s suffering is heightened, indeed overtaken, by the loss of her real family.

The family is often central to melodrama, and it is also the case here since it prompts Rachel’s later action, and she relives this particularly traumatic scene. On the first occasion this is implicit. In Rachel’s new, non-Jewish, identity of Ellis de Vries she has joined the Dutch resistance. These defend themselves against Nazi soldiers, gunning them down, and then stripping their bodies of useful uniforms. This reminds the viewer of the earlier scene since after the slaughter of the Jewish families the Nazi soldiers divest them of their jewellery.  The connection is reinforced as Rachel/Ellis can only stand by as a mute witness as both events occur.  Later on, a powerful reaction to again Black Book RachelEllisrelivingseeing the man who was responsible for Rachel/Ellis’ family’s slaughter is indicated not just physically (Rachel/Ellis runs to the cloakroom to vomit) but psychologically: the film provides a flashback of the earlier scene, from Rachel’s point of view.

Black Book RachelEllis and Muntze at stationRachel/Ellis’ suffering is not confined to these awful events, however. She suffers more as she witnesses some of her new friends being caught by the secret police. Rachel/Ellis also suffers conflict by falling in love with the high-ranking Nazi official, Ludwig Muntze (played by Sebastian Koch), she has been sent to spy on after meeting him, by chance, on a train and charming him. Tellingly the first scene of their lovemaking is accompanied not by a lush romantic score, but one more indicative of danger, danger Rachel/Ellis (and to an extent) Muntze, cannot for a moment disregard.  Rachel/Ellis later suffers as Muntze is arrested and sentenced to death, and she is imprisoned after a botched attempt to rescue him. Another Nazi official, Gunther Franken (played by Waldemar Kobus), inflicts further suffering as he leads stages a scene within the hearing  of a ‘secret’ microphone Ellis previously hid. This leads Rachel/Ellis’ friends to think she has betrayed them, and is a further level of suffering: others’ belief in her good character is taken from her.  Rachel/Ellis and Muntze later escape together, enjoy a few moments of rare  domestic bliss on a boat, but are captured after confronting Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal with suspicions of corruption. Franken’s destruction of Ellis’ good name has practical consequences too.  After peace has been declared she is rounded up with other traitors and detained, beaten and humiliated.  Finally she hears that her lover Muntze has been killed. This is tellingly the moment at which she actually lets her emotions out, collapsing to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably and rhetorically asking ‘when does it end?’ Even the film’s conclusion, which returns to a time in the 1950s just after Rachel’s flashback has begun, follows the pattern of a momentary respite before suffering again intrudes. After a brief happy moment with her husband and children we can see that another war rages around them.

We thought that Rachel/Ellis’ continual suffering fitted Matt Buckley’s description of melodrama’s often relentless ‘rhythm’ when he gave a research talk the other week. Further relation to earlier theatrical melodrama, specifically Victorian, was suggested as the ‘Jerries’  were a force outside of the characters’ control, much like fate.  The film’s numerous false reveals of the person who betrayed the whereabouts of the Jewish families can also be seen to be connected to the notion of rhythm. First the ‘friendly’ secret policeman Van Gein is suspected. While he is indeed revealed to be working with the Nazis, he is not the traitor.  Next Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal is accused. He and his wife are immediately killed however, with Muntze chasing after the offender, but only Black Book Rachel Ellis collapsesucceeding in being caught himself. Finally Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), a Doctor and key resistance figure, is unmasked as the man responsible. He foolishly does this himself after attempting to kill Rachel/Ellis with an injection of insulin, but not waiting for it to take full effect.

The scene ends when Black Book RachelEllis crowd surfingRachel/Ellis manages to grasp some chocolate which rather ironically Akkermans had earlier given her and is able to reverse the effects of the insulin. She then, somewhat implausibly, escapes by rushing past Akkermans who is addressing the crowd from his balcony, and throwing herself into the mob below. (On a side note we also found the ambiguity of Rachel/Ellis’ motives here intriguing: was she bent on survival or destruction?) Nearer the film’s beginning Rachel/Ellis had told Akkermans that a friend of hers used to eat chocolate when he had over-injected with insulin. This is an example of the film’s fairly-heavy handed use of foreshadowing. Another key example occurs in relation to Akkermans. Earlier in the film Akkermans, to the delight of his resistance colleagues, mocks Hitler by donning a makeshift toothbrush moustache and speaking in a mock-German accent. Now he is indeed corrupted by power, with a very high opinion of himself, and is addressing the crowd as a leader might.

Akkermans is certainly a complex character. Some of  this is linked to narrative necessity –  he must appear one thing while actually being another, and do so convincingly as the film works its way through unmasking its variety of different ‘villains’.  This leads to perceived emotional complexity – has he always been corrupt, or been made corrupt through necessity and/or power? We found the character of Muntze more interesting, however. Although a high-ranking Nazi official he is even less the wholly bad villain of melodrama. Muntze is redeemed by the film in several ways. The first of these, which ties him closely to Rachel/Ellis, is that he too has been affected by the loss of his family. His wife and children were bombed by the British. The film also shows Muntze attempting to institute a ceasefire with the resistance. Furthermore, he does not betray Rachel/Ellis to the authorities when she confesses her true identity and purpose.

It was also commented upon that the actor playing the ‘nice’ Nazi Muntze (Sebastian Koch) was attractive, while the actor playing the ‘nasty’ Nazi Franken (Waldemar Kobus) was less easy on the eye. This led to further discussion about the ambiguity of the film’s, and its characters’, morality. The way in which those thought to have betrayed their country by collaborating with the Nazis were treated – Rachel/Ellis’ and others’ humiliation – was lingered on by the film, rather than evaded. Some in the group wanted Rachel/Ellis and Gerben Kuipers (a resistance man who had lost his son because of Akkermans’ betrayal) to take the moral high ground after they had tracked him down. Instead, Rachel/Ellis used the point of her locket containing family pictures to screw down his coffin lid in order to suffocate him – a poetic revenge. Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers discuss the fact that they should let Akkermans live. Neither does, despiteBlack Book RachelEllis and Kuipers Rachel/Ellis’ earlier agreement with Smaal that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. One of them notes that Hans has gone quiet and we might presume he has died. It was thought that some uncertainty, however, allowed Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers some moral leeway.

Black Book RachelEllis red dressCostume also featured in our discussion. We questioned the historical accuracy of some of the outfits, especially the women’s.  However of more concern to us was the symbolism of the costumes. The floor-length leather coasts and jack boots which singled out the most high-ranking officers are especially iconic and were easy to identify. In most cases their presence immediately signalled a character’s loyalties and standing, though Muntze was an exception. Rachel/Ellis’s costumes were of particular interest. It was telling that a few in the group who had seen the film before had misremembered the colour of a dress Rachel/Ellis wears at one point. Rachel/Ellis leaves a party she is attending to crawl though the coal store and allow her comrades access to the Nazi’s underground prison. The dress she wears was remembered by some as being white, though it was in fact red. It was thought that this was because white is linked to notions of innocence and that is how we view Rachel/Ellis. The red dress of course has other connotations – to do with passion, desire and sex. This led to further discussion of women’s costumes. We especially noted that Rachel/Ellis and her fellow worker Ronnie use clothing as part of the wiles they rely on to survive from day to day. Rachel/Ellis’ decision to wear to work a see-through blouse which revealed her underwear highlighted this. We further noted the fluid identity of these two main female characters – they have to morph and adapt. Ronnie was very interesting in this regardBlack Book RachelEllis and Ronnie dance as she was revealed to be more scheming than we might have been anticipated: she affects Rachel/Ellis’ and Muntze’s joint escape from prison. We wanted to know more about her, especially as her presence in Israel and recognition of Rachel/Ellis sparked the film’s extended flash back. What was Ronnie’s story?

Whose story is the film based on?’ was another question we asked. The opening credits assert that it is ‘based on a true story’. The film’s many coincidences and revelations may make this seem unlikely. But it chimes again with Matt Buckley’s recent talk. In this he emphasised the increasing relevance of melodrama not just to art, but to lived modern experience.

Many thanks to Tamar for choosing this rich film, especially apt due to the School of Arts upcoming trip to Amsterdam.

Do, as ever, log in to comment or email me on to add your thoughts

Melodrama Research Talk 25th of March, GLT3, 5-6pm

Posted by Sarah

The Melodrama Research Group is very pleased to welcome Matt Buckley, Rutgers University, to give a talk entitled ‘On Melodrama as a Modern Art’ on Tuesday the 25th of March, in GLT3, from 5-6 pm.


Talk Abstract:

Just fifty years ago, melodrama was regarded, if at all, whether on stage, film, or tv, as a negligible, ephemeral, antiquated form of drama, a laughable thing, enjoyed by the poor, the illiterate, and the naïve—a thing, most importantly, perhaps, that modern realism had, or surely would soon, make obsolete and supersede.  Today, it is starkly apparent that such dismissals were acts of monumental misperception.  In theatre history, film and television studies, cultural history and narrative theory; in studies of the novel, the detective story, science fiction, and popular literature in general; of the vaudeville, the musical, silent film, and Hollywood cinema, and in the vast and diverse histories of popular literature, cinema, and television worldwide, we find melodrama everywhere.  And melodrama is not only modernity’s dominant narrative form: it has become a kind of meme that has penetrated and suffused the modern world.  As a now substantial body of scholarship has made evident, its assumptions and conventions color our fictive drama in every medium and mode, tacitly inflect our political and social performance, implicitly structure our narrative construction of events in the press and in our lives, and appear even to inform our apprehension of external reality and our consciousness of self.

In this talk, I try to come to terms with this emergent history, first by looking to melodrama’s origins and early development in an effort to discern more clearly what makes melodrama distinctive, and then by outlining the primary methods and processes that appear to characterize its development over time, its adaptation to new contexts and media, and its penetration and suffusion of discourse, imagination, and mind.  In closing, I explore the challenges this emergent view of melodrama’s larger history presents to traditional research methods and perspectives, and suggest some of the ways in which those might be overcome.


Matt Buckley’s Bio:

Matthew Buckley is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, where he teaches courses on comparative drama, media, and visual culture in modernity. He is the author of Tragedy Walks the Streets: The French Revolution in the Making of Modern Drama (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006) and has published articles on radical dramatic aesthetics, embodiment in early      modern theatre, and the history and historiography of early melodrama in Modern DramaTheatre Survey, Theatre Journal, Studies in Romanticism, and Victorian Studies.  He is currently at work on two books: Becoming Melodramatic, a study of the formal and cultural development of early stage melodrama, and Place of Seeing, a series of essays on theatre iconography and visual performance between 1580 and 1880.  He is the founding director of the Melodrama Research Consortium, an      international interdisciplinary organization devoted to the comparative study of stage, film, television, and new media melodrama. He is now developing a digital database project on the emergence of melodramatic theatre in Britain, France, Germany, and America.

More details will be posted to the blog in due course.

Do put the date in your diaries, and please note that our planned meeting on the 26th of March will no longer take place.

Invitation to join the Melodrama Research Consortium

Posted by Sarah

The Group has received a very kind invitation from Matt Buckley of Rutgers University to join the Melodrama Research Consortium. This sounds like a great way to forge links globally, map the field of melodrama academics and pool melodrama resources. This is a very exciting and worthwhile opportunity so do click through and add your areas of interest.


Matt’s message:

Dear Colleague,

I am writing to invite you to participate in the Melodrama Research Consortium, an international, interdisciplinary project intended to facilitate and advance scholarly research on the topic.  The initial aims of the project are twofold: first, to establish an ongoing forum for the exchange of ideas among the many scholars working on melodrama in different periods, contexts, and mediums; and, second, to begin work on a collaborative, open-platform database of the production history of stage, film, and television melodrama.

The need for a forum for the exchange of ideas on the topic is now pressing: both historical and theoretical research is advancing rapidly on many fronts, yet most of us remain largely unaware of often complementary work in different areas.  In order to offset this problem, we intend to publish on line an open list of melodrama scholars, including areas of specialization, relevant publications, and contact information, and—if it seems useful—to set up a listserve on the topic.

The need for a database of melodrama’s production history is equally apparent: the now substantial number of scholars working on the topic have begun to recover large portions of melodrama’s complex and extended genealogy, yet these remain largely isolated and scattered among the literature of specialized fields.  At the outset, our goal for the database is no more complex than to gain a rough common map of melodrama’s multi-modal, multi-contextual history—to start to bring together, in one place, the many different strands of its development.  At a moment when melodrama’s vast and disparate genealogies are exploding into view, and as we struggle with the growing recognition that melodrama’s larger history has unfolded in complex ways across contexts, and not merely in them, the immediate value of such a mapping is obvious.

The larger, more long-term goal of the database is to construct a useful research platform for the kind of broadly comparative and data-intensive scholarship that melodrama, as a mass-produced form of global modernity, seems increasingly to invite and may well soon require.  More than other, older forms of aesthetic production, melodrama invites quantitative analysis, both to establish the broad patterns of its formal and medial development and to gain an accurate picture of its longer history of production, distribution, and consumption as a cultural commodity.  As some of you already know, I have begun over the past few years to construct a more limited database of early British stage melodrama in order to facilitate my own current work on melodrama’s origins and to establish the foundation for the project.  After two years of work by a small handful of part-time research assistants, we now have a searchable digital record of about 1500 plays, including melodramas as well as other closely-related theatrical genres, written and/or produced in Britain between 1800 and 1840.  The research value of even that very limited portion of the project has been exceptional: for the first time, it is possible to trace with something more than anecdotal accuracy melodrama’s rising success on the British stage, the manner in which its production expanded and spread across different theatres and populations, and the precise periods and contexts in which its development was punctuated by formal and generic shifts.  Expanding that record to include even a schematic database of melodrama’s larger history constitutes a significantly more substantial challenge, but one that will by no means be hard to achieve with even modestly expanded resources.

I’m writing you now because we would like to begin to formalize the project as a consortium in order to start applying this year for the funding support that such an effort will require.  You need not play any active role at this point, or perhaps ever.  However, I’m hopeful that you might consent to join in a nominal way now so that we might prepare and submit proposals for large, foundational grants as a sizeable international group–and thus gain both greater authority and wider funding eligibility.

Joining the consortium will also, I hope, provide a timely opportunity for those of you whose institutions and disciplines offer funding for collaborative and international projects.  As the nature of the database suggests, this project will be a de-centered effort by specialists all over the world and spread across a wide range of fields.  With that in mind, please feel free to think of ways in which you might use the project as the basis for more specific proposals to gain internal and area-specific research support.  I now have one assistant working exclusively on grant funding, and I would be more than happy to provide whatever support we can for such efforts.

I would be delighted, of course, if any of you would like to take an active or an advisory role.  I would be very thankful, too, for any thoughts you might have about the consortium, the database project, or likely sources of support for either, as I am neither a digital savant nor a savvy grant writer.  If you would prefer not to join the consortium at this time, I would be grateful if you might consider at least to be included on our listing of melodrama scholars.  Even if you are no longer active in the field, it will be helpful for others to know of your work.

You can indicate your reply, provide information about yourself, and join the consortium if you wish, on a google form that we have posted at  Completing it should take only a few minutes.  If you are interested, I would be very grateful if you might respond by November 15, as we intend at that time to generate and post a list of participants in the consortium and scholars in the field.

Please do share this invitation with colleagues and students—the group is intended to be as inclusive as possible, and I certainly don’t know everyone.

With best wishes,


Matthew Buckley
Associate Professor
Department of English
Rutgers University
510 George Street
New Brunswick, NJ 08901

For more info on Matt visit

Do, as ever, log in to comment or email me on to add your own thoughts. We could maybe get some discussion going about formalising our specific (individual and group) interests in melodrama.