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Not to be confused with the Italian term melodramma, used for opera, or the Andrea Bocelli song "Melodramma".
Poster for The Perils of Pauline (1914), a classic melodramatic film series

A melodrama is a dramatic work that exaggerates plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions, often with strongly stereotyped characters. Language, behaviour, or events which resemble melodramas are also called melodramatic. In scholarly and historical musical contexts melodramas are dramas of the 18th and 19th centuries in which orchestral music or song was used to accompany the action.

Melodrama is a style of drama that has been applied on the stage, in movies and television, and radio formats, from the 18th century to the present. Because of the long timeframe in which the style has existed, it is difficult to derive a precise definition. The term melodrama is most often used pejoratively,[1] to suggest that the work to which the term is applied lacks sophistication or subtlety.

The term originated from the early 19th-century French word mélodrame, which is derived from Greek melos, music, and French drame, drama (from Late Latin drāma, which in turn derives from Greek drān, to do, perform).[2][3][4]


Ben Singer has proposed that melodrama is a dramatic form subject to many variations, but which consistently displays "key constitutive factors": pathos, overwrought or heightened emotion, moral polarization (good vs. evil), non-classical narrative structure (e.g., use of extreme coincidence and "deus ex machina"), and sensationalism (emphasis on action, violence, and thrills). This incorporates both Victoria stage melodrama and 20th Century film domestic melodramas such as Stella Dallas or Imitation of Life from the studio era in Hollywood: the former generally features all five factors, while the latter focuses primarily on pathos and emotional intensification.[5]

Melodrama rejects naturalism, however, the relationship of melodrama to realism can be complex. Late Victorian and Edwardian melodrama combined a conscious focus on realism in stage sets and props with "anti-realism" in character and plot. Melodrama in this period strove for "credible accuracy in the depiction of incredible, extraordinary" scenes.[5]

18th-century origins: melodrama[edit]

Beginning in the 18th century, melodrama was a technique of combining spoken recitation with short pieces of accompanying music. In such works, music and spoken dialogue typically alternated, although the music was sometimes also used to accompany pantomime. The earliest known examples are scenes in J. E. Eberlin's Latin school play Sigismundus (1753). The first full melodrama was Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Pygmalion,[6] the text of which was written in 1762 but was first staged in Lyon in 1770. The overture and an Andante were composed by Rousseau, but the bulk of the music was composed by Horace Coignet. A different musical setting of Rousseau's Pygmalion by Anton Schweitzer was performed in Weimar in 1772, and Goethe wrote of it approvingly in Dichtung und Wahrheit. Pygmalion is a monodrama, written for one actor. Some 30 other monodramas were produced in Germany in the fourth quarter of the 18th century. When two actors are involved the term duodrama may be used. Georg Benda was particularly successful with his duodramas Ariadne auf Naxos (1775) and Medea (1778). The sensational success of Benda's melodramas led Mozart to use two long melodramatic monologues in his opera Zaide (1780). Other later, and better-known examples of the melodramatic style in operas are the grave-digging scene in Beethoven's Fidelio (1805) and the incantation scene in Weber's Der Freischütz (1821).[7][8]

After the English Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Most British theatres were prohibited from performing "serious" drama, but were permitted to show comedy or plays with music. Charles II issued letters patent to permit only two London theatre companies to perform "serious" drama. These were the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and Lisle's Tennis Court in Lincoln's Inn Fields, the latter of which moved to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1720 (now the Royal Opera House). The two patent theatres closed in the summer months. To fill the gap, the Theatre Royal, Haymarket became a third patent theatre in London in 1766. Further letters patent were eventually granted to one theatre in each of several other English towns and cities. To get around the restriction, other theatres presented dramas that were underscored with music and, borrowing the French term, and called it melodrama. The Theatres Act 1843 finally allowed all the theatres to play drama.[9]

19th century: operetta, incidental music, and salon entertainment[edit]

In the early 19th century, the influence of opera led to musical overtures and incidental music for many plays. In 1820, Franz Schubert wrote a melodrama, Die Zauberharfe ("The Magic Harp"), setting music behind the play written by G. von Hofmann. It was unsuccessful, like all Schubert's theater ventures, but the melodrama genre was at the time a popular one. In an age of underpaid musicians, many 19th-century plays in London had an orchestra in the pit. In 1826, Felix Mendelssohn wrote his well known overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and later supplied the play with incidental music.

In Verdi's La Traviata, Violetta receives a letter from Alfredo's father where he writes that Alfredo now knows why she parted from him and that he forgives her ("Teneste la promessa..."). In her speaking voice, she intones the words of what is written, while the orchestra recapitulates the music of their first love from Act I: this is technically melodrama. In a few moments Violetta bursts into a passionate despairing aria ("Addio, del passato"): this is opera again.

In a similar manner, Victorians often added "incidental music" under the dialogue to a pre-existing play, although this style of composition was already practiced in the days of Ludwig van Beethoven (Egmont) and Franz Schubert (Rosamunde). (This type of often-lavish production is now mostly limited to film (see film score) due to the cost of hiring an orchestra. Modern recording technology is producing a certain revival of the practice in theatre, but not on the former scale.) A particularly complete version of this form, Sullivan's incidental music to Tennyson's The Foresters, is available online,[10] complete with several melodramas, for instance, No. 12 found here.[11] A few operettas exhibit melodrama in the sense of music played under spoken dialogue, for instance, Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore (itself a parody of melodramas in the modern sense) has a short "melodrame" (reduced to dialogue alone in many productions) in the second act;[12] Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld opens with a melodrama delivered by the character of "Public Opinion"; and other pieces from operetta and musicals may be considered melodramas, such as the "Recit and Minuet"[13] in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer. As an example from the American musical, several long speeches in Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon are delivered over an accompaniment of evocative music. The technique is also frequently used in Spanish zarzuela, both in the 19th and 20th centuries, and continued also to be used as a "special effect" in opera, for instance Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten.

In Paris, the 19th century saw a flourishing of melodrama in the many theatres that were located on the popular Boulevard du Crime, especially in the Gaîté. All this came to an end, however, when most of these theatres were demolished during the rebuilding of Paris by Baron Haussmann in 1862.[14]

By the end of the 19th century, the term melodrama had nearly exclusively narrowed down to a specific genre of salon entertainment: more or less rhythmically spoken words (often poetry) – not sung, sometimes more or less enacted, at least with some dramatic structure or plot – synchronised to an accompaniment of music (usually piano). It was looked down on as a genre for authors and composers of lesser stature (probably also the reason why virtually no realisations of the genre are still remembered). Probably also the time when the connotation of cheap overacting first became associated with the term. As a cross-over genre mixing narration and chamber music, it was eclipsed nearly overnight by a single composition: Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (1912), where Sprechgesang was used instead of rhythmically spoken words, and which took a freer and more imaginative course regarding the plot prerogative.

Victorian stage melodrama[edit]

The Victorian stage melodrama featured six stock characters: the hero, the villain, the heroine, an aged parent, a sidekick and a servant of the aged parent engaged in a sensational plot featuring themes of love and murder. Often the good but not very clever hero is duped by a scheming villain, who has eyes on the damsel in distress until fate intervenes at the end to ensure the triumph of good over evil.[15]

English melodrama evolved from the tradition of populist drama established during the Middle Ages by mystery and morality plays, under influences from Italian commedia dell'arte as well as German Sturm und Drang drama and Parisian melodrama of the post-Revolutionary period.[16] A notable French melodramatist was Pixérécourt whose La Femme a deux maris was very popular.[17]

The first English play to be called a melodrama or 'melodrame' was A Tale of Mystery (1802) by Thomas Holcroft. This was an example of the Gothic genre, a previous theatrical example of which was The Castle Spectre (1797) by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Other Gothic melodramas include The Miller and his Men (1813) by Isaac Pocock, The Woodsman's Hut (1814) by Samuel Arnold and The Broken Sword (1816) by William Dimond.

Supplanting the Gothic, the next popular sub-genre was the nautical melodrama, pioneered by Douglas Jerrold in his Black-Eyed Susan (1829). Other nautical melodramas included Jerrold's The Mutiny at the Nore (1830) and The Red Rover (1829) by Edward Fitzball (Rowell 1953).[15]

Melodramas based on urban situations became popular in the mid-nineteenth century. These include The Streets of London (1864) by Dion Boucicault; and Lost in London (1867) by Watts Phillips.

The sensation novels of the 1860s and 1870s were fertile material for melodramatic adaptations. A notable example of this genre is Lady Audley's Secret by Elizabeth Braddon adapted, in two different versions, by George Roberts and C.H. Hazlewood.

The villain was always the central character in melodrama and crime was a favorite theme. This included dramatisations of the murderous careers of Burke and Hare, Sweeney Todd (first featured in The String of Pearls (1847) by George Dibdin Pitt), the murder of Maria Marten in the Red Barn and the bizarre exploits of Spring Heeled Jack. The misfortunes of a discharged prisoner is the theme of the sensational The Ticket-of-Leave Man (1863) by Tom Taylor.

Early silent films, such as The Perils of Pauline had similar themes. Later, after silent films were superseded by the 'talkies', stage actor Tod Slaughter, at the age of 50, transferred to the screen the Victorian melodramas in which he had played villain in his earlier theatrical career. These films, which include Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn (1935), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) and The Ticket-of-Leave Man are a unique record of a bygone art-form.

Modern melodrama[edit]

Melodrama has left the Western scene in television and movies, however it is still widely popular in other regions, particularly Asia. Melodrama is one of the main genres used in Asian television dramas, along with romance, comedy and fantasy, particularly in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, Thailand, South India and the Philippines.


Melodrama films are a subgenre of drama films characterised by a plot that appeals to the heightened emotions of the audience. They generally depend on stereotyped character development, interaction, and highly emotional themes. Melodramatic films tend to use plots that often deal with crises of human emotion, failed romance or friendship, strained familial situations, tragedy, illness, neuroses, or emotional and physical hardship.

Victims, couples, virtuous and heroic characters or suffering protagonists (usually heroines) in melodramas are presented with tremendous social pressures, threats, repression, fears, improbable events or difficulties with friends, community, work, lovers, or family. The melodramatic format allows the character to work through their difficulties or surmount the problems with resolute endurance, sacrificial acts, and steadfast bravery.

Film critics sometimes use the term pejoratively to connote an unrealistic, pathos-filled, campy tale of romance or domestic situations with stereotypical characters (often including a central female character) that would directly appeal to feminine audiences."[18]

During the 1940s the British Gainsborough melodramas were very successful with audiences.

A director of 1950s melodrama films was Douglas Sirk who worked with Rock Hudson on Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows, both staples of the genre. Melodramas like the 1990s TV Moment of Truth movies targeted audiences of American women by portraying the effects of alcoholism, domestic violence, rape and the like. Typical of the genre is Anjelica Huston's 1999 film Agnes Browne.[19]

Director Sidney Lumet said in a discussion of his 2007 film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, "In a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story."[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brooks, Peter (1995). The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. Yale University Press. p. xv. 
  2. ^ Costello, Robert B., ed. (1991). Random House Webster's College Dictionary. New York: Random House. p. 845. ISBN 978-0-679-40110-0. 
  3. ^ Stevenson, Angus; Lindberg, Christine A., eds. (2010). New Oxford American Dictionary, Third Edition. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 1091. ISBN 978-0-19-539288-3. 
  4. ^ Pickett, Joseph P., ed. (2006). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp. 544, 1095. ISBN 978-0-618-70173-5. 
  5. ^ a b Singer, Ben (2001). Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 44–53. 
  6. ^  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Melodrama". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  7. ^ Apel, Willi, ed. (1969). Harvard Dictionary of Music, Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.. ISBN 0-674-37501-7. OCLC 21452.
  8. ^ Branscombe, Peter. "Melodrama". In Sadie, Stanley; John Tyrrell, eds. (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. New York: Grove's Dictionaries. ISBN 1-56159-239-0.
  9. ^ Fisk, Deborah Payne (2001). "The Restoration Actress", in Owen, Sue, A Companion to Restoration Drama. Oxford: Blackwell
  10. ^ The Foresters from Gilbert and Sullivan online archive
  11. ^ The Foresters - Act I
  12. ^ Dialogue from Ruddigore
  13. ^ Dialogue from The Sorcerer
  14. ^ The golden age of the Boulevard du Crime Theatre online.com (in French)
  15. ^ a b Williams, Carolyn. "Melodrama", in The New Cambridge History of English Literature: The Victorian Period, ed. Kate Flint, Cambridge University Press (2012), pp. 193–219 ISBN 9780521846257
  16. ^ Michael Booth (1991) Theatre in the Victorian Age. Cambridge University Press: 151
  17. ^ Jean Tulard (1985) Naploleon: The Myth of the Saviour. London, Methuen: 213-14
  18. ^ Dirks T Melodrama Films filmsite.org website opinion
  19. ^ Levy, Emanuel (31 May 1999) "Agnes Browne (period drama)" Variety
  20. ^ Charlie Rose interview Nov. 30, 2007 http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/8815

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