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Below is an array of information for students and teachers about 19th-century melodrama, including its origins, characters, conventions, acting style, structure and form, plot elements, theatrical devices, staging, different types of melodramas, and more.
Historical Beginnings of Melodrama
The Rise of Melodrama
Melodrama’ is a hybrid of ‘mélo’ (music, melody) and ‘drame’ (drama).
Melodrama emerged as a distinct form of theatre in the late 18th century, primarily in France and England. The 19th century witnessed the genre’s peak in popularity and artistic development.
Early English melodramas were often exotic, with settings in faraway lands. By the 1820s, they consisted of more familiar settings and subject matter. In the 1830s, these melodramas evolved into having a more elevated tone, colloquially known as “gentlemanly melodramas”. From the 1840s onwards, English melodramas had more widespread appeal.
The 19th-century melodrama became a dominant form of theatrical entertainment during significant social, political, and cultural transformation. The rise of industrialisation, burgeoning urban centres, and a newly expanding middle class provided fertile ground for the new melodramas.
At a time when social customs were in flux, melodrama served as a moral compass, offering easily digestible ethical lessons through its exaggerated characters and sensational plotlines.
The commercialisation of theatre during this period made melodrama financially lucrative, solidifying its role in the theatrical landscape.
Rising Literacy Rates The 19th century saw significant increases in literacy rates, making storytelling an accessible form of entertainment for a wider range of people.
Growing Middle Class The economic landscape was changing, giving rise to a middle class seeking new entertainment forms that resonated with their values and experiences.
Influence of Romanticism Romanticism, focusing on individual experience, emotion, and nature, provided a fertile ground for melodrama to flourish. Romantic plays were often melodramatic, echoing the broader cultural emphasis on emotion and the individual.
Dramatic Form and Structure
The structure of a melodrama was a deliberate departure from and reaction against the strict neoclassical rules set down by Aristotle centuries earlier: the three unities of time (the plot taking place over a single day), place (in a single setting), and action. The structure of a melodrama was often rigid, adhering to several key conventions.
Acts Melodramas were divided into three to five acts, each comprising a series of incidents or episodes. Every act had its arc with a climax at its end, but it also contributed to the overarching narrative.
Music Musical accompaniment was crucial, often performed by an orchestra or a pianist, to underscore moments of high emotion or dramatic tension.
Linear Storytelling The narrative unfolded straightforwardly, focused on a central conflict that the conclusion would resolve. It typically began with a provocation – “the initial cause for setting the action in motion; very often it is the jealousy or greed of a wicked character”, then the pangs – “the sufferings of the good and innocent characters who are in conflict with the evil”, and finally the penalty – “that suffered by the wicked character for his evil ways in a last-minute reversal of fortune” (Clausen, M., Centre Stage).
Melodramas employed a series of tried-and-true narrative elements to captivate the audience.
Moral Divisions Stories were usually centred on a stark moral conflict between good and evil, with good almost invariably prevailing. Evil characters were punished, and good characters were rewarded. There was ample tension and suspense.
Twists and Turns Plot elements like mistaken identity, lost relatives found, or unexpected betrayals, served to keep the audience invested.
Themes Recurring themes such as justice, retribution, and unrequited love were often explored.
High Stakes The fate of characters often hung in the balance, creating a sense of urgency and tension.
The genre was known for its use of stock characters, which never developed and were instantly recognisable to audiences.
The Hero / Heroine The epitome of virtue and bravery, often faced with enormous challenges Traits: Courageous, selfless, morally upright.
The Villain A character defined by malevolence and cunning, often in a position of power. Traits: Deceptive, manipulative, selfish.
The Villain’s Accomplice / Sidekick Usually, male. A secondary character who aids the hero and often provides comedic relief. Traits: Loyal, humorous, supportive, awkward, totally useless.
The Damsel Usually, a female character who is innocent and in distress and needs rescue by the hero. Traits: Virtuous, naive, vulnerable.
Faithful Servant / Maidservant Male or female characters who provide moral support to the hero or heroine while occasionally serving as comic relief. Traits: Loyal, subservient, trustworthy.
Devices and Conventions
Dramatic Tools and Tricks
Melodrama utilised several key theatrical devices to captivate the audience.
Tableaux Actors would hold a pose, freezing the action at the height of an emotional or critical moment, letting the audience absorb the scene’s gravity. These brief freezes, held for dramatic effect, increased the emotional intensity.
Asides Characters would break the fourth wall to share their thoughts or plans directly with the audience, building intimacy and shared secret knowledge. Although the use of the aside was not as strong as the direct address, the device nevertheless empowered sections of the audience with information other characters on stage were unaware of. Audience interaction in melodramas was commonplace.
Cliffhangers An act or an entire melodrama often ended with heightened tension or danger.
The Theatricality of Performance
The acting in melodrama was designed for maximum impact.
Exaggeration Large, over-the-top, sweeping gestures and facial expressions were used to make the emotional content clear to the audience, even those in the farthest seats. Actors often used codified gestures (specific gestures for certain reactions, recognised by the audience). A presentational acting style was employed in melodramas, with the actors facing out to the audience in the performance (while amplifying the emotional intensity; this was not considered a direct address).
Vocal Range Actors used an elaborate style of speech, often projecting their voices forcefully to ensure that their lines were carried to the back of the theatre.
Emotional Intensity The objective was to stir strong emotions among the audience, leading actors to opt for intense expressions over more subtle character portrayals.
The melodrama acting style requires the use of strong facial expressions, large movements and gestures, and a clear and well-projected delivery of lines … Actors concentrated on ‘showing’ emotions more than feeling them. They were skilled in the use of facial expression and heightened body language to show particular emotions.
Melodrama was a feast for the eyes, thanks to continual advancements in stage technology during the 19th century.
Trap Doors Trapdoors were already in use during the Elizabethan era but gained more sophisticated mechanisms by the early 19th century. These allowed for sudden appearances and disappearances, adding an element of surprise or magic.
Flying Apparatus Developments in rigging and pulley systems made flying effects increasingly sophisticated throughout the 19th century.
Turntables and Revolving Stages Although turntables were first used in ancient Greek theatre, their mechanical sophistication grew in the late 19th century. However, by the time the Western world’s first modern revolving stage was introduced in Germany in 1896, melodrama had all but died out.
Detailed Backdrops These were meticulously painted to offer realistic or fantastical settings, thereby increasing the sense of immersion. Moving panoramas (huge scenic backdrops) were an early 19th-century invention that gave the impression of a horse race.
Gas Lighting Gas lighting was introduced to theatre in the early 19th century, with London’s Drury Lane Theatre installing a gas lighting system in 1817.
Limelight Limelight was invented in the early 1820s and became widely used in theatres by the 1830s for spotlighting and general illumination. Key characters or moments could be illuminated, guiding the audience’s attention and amplifying the emotional impact.
Side Lighting Wing or side lighting gained prevalence throughout the 19th century but became notably refined with gas and electric lighting advancements.
Types of Melodramas
1. Disaster Melodramas
Overview Disaster melodramas emerged as a subgenre within the broader category of 19th-century melodramas, incorporating cataclysmic events such as natural disasters, earthquakes, floods and fires. These productions aimed to elicit heightened emotional reactions from the audience by placing characters in extreme, often life-threatening, situations.
Structure The narrative arc in disaster melodramas typically involves an initial setup that introduces characters and sets the emotional stakes, followed by the occurrence of the disastrous event and finally leading to a resolution, often moral retribution or vindication. The disastrous events serve as metaphors for moral or societal turbulence and as mechanisms for accelerating the story’s emotional dynamics.
Characters The character archetypes in disaster melodramas mirror those in the broader genre, such as the virtuous hero, the malevolent villain, and the damsel in distress. However, their virtues and vices are more stark and urgent against impending or ongoing disaster.
Devices Disaster melodramas made liberal use of special effects to simulate catastrophic events. This could range from elaborate set pieces that mimicked the destruction caused by fire or flood to mechanised props that simulated a ship rocking in a storm. These devices were intended to amplify the spectacle, thereby intensifying audience engagement and emotional involvement.
2. Nautical Melodramas
Overview Nautical melodramas were a popular form of English melodrama in the 1820s and 1830s, distinguished by their maritime settings and seafaring characters such as naval captains, sailors, and pirates. These works took place on ships, docks, or coastal towns, often incorporating adventure, exploration, and naval conflict elements. Lawlessness featured prominently.
Structure The narrative in nautical melodramas generally followed the melodramatic tradition of clear moral delineations and heightened emotional stakes. However, they added the unique twist of maritime challenges—such as shipwrecks, naval battles, or encounters with pirates—to elevate the tension and complexity. The sea often served as a metaphorical landscape, reflecting themes of freedom, destiny, or human struggle against the elements.
Characters While embodying the archetypal roles found in mainstream melodramas—such as the virtuous hero and the scheming villain—nautical melodramas often featured specialised characters like sailors, captains, and pirates. These characters were constructed with maritime traits, including nautical skills and language, that added authenticity and specificity to the drama.
Devices Nautical melodramas were particularly known for their elaborate staging requirements to simulate seafaring conditions. This could involve complex set designs that mimicked the decks of ships, mechanical devices to simulate wave motion, and even the use of water on stage for greater realism. Such devices were crucial for providing the audience with a sensory experience that complemented the high-stakes narrative.
Since the basic pattern of melodrama is always much the same (good persecuted by evil, with the eventual triumph of good), variety was gained through such novelties as exotic locales, ever-more spectacular effects, increased realism, incorporation into the action of the latest inventions, and dramatizations of popular novels or notorious crimes.
The Essential Theatre
3. Domestic Melodramas
Overview Domestic melodramas were usually set within the confines of a home and dealt with familial relationships, marital dynamics, and domestic virtues and vices. They often highlighted the importance of family unity and the challenges that could threaten it. Domestic melodramas were often set against a single household or a closely-knit community.
Structure The home often became the stage for moral dilemmas and ethical decisions in domestic melodramas. While adhering to the broader melodramatic themes of virtue versus vice, these plays intensified their emotional scope by placing these conflicts in the intimate setting of the home. Plots frequently revolved around marital fidelity, familial loyalty, and social reputation, aiming to strike a chord with everyday experiences.
Characters Domestic melodramas retained the archetypal characters of mainstream melodramas—the virtuous hero, the malevolent villain, and the damsel in distress—but contextualised them within the family unit. Thus, the hero might be a devoted husband or a dutiful son, the villain a disreputable suitor or an oppressive father, and the damsel often a wronged wife or endangered daughter.
Devices This subgenre utilised traditional melodramatic devices like asides, cliffhangers, and tableaux but often added domestic props and settings for heightened realism and relatability. For instance, key dramatic scenes might unfold in a drawing room, a bedroom, or around a family dinner table, using household objects like letters, lockets, or diaries as crucial plot devices.
…in its strongly moralistic character, melodrama celebrated virtue above all else and insisted that vice would ultimately be punished.
Theatre: Art in Action
Taylor, R., and Strickland, R.
4. Sensation Melodramas
Overview Sensation melodramas emerged as a captivating subgenre of 19th-century melodrama, capitalising on the public’s appetite for thrills, suspense, and extreme emotional states. Rooted in the literary tradition of the “sensation novel” of the 1860s and ’70s, these works incorporated mystery, love, crime, murder, and psychological intrigue to create heightened excitement and apprehension. Known for their special effects, sensation melodramas aimed to dazzle the audience with technological innovations like trap doors and quick changes.
Structure The narrative framework in sensation melodramas was often intricate and filled with unexpected twists and turns. These plots usually involved secrets, criminal activities, or moral transgressions that were gradually revealed, maintaining a heightened sense of suspense throughout. Unlike other forms of melodrama that relied more heavily on moral differences, sensation melodramas were more nuanced, incorporating elements of ambiguity and moral complexity.
Characters While rooted in the melodramatic tradition, the archetypal characters in sensation melodramas were often more complex and ambiguous. The virtuous hero might possess dark secrets, the villain could have redeeming qualities, and the damsel might be more proactive or morally ambiguous than her counterparts in other melodramatic subgenres. Characters often had hidden pasts or identities central to the plot’s unfolding.
Devices Sensation melodramas use dramatic devices such as cliffhangers, flashbacks, and red herrings to sustain suspense and surprise. Additionally, props like mysterious letters, hidden compartments, or disguised costumes often played pivotal roles. Technological advancements in staging allowed for elaborate set designs that could facilitate dramatic reveals or simulate ominous environments.
As the century progressed, realistic and convincing scenic design, together with the development of elaborate stage machinery, meant that not only melodrama, but all types of theatrical productions could include theatrical spectacle. Trapdoors and lifts, flying scenery, pyrotechnics and water effects meant that productions could feature spectacular events such as shipwrecks, battles, fires, earthquakes and horse races. All the stage machinery around, above and below the stage was hidden behind the proscenium arch, which conveniently also hid all the stagehands. The stage itself was hollow and housed removable panels, slots, lifts, ‘scruto’ (slatted rolling surfaces) and hand-operated and hydraulic trapdoor machinery.
Nineteenth Century Meolodrama
5. Animal Melodramas
Overview Animal melodramas constituted a distinctive and rather curious subgenre within the broader landscape of 19th-century melodrama. These theatrical pieces featured real, simulated, or anthropomorphised animals as integral elements in the story. The animals often served symbolic roles, acting as embodiments of certain virtues or vices or as narrative devices to advance the plot or amplify emotional resonance.
Structure The narrative in animal melodramas typically adhered to the melodramatic formula of good versus evil or virtue versus vice but with the added dimension of animals playing significant roles. These animals were often involved in key plot developments, such as rescuing a character, revealing a hidden truth, or even undergoing their moral journeys. Including animals introduced an additional complexity and novelty to the conventional melodramatic structure.
Characters While human characters in animal melodramas were largely comparable to those in other melodramatic subgenres, the animal characters introduced a unique set of archetypes. Whether they were loyal companions, mystical creatures, or symbols of innocence or danger, these animals were developed with traits that complemented or contrasted those of the human characters, enriching the story’s moral and emotional texture.
Devices Animal melodramas often employed elaborate staging techniques to depict animals realistically. This could include trained animals, intricate puppetry, or advanced mechanical devices. These dramaturgical choices contributed to the spectacle and facilitated the audience’s suspension of disbelief, deepening emotional engagement with the narrative.
5. Social Melodramas
Overview Social melodramas were a subgenre of 19th-century melodrama that aimed to critique, reflect upon, or dramatise social issues, typically focusing on class struggle, slavery, adultery, poverty, women’s rights, illegitimacy, economic injustice, societal norms and mores. Unlike other melodramas, which often emphasise purely emotional or moral conflicts, social melodramas aim for a more grounded, socially relevant form of storytelling, often presenting a moral argument or a plea for social change.
Structure The narrative arcs of social melodramas were often interwoven with real-world issues, such as social injustice, labour struggles, or class divisions. While maintaining the melodramatic scaffolding of heightened emotions and moral polarities, these plays incorporated socio-political themes as central elements. The conflict was often larger than individual characters, representing broader social tensions and institutional challenges.
Characters While still featuring stock characters like virtuous heroes and villainous antagonists, social melodramas often subverted these archetypes to present a more nuanced social commentary. For example, the ‘villain’ could represent oppressive societal structures rather than a single malevolent individual. Similarly, the ‘hero’ might be a common worker or a social reformer rather than a traditional gallant figure.
Devices Social melodramas extensively used symbolism, allegory, and irony to convey their messages. They employed traditional melodramatic devices like cliffhangers and tableaux but adapted them to serve the narrative’s social critique. Realistic settings like factories, slums, or courtrooms were often employed to ground the drama in a recognisable social context.
6. Gothic Melodramas
Overview Gothic melodrama is a subgenre that integrates elements of the Gothic literary tradition, characterised by an atmosphere of mystery, horror, and the supernatural. Emerging in the late 18th century and solidifying its presence in the 19th century, Gothic melodrama incorporated the quintessential features of melodrama—such as sensationalism, moral division, and heightened emotion—with Gothic motifs including haunted castles, doomed romance, and evil supernatural entities.
Structure The dramatic structure of Gothic melodramas typically adhered to the conventional format of 19th-century melodrama, often comprising a prologue, three to five acts, and occasionally an epilogue. However, these works frequently infused supernatural and macabre elements at crucial points within the narrative arc, such as during climaxes or pivotal revelations.
Characters In Gothic melodramas, character types blended the conventional archetypes of melodrama with the thematic complexities of the Gothic genre. The hero and heroine, although primarily virtuous, often possessed dark secrets. Villains may be imbued with tragic dimensions or serve as conduits for supernatural elements, further complicating their moral positioning.
Supernatural entities, such as ghosts or witches, were introduced as moral agents or instigators of conflict. At the same time, secondary characters like servants or clergymen served diverse functions ranging from comic relief to moral guidance. The damsel in distress, a staple from the Gothic tradition, added further complexity, often having a more significant role in advancing the plot.
Devices Gothic melodramas employed special effects, lighting, and staging techniques to create an atmosphere of suspense and terror. Stage effects such as fog, eerie lighting, and supernatural apparitions were used to heighten the emotional impact. Dramatic organ music often underscored critical moments, amplifying the sense of doom and foreboding. Elements like asides and soliloquies were adapted to reveal characters’ internal conflicts rather than straightforward moral dilemmas.
19th Century Melodramas
– “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852), novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (adapted for the stage) – 200+ works by August von Kotzebue – 100+ works by René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt – “The Octoroon” by Dion Boucicault: brought the issue of slavery to the stage, engaging with its moral complexities. – “Under the Gaslight” by Augustin Daly: Known for the iconic scene where a damsel is tied to railway tracks, this play exemplified many of the genre’s key traits. – “The Floating Beacon; or Norwegian Wreckers” (1824), “Flying Dutchman; or The Phantom Ship” (1826), and “Jonathan Bradford, or Murder at the Roadside Inn” (1833), all nautical melodramas by Edward Fitzball. – “Fifteen Years of a Drunkard’s Life” (1828) and “Black-eyed Susan” (1829) by Douglas Jerrold.