Muhammad Umar Memon
MELODRAMA OR . . . ? A NOTE ON MANTO'S "IN THIS MAELSTROM"
It is somewhat puzzling that Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) has called his play "is ManjdHar MeN" ("In this Maelstrom") a melodrama. But is it? All the ingredients of a melodrama are absent in this play. There are no monstrously evil villains, propelled by fiendish hate, to be sure, and the main characters, even though some of them appear less fully developed, show an amazing complexity and depth. Moreover, the very subject of this play defies, by its own incontrovertible inner logic, any attempt to place the work in the genre of melodrama. But did Manto really fully appreciate the implications of melodrama as a dramatic form or was he using the word in its more common and pejorative connotations of something non-serious, sensational and outlandishly sentimental, something naive, infantile and frivolous, something to laugh at, something that only parodies and mimics life in the crudest of fashions for cheap, emotional gratification?
I know Manto-lovers won't take it kindly, but I am inclined to think that in this play Manto does not appear to have grasped the dramatic form of melodrama, either to its function or to its creative possibilities. This despite the fact that among Urdu writers Manto is perhaps the most conscious of technical demands imposed by narrative art; despite also the fact that "In this Maelstrom" is a very sophisticated piece of writing.
That Manto, who could stare down the moralist, the critic, and the law with audacious courage when it came to defend his choice of subject-matter, would take a dim view of his play does seem puzzling. But it can be explained.
Until Eric Bentley came to vindicate it and earn for it a measure of respectability in the late 1960s--too late, alasi for Manto—the form of melodrama had all along suffered a bad reputation in the western literary world. The continued prejudice against it, the bad name given it was the result, in most part, of the shallow and pedestrian nature of popular Victorian melodrama. Just how shallow and pedestrian is it? Scan through the plots of some such dramatic pieces given by James L. Smith in his Melodrama (London: Methuen & Co., 1973) and you will know. But what was essentially a Victorian expression and possibility, determined by specific social factors, became the normative principle in defining the term as "'a dramatic piece characterized by sensational incident and violent appeals to emotions, but with a happy ending'" (Oxford English Dictionary, as quoted in Smith, p. 5). Smith quotes a lengthy passage from Frank Rahill's The World of Melodrama which it would not be unprofitable to reproduce here by way of a working definition of the genre: