Guilbert de Pixérécourt is known as the father of melodrama. In his hands, melodrama became a colorful dramatic instrument that included the components of tragedy, comedy, pantomine, comic opera, fantasy, and vaudeville. In his Théâtre choisi (selected plays), he lists among his 120 plays 63 dramas and melodramas, 9 comedies, 21 comic operas and lyric dramas, 8 fantasies and pantomimes, and 17 vaudevilles. In the large enterprise of adapting the popular genre to please his contemporary audience, Pixérécourt at times collaborated with other writers and with musical composers, such as Nicolas Brazier and Victor Ducange.
Literary historians have advanced several theories on the evolution of melodrama and Pixérécourt’s role in it. Although scholarly arguments represent a diversity of opinions, there tends to be agreement that melodrama is an extension of the dramatic tradition of both the neoclassical and the bourgeois theater that preceded it. Although traditional neoclassical drama was intended for a more erudite audience, the melodrama addressed itself to a less well educated public. Consequently, the genre disregarded many of the codes and rules governing conventional theater in favor of a more colorful, realistic, and emotional representation. Jules Marsan, a well-known literary critic of the period, points out that the melodrama constituted a predictable step in the evolution of eighteenth century theater because of the increasing demands of a larger and more popular audience. Classical masterpieces by such famous playwrights as Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, Molière, and their imitators no longer expressed the mood of the times. The modern spectator preferred an entertaining and rapidly moving social drama to detailed analysis, and the prose of everyday speech to poetry. In addition, as its name indicates, melodrama was interspersed with song and instrumental music.
Having chosen the genre as his preferred vehicle of expression, Pixérécourt dedicated his creative talent to its development. Known as the “Corneille of the boulevards,” he supervised the many details—music, scenery, costumes—in the production of his plays and carefully directed rehearsals. “Enfin j’ai régné pendant trente ans comme un roi absolu” (in a word, for thirty years I reigned supreme), he commented on his long-lived ascendancy in the boulevard theaters. Beyond Paris as well, Pixérécourt’s melodramas were celebrated. Many were staged for enthusiastic provincial audiences, and some were translated and performed in other countries, including England, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Holland, and Russia.
Brooks, Peter. “The Aesthetics of Astonishment.” The Georgia Review 30 (Fall, 1976): 615-639. This article looks at the lively performance style that marked the melodramas of Pixérécourt.
Brooks, Peter. “The Text of Muteness.” New Literary History 5, no. 3 (Spring, 1974): 549-564. This essay looks at the contrast between the muteness of the character Francisque and the music and conversation that characterize Pixérécourt’s melodramas.
Marcoux, J. Paul. Guilbert de Pixérécourt: French Melodrama in the Early Nineteenth Century. New York: P. Lang, 1992. Marcoux examines Pixérécourt’s life and work and the French popular theater. He focuses on The Forest of Bondy: Or, The Dog of Montargis and The Tale of Mystery.