See D. Gerould, ed., Melodrama (1980).
Sentimental drama marked by extravagant theatricality, subordination of character development to plot, and focus on sensational incidents. It usually has an improbable plot that features such stock characters as the noble hero, the long-suffering heroine, and the hard-hearted villain, and it ends with virtue triumphing over vice. Written by such playwrights as Guilbert de Pixérécourt and Dion Boucicault, melodramas were popular in Europe and the U.S. during the 19th century. They often featured spectacular events such as shipwrecks, battles, fires, earthquakes, and horse races. Melodrama died out as a theatrical form in the early 20th century but remained popular in silent film. It can still be seen in contemporary film genres such as the action movie.
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Melodramas tend to be formulaic productions, with a clearly constructed world of connotations: a villain poses a threat, the hero escapes the threat (or rescues the heroine) and there is (generally) a happy ending. However, the term is also used in a broader sense to refer to a play, film, or other work in which emotion is exaggerated and plot and action are emphasized in comparison to the more character-driven emphasis within a drama. Melodramas can also be distinguished from tragedy by the fact that they are open to having a happy ending, but this is not always the case. In the 1970s onward, melodramatic films were often targeted at female viewers, and the terms were nicknamed "tearjerkers" or "weepies".
Georg Benda developed the duodrama with his 1775 works Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea and this form of melodrama was taken up by other composers, notably Mozart in Zaide and Thamos, König in Ägypten, Beethoven in Fidelio and Carl Maria von Weber in Der Freischütz. The technique was also used in lieder and song. 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 - synchronized 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).
This was 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 Sprechstimme was used instead of rhythmically spoken words and which took a freer and more imaginative course regarding the plot prerogatives.
A few musicals and operettas contain melodramas in this 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; Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld opens with a melodrama delivered by the chararacter of "Public Opinion"; and other pieces from operetta and musicals may be considered melodramas, such as the "Recit and Minuet in Gilbert and Sullivan's Sorcerer. In musicals, several long speeches in Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon are delivered to the accompaniment of rather beautiful, evocative music.
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 the older form, Sullivan's incidental music to Tennyson's The Foresters is available online, complete with several melodramas, for instance, No. 12 found here.John Williams' score to Star Wars, and Korngold's score to The Adventures of Robin Hood, are excellent examples of the modern usage. The classic and contemporary melodramas are still very popular in today's society.
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. English melodrama was influenced by German Sturm und Drang drama and Parisian melodrama of the post-Revolutionary period (Booth 1991: 151). Other examples of early 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. Another popular sub-genre, beginning in the 1820s, was the nautical melodrama such as The Red Rover (1829) by Edward Fitzball and Black-Eyed Susan (1829) by Douglas Jerrold. Later melodramas developed domestic and urban situations such as The Streets of London (1864) and The Corsican Brothers by Dion Boucicault; and Lost in London (1867).
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. 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 and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street are a unique record of a bygone art-form.
According to The American Melodramatic Mode, the first chapter of Williams' book, one of the essential points of the melodramatic mode is a home. She writes that melodrama begins, and wants to end, in a "space of innocence"; if a protagonist, whom she calls the "victim-hero", can return to this home, the narrative ends happily, and unhappily if he or she cannot. A second point is that "melodrama focuses on victim-heroes and on recognizing their virtue." This virtue is usually recognized by suffering, if virtue is not obvious. This melodramatic recognition of virtue happens either "too late” or "in the nick of time", and it involves a feeling of loss.
The wide use of black and white melodrama in novels reflects the realistic impact of society's imposed stereotypes of African-Americans as opposed to its construction of white people. By constructing African-Americans as uncivilized, exotic and hypersexual, white supremacy made them unable to be recognized as fully human and to have what Williams named a "space of innocence" – an ideal place in which one would be recognized as virtuous. This portrayal of black people as constrained by society's views is depicted in Nella Larsen's Quicksand, whose "victim-hero", Helga Crane, is a mullato that suffers violent impositions of stereotypes, and is ultimately unable to find a place where she belongs. Through the portrayal of a black minstrel performance and through the protagonist's struggle to overcome the dichotomy of civilization/savagery and its ultimate consequences in this novel, Larsen critiques the race/gender system of the 1920s, which perpetuated the stereotypes of black Americans while reasserting white virtue.
While the virtue of the traditional melodramatic protagonist would be ultimately recognized, usually through suffering, Helga Crane is never considered as virtuous, even though the entire novel describes her struggle to overcome the dichotomy of civilization/savagery, and her later unbearable suffering as the wife of Reverend Green and mother of his many children. The fact that after her extensive journey, Helga Crane is still restricted by stereotypes is Larsen's denunciation of a society that constructed African-Americans as solely sensual, uncivilized and animalistic creatures, who could by no efforts be considered virtuous.
Other racial melodramas, such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, portray a different side of the melodramatic depiction of African-Americans. In Stowe's novel, the title character is recognized as virtuous at the time of his death. This recognition, however, comes "too late" and is a mere acknowledgment of compassion for his suffering. Uncle Tom's attribute, as seen by the white readers at the time of the novel's publishing, was his ability to endure suffering.
In the post-Civil Rights and Black Power era, Linda Williams' prediction that melodrama is "the alchemy by which African Americans would themselves eventually reframe both the 'Tom' tradition of white sympathy for blacks and the anti-Tom tradition of sympathy for beleaguered whites to their own ends" has proved to be true. Some would say that minorities, after centuries of being discriminated against, have learned to use melodrama in their favor. This, as many would agree, was the case with the O. J. Simpson murder trial and controversial verdict. Aware of centuries of the unjust melodramatic portrayal of the suffering of white females at the hands of black males, the defense in the murder trial focused on blaming the police for mishandling the evidence and being biased towards the white victims. According to Williams, "the alleged attack on the blond white woman by the jealous black ex-husband invoked an 'anti-Tom' lens that immediately racialized the case."
The racial depiction of the defendant as a villain, however, "collided... with a predominantly 'black' jury's perception that every movement of the white police was an effort to frame the black defendant." Therefore, even though O.J. Simpson's guilt became less questionable after the publishing of the book entitled "If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer", which related the methods he would have used if he had killed his ex-wife and her friend, he is lawfully acquitted of the murders, because of a play on racial melodrama. After a long fight against the melodramatic portrayal of African-Americans as savages and villains, the fear of racial discrimination was used in this case to nullify valid accusations against an African-American. The stereotypes of black people as exotic, uncivilized and hypersexual, once solely violent to innocent African-Americans who even resorted to the perpetuation of these stereotypes through the use of blackface, have lately, to a certain extent, been distorted to account for legitimate accusations, even though these stereotypes continue to oppress many African-Americans.
The Moment of Truth Movies are a series of TV movies produced for the Lifetime cable television and movie networks during the 1990s. The network marketed itself towards an audience of American women; as such, the Moment of Truth movies were invariably issues melodrama with stories told from a female perspective. They often featured diseases such as alcoholism, or plots involving domestic violence, a brutal rape or betrayal by a spouse; however, the typical plot of such a movie required a happy ending, in which the victim recovered from their disease or the offender was jailed for their crimes. Some of the TV movies produced in the series include: Deceived by Trust (1995), Eye of the Stalker (1995), Abduction of Innocence (1996), and When Friendship Kills (1996).