'Deadwood Dick': Melodrama Evolves As Western Art Form

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When the cast of "Deadwood Dick" takes the stage next Saturday as the grand finale of the Fifth Annual Rim Country Western Heritage Festival, they'll be practicing an art form that actually goes back centuries.

Elements of melodrama were present in Greek and Roman theater.

"The idea in the early Greek and Roman days was to make the audience feel that they were greater than themselves," Payson High School drama teacher Kathy Siler said. "The over-dramaticized features started with the French novels in the 1700s. Then the playwright got the idea that if this was so popular, let's put it on stage so they exaggerated their characters."

From France, the style moved to England, then to America. The Western melodrama was a later manifestation of the art form.

"Normally, melodrama took place in the drawing room or living room of a mansion and the villains were the powerful, snobbish rich people," John Siler, who directs "Deadwood Dick," said. "Then you had the servants who were the people the spectators identified with. They were the go-betweens -- and this goes back to the ancient Greeks -- who made it happen between people and the gods."

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Payson High School junior Calvin Legassie is Wild Bill Hickok and junior Jamie Rusovick is Molly Loveless in the action-packed melodrama "Deadwood Dick," the rip-roaring conclusion to the Fifth Annual Rim Country Western Heritage Festival.

In the early 1800s, American melodramas tended toward the idealistic, romantic and even supernatural. It wasn't until the mid-1800s that the characters began to assume the personae of good and evil incarnate.

"They took on specific identities," Kathy Siler said, " -- Mr. Bad, Mrs. Good, Snidely Whiplash, Dudley Doright."

And the Western melodrama as we know it today began to evolve.

"There was never any attempt at serious theater," John Siler said. "It was to entertain. If you wanted serious theater, you went to opera. This was for low brows, basically, the unsophisticated people who wanted to be entertained and didn't want to have to think about it."

Admission was cheap, so production costs had to be kept at a minimum.

"These people went on tour, played every little Podunk town, every little whistle stop, wherever anybody would let them play," John Siler said. "If the show died on the road, they were often stuck right where it died, so there was tremendous pressure on the performers to keep it going."

One way they kept the show going was to make it a fun experience. Actors encouraged the audience to participate -- a concept that remains a key component of Western melodrama re-enactments like "Deadwood Dick."

"The audience is encouraged to boo the villain and to, of course, applaud the hero, and of course, when the heroine enters -- ‘Ahhhh,'" John Siler said. "What we try to do today with melodrama is capture the flavor of yesteryear, and to re-establish for the audience that kind of frivolous nonsense.

"There was absolutely no intensity whatsoever; it was all in fun."

Melodramas also served another purpose, one fulfilled today by action-adventure and other "B" movies, according to the Silers.

"In every melodrama, there is no way out and then the handsome hero comes in and shatters all the schemes and rescues the heroine," John Siler said. "And of course she goes off with him, because he has the strength of 10 because his heart is pure."

"The ending is always fairy tale because that's the way people want to think that life is," Kathy Siler said. "We see that today, too, in a lot of movies."

‘Deadwood' Playbill

The Fifth Annual Rim Country Western Heritage Festival concludes with two performances of "Deadwood Dick," an old-fashioned Western melodrama produced by the Payson High School Drama Department.

"Deadwood Dick" is a dramatization of a bloodthirsty dime novel, the kind grandpa used to sneak out to the barn to read because if his father caught him reading such "lurid trash" it would mean a quick trip to the woodpile.

In 1876, a little-known writer named Edward L. Wheeler, started turning out dime novels about a Robin Hood of the Black Hills he named Deadwood Dick. Taking the most colorful characters, exciting situations and amusing dialogue from those dime novels, playwright Tom Taggart has fashioned this rip-roaring melodrama, complete with long-lost daughters, stolen gold mines, kidnapped heroines, and hairbreadth escapes.

"Deadwood Dick" premieres at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the PHS auditorium, with a matinee at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 24. General admission is $5, and children 12 and under are $3.

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