Melodrama Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The melodrama generally has been presented in three acts, although there can be as few as two and as many as five. In the first act, a happy domestic situation is introduced. The virtue of the heroine or hero is quickly established, principal characters are introduced, and exposition is provided. There is frequently a love interest between hero and heroine. The villain arrives on the scene proposing that he marry the heroine, but the playwright finds a way to assure the audience that his love will be rejected. In spite of the villain’s confidence, his plans are thwarted and he leaves vowing revenge.

In the second act, the villain’s plans are laid and begin to carry out the plot. The heroine, hero, or both are brought near destruction. In the third act the situation is resolved in favor of the heroine or hero. Fortunes lost to the villain’s manipulations are restored and the villain is no longer a threat, having been unmasked and turned over to the authorities or killed by a trap he had intended for someone else.

Early Appeal

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The initial appeal of the melodrama came neither through characterization nor through plot but rather from the satisfaction the audience gained in seeing good ultimately rewarded and the guilty finally punished. This formula is familiar to modern audiences in forums as disparate as Saturday morning Westerns and Walt Disney films. That the heroine was able to escape the machinations of the villain unscathed reinforced for audiences the notion that justice ultimately prevails.

The second source of appeal emerged with the advent of stage technology in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Melodramas relied on visual spectacle and supernatural phenomena, and new technological developments such as lighting, revolving stages, elevators, cutaway flats, and moving scenery were elaborate, expensive, and well advertised. At least one spectacular effect of some sort was a virtual requirement of any melodrama.

Evolution of the Genre

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Classic melodrama emerged in France some time around 1790. Several plays may be argued to be the first melodrama, but the first master of the form is firmly established: French playwright Guilbert de Pixérécourt is credited with making melodrama popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and became a significant force in theatrical history. Pixérécourt’s first produced melodrama was Victor: Ou, L’Enfant de la forêt (Victor, or the child of the forest) in 1798. His first great success followed three years later with Clina: Ou, L’Enfant du mystère (pr. 1800; The Tale of Mystery, 1802). Other successes quickly followed. Pixérécourt is credited with the authorship of more than one hundred plays, most of them melodramas. He remained the most popular author of this form until his death in 1844. Most of his successes were adapted for presentation in England and the United States by others. After Pixérécourt, Victor Ducange, Louis Charles Caigniez, and Adolphe Dennery were the most noteworthy French playwrights of the genre.

Melodrama debuted in England in 1802 with A Tale of Mystery, a play adapted from Clina by Thomas Holcroft. As traditional comedy and tragedy waned in popularity, British theaters turned increasingly to other forms to support themselves financially. Melodramas were offered as afterpieces to ensure the success of more revered offerings, including the work of William Shakespeare, or were combined with other forms of popular entertainment to make up a full evening. Melodramas not only...

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American Melodrama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

As melodrama moved to the United States, it followed the pattern established in England. The earliest melodramas were English imports, many of them in turn adapted from French originals. Yet, original dramas relying on uniquely American themes began to appear in the 1820’s. The frontier roughneck stock character made his first appearance in an 1827 production number, “The Hunter of Kentucky,” by Noah Ludlow. Always ready for a fight, inclined to brag and drink, but with homespun morality, the native hero had a long history that continued to evolve: Future incarnations had the hero making his way across the country as a hapless bumpkin, a lovable Irishman, or a big-city fireman.

Temperance melodramas appeared in 1844 with The Drunkard: Or, The Fallen Saved by William H. Smith but presented and later published anonymously. Ten Nights in a Barroom by William Pratt followed. Both owe their formula to Fifteen Years of a Drunkard’s Life (1828), by Douglas Jerrold. Alcohol was presented as a genuine evil in these pieces, making them attractive propaganda for the growing temperance movement and assuring continual production until Prohibition in the 1920’s. Despite several attempts to break a drinking habit encouraged by the villain, the hero slides into increasing addiction while his domestic situation deteriorates. He is eventually saved by the love of his family, who refuse to give up on him.

When the Native...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

With its naïve sense of justice, its superficial stock characters, and its contrived resolutions, melodrama lost its appeal as theatrical tastes moved toward realism in the early twentieth century. Classical melodrama is viable today only as a historical offering or perhaps in a spoofed form, betraying the sincerity with which it was originally presented.

Nonetheless, melodrama has exerted a lasting impact on theater. Because melodrama made heavy use of the orchestra to deliver music written especially for this medium, it can be argued that the subsequent and thoughtful matching of musical material to emotional moments in musicals, films, and television shows derives from melodrama and supports the careful creation of underscoring in these artistic media.

Melodrama’s influence also continues to be felt in the use of spectacle. Each melodrama contained at least one scene in which some elaborate stage effect was used. Among these were fire, collapsing buildings, running water, and avalanches. Merely suggestive at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the spectacle scene was impressive in its elaborateness and believability by the end of the century. Melodrama can be credited with spurring the inventiveness of set designers and set builders and with confirming the value of carefully created visual effects achieved at considerable expense.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Booth, Michael R. English Melodrama. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1965. Serves as an excellent resource on melodrama as it developed in England.

Booth, Michael R. Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850-1910. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981. Excellent treatment of the use of spectacle and machinery in English theater, which was essential to the melodrama’s success.

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976. Studies the relationship between melodrama in its strictest definition and other works. Includes some interesting observations about the structure of melodrama.

Disher, M. Willson. Melodrama: Plots That Thrilled. New York: Macmillan, 1954. Focuses on a number of popular melodramatic forms.

Grimsted, David. Melodrama Unveiled: American Theatre and Culture, 1800-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. A standard book in the field, it offers valuable insight into the background and structure of the melodrama. Well annotated and with appendices.

McConachie, Bruce A. Melodramatic Foundations: American Theatre and Society, 1820-1870. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992. Treats this limited time frame thoroughly and includes a number of quotations from original sources. Well annotated.

Rahill, Frank. The World of Melodrama. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1967. A comprehensive examination of melodrama in France, England, and the United States.