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Awkward Moments: Melodrama, Modernism, and the Politics of Affect

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


The modernist privileging of irony and detached contemplation frequently combined with a recognition of the social and artistic significance of affect. The relation between melodramatic structures of feeling and modernist innovation is evident in two plays of the interwar years: Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann's Happy End and W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood's On the Frontier. Scholars need to develop a vocabulary that complements the customary critical emphasis on modernist “irony,” “estrangement,” and “difficulty” and that can be used to reconstruct the full force of the modernist uses of affect. Instead of estranging melodrama to make it palatable to an audience trained in high modernism, the negotiations between sentimentality and avant-garde aesthetics in Happy End and On the Frontier trigger a backward dialectical movement in which the modernist rallying call to “make it new” blurs into the established patterns of melodrama.

Research Article
Copyright © 2013 by The Modern Language Association of America

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