Richard Allen – The Passion of Christ and the Melodramatic Imagination

CFMR and ARC research seminar: 

Professor Richard Allen, Dean, School of Creative Media, City University, Hong Kong and Chair Professor of Film and Media Art

Wednesday 30th March 2016, 5-7pm, Grimond Lecture Theatre 2 (GLT2), University of Kent

Melodrama has been defined as a secular mode of dramaturgy that begins in late 18th century France. This research project argues that the paintings and enactments of Christ’s Passion in the Middle Ages create the modern vocabulary of melodrama, thereby inviting us to re-conceive the relationship between the spiritual and the secular in modernity.

Before the Medieval period, The Passion of Christ was interpreted as the stage of a conflict between God and the Devil over the fate of man in which man played little role. In the Early Middle Ages, Christ’s passion was reconceived as the story of a suffering human, stoically bearing the beating and torments of his villainous persecutors, and lamented by women, Mary, his mother, and Mary Magdalene, who model the viewer’s response to his suffering. I propose that the medieval representation and enactment of Christ’s passion brings into being “the melodramatic imagination” which Peter Brooks identified with the emergence of the modern self in the secular world of the late 18th century. In medieval passions an essentially cosmic, theological drama, is given a human expression and heightened emotional response yields ethical recognition of God’s incarnation and martyrdom as a man. In sensational 19th century theatre and 20th century film, ordinary men and women are martyred to implacable forces of social injustice personified in the villain. Though ordinary, they suffer like Christ, and their audience, by responding with heightened emotion, is attuned to their singular virtue. In this way, in 19th and 20th century melodrama, Christian modes of affective piety are transformed into secular modes of storytelling and dramaturgy.

Richard Allen is Dean, School of Creative Media, City University, Hong Kong and Chair Professor of Film and Media Art. He is author of, among other books, Projecting Illusion and Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony and he is currently completing a book entitled Bollywood Poetics. This paper forms part of his new research.