Melodrama Characters


In its strictest sense, melodrama refers to a genre that developed in France shortly before 1800 and became extremely popular, soon making its way to England in its original form. The form then broadened to include similarities to conventional drama, including a reliance on spectacle, on the resolution of the plot in a just manner, and on heroic characters and villains in conflict with each other.

The term “melodrama” comes from the French mélodrame, a term derived from melos, the Greek word for song. Drame referred to minor forms that conformed to neither the neoclassical definition of comedy nor tragedy. As the name implies, music was used structurally. Songs and dances were built into the original score of a melodrama, were carefully rehearsed, and kept the orchestra busy throughout the play. Characters were provided with entrance music that gave a clear indication of their personality, and the mood was supported by the orchestra at all important points. In early melodrama, music and acting style were inseparable, and long sequences of silent action to musical accompaniment were frequent. Melodramatic acting was thus influenced by the music the orchestra provided. The music dictated much of the timing the actor used and at times gave the play a sense of being choreographed rather than being acted in the usual sense. The initial identification of melodrama as a minor form was an important fact because it allowed the melodrama to develop outside the monopolies of licensed companies in France and, later, in England.

Early Character Types

Early melodramatic characters often were not completely developed, serving instead as vehicles for the quick development of suspense and spectacle on which the plays relied. For example, the heroine typically epitomized goodness, her physical beauty reflecting her purity of heart. She was honest, loyal, respectful of her parents, and above pettiness of any kind. Unless she was married she was chaste, and if married she was faithful to her husband.

Less consistent than the heroine, the hero was at times as pure and noble as she, but at other times he was easily duped or possessed weaknesses that the villain was able to exploit. He might be outwitted but he was unlikely to lose to the villain in a fair fight. Despite the fact that historically audiences expected to see the hero rescue the heroine, in serious melodrama it was sometimes the heroine’s unflinching faithfulness that saved him from his own weakness. Later in the melodrama’s history, charming roguish characters emerged as heroes. The highwayman, the frontier roughneck, and the city fireman all took their turns in this role.

The villain was at the center of melodramatic action. He disrupted harmony and laid plots that brought real danger to the heroine and hero. Audiences saw no need for him to justify his actions. Other reasons might be given, but greed, lust, or simple malice was usually sufficient. The villain of the early melodrama was eloquent, well dressed, and cultured. In the United States he was often of European aristocratic descent (or claimed to be).

The heroine’s father was often included. Through him the villain was apt to try to gain control of the heroine. The father could be gullible or vain enough to be swayed by the villain’s smooth talk, but it was equally likely that there was something in his past that the villain might threaten to expose.

A comic servant or companion frequently was used as a device. Typically this comic servant or companion instantly saw through the villain, put the situation in perspective, and made light of the high standards of conduct by which other characters feel inconveniently bound.