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by Lynn Nottage

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Is the play Ruined a melodrama or a tragedy? Why?

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I would not classify this play as a tragedy, because a tragedy can be defined as a work that uses a dignified style to show the progress of a heroic protagonist who is brought to ruin or is made to suffer terrible sadness, especially as a result of some tragic flaw that he or she possesses—it could be pride, ambition, envy, or the like.

On the contrary, Mama Nadi sees herself as "ruined" throughout the majority of the play, evidently as a result of some sexual violence she has suffered, and then she still manages to find love and something like happiness by the end. Instead of falling from good fortune to her ruin, Mama Nadi rises from what she calls "ruin" to good fortune with Christian. In the end, the stage direction tells us, "They begin to dance. At first she's a bit stiff and resistant, but slowly she gives in. Possibility." Instead of completely shutting him out, as she has done before, Mama Nadi allows herself to feel something, as, again, the stage direction tells us she "eventually succumbs to [Christian's] heartfelt embrace. She breaks down in tears. He kisses her." Therefore, I agree with the other commenter who classified this work as a melodrama.

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While the play does contain some exaggerated situations, I hesitate to call it a “melodrama.” Nottage herself has talked about how the project began as an attempt to update Bertholdt Brecht’s play Mother Courage. Brecht thought the point of theatre was to educate, and one of his techniques was what he called “the alienation effect,” which had to do with breaking the illusion of reality presented by the play in an effort to make the familiar seem strange. In that sense, if Nottage’s play seems exaggerated, this is done not to melodramatically manipulate emotions, but to get her audience to pay attention.

Clearly, one of Nottage’s goals is to educate her audience about the atrocities inflicted on women in Congo. Beyond that, however, she is also interested in educating the audience about the commonality of women’s experience of violence. When Sophie tells Salima, “While I’m singing, I’m praying the pain will be gone, but what those men did to me lives inside of my body. Every step I take I feel them in me,” she is not exaggerating her experience; in fact, she is uttering a truth that many women who have experienced violence recognize as their own.

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There is no doubt that Ruined contains elements of both tragedy and melodrama, but particularly the latter. The Oxford English Dictionary defines melodrama as:

A play, film, or other dramatic piece characterized by exaggerated characters and a sensational plot intended to appeal to the emotions.

Clearly, the extremely disturbing subject matter of the play (sexual violence in war-torn Congo) cannot help but appeal to the emotions. However, there is a valid reason for Lynn Nottage to adopt this storytelling strategy. Most of the theatergoers watching the play will never, thankfully, have experienced the sheer horror and suffering of the female characters on stage. In order to generate empathy, it is necessary for Nottage to create a sensational plot and exaggerated characters. We can see then that the play can contain melodramatic elements while still remaining true to the real experiences of women raped in conflict.

The use of melodrama by Nottage can also be justified on the grounds of providing hope. In such a brutal, godforsaken world, hope needs to be seen clearly, to be painted in the brightest of primary colors so that it can stand out against a background of suffering and horror. At the end of the play, Christian returns, seeking to reestablish his relationship with Mama Nadi. When they dance together, the connection between melodrama and hope is complete. A hopeful ending has not simply been tacked on; it emerges naturally and seamlessly out of the melodramatic structure used by Nottage to tell her emotionally powerful story.

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