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.