19th Century Melodrama


c.1800-1810, melodrama = mélo (music, melody) + drame (drama)


  • elements of melodrama are believed to have originated in the 5th century B.C, later appearing in Medieval and Elizabethan dramas
  • emerged in the 19th century from 18th century sentimental dramas in Germany and France that involved both music and action
  • during the 19th century, melodramas graced the great stages of Europe, America and Australia
  • related to other theatrical forms such as sentimental comedy and domestic tragedy


  • DISASTER MELODRAMAS: natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and fires
  • NAUTICAL MELODRAMAS: English form popular in the 1820s and 30s, sailors, navy, pirates, lawlessness
  • ANIMAL MELODRAMAS: animals on stage such as dogs and horses
  • DOMESTIC MELODRAMAS: more serious subject matter such as adultery and illegitimacy, romantic themes
  • SENSATION MELODRAMAS: emerging from sensation novels of the 1860s and 70s, love and murder themes


  • deliberate departure from and reaction against strict neoclassical rules (stemming from Aristotle) of the Three Unities: 1) time <single day>, 2) place <single location> and 3) action.
  • originally, the stage action was accompanied by musical numbers, later a musical score
  • music enhanced the stage action, tension, emotional tone, and suspense of the plot
  • three acts
  • comprised a series of incidents or episodes

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 (Brockett, O., The Essential Theatre)


  • moral tone with good triumphing over evil
  • full of suspense
  • ample tension
  • horror
  • mystery
  • climax at the end each act
  • evil characters punished
  • good characters rewarded
  • English Melodramas:
    • Until the 1820s: somewhat exotic, far away settings, sometimes supernatural elements
    • During the 1820s: more familiar settings and subject matter
    • During the 1830s: elevated tone, “gentlemanly melodramas”
    • 1840 onwards: more widespread appeal

Melodrama emphasized clear and suspenseful plots in which a virtuous protagonist was hounded by a villain and rescued from seemingly insurmountable difficulties only after undergoing a series of threats to life, reputation or happiness (Brockett, O., The Essential Theatre)


  • PROVOCATION: “…the initial cause for setting the action in motion; very often it is the jealousy or greed of a wicked character”
  • PANGS: “…the sufferings of the good and innocent characters who are in conflict with the evil”
  • PENALTY: “…that suffered by the wicked character for his evil ways in a last-minute reversal of fortune” (Clausen, Centre Stage, p.117)

 …in its strongly moralistic character, melodrama celebrated virtue above all else and insisted that vice would ultimately be punished (Theatre: Art in Action, p.7)

Devices / Conventions

  • use of the aside icon-link (not as strong as direct address, nevertheless empowering the audience with knowledge other characters were unaware of)
  • concealed identity
  • musical score underpinning tension
  • abductions
  • disguise
  • song
  • codified gestures (specific gestures for certain reactions, recognised by the audience)
  • audience interaction
  • mistaken identity
  • dance
  • dramatic tableau (brief freezes for dramatic effect to increase emotion)


  • stereotypical “stock” characters remained the same throughout the plot, never developing
  • HERO: male, brave, moral, handsome, reliable (status = middle class +)
  • HEROINE: female, innocent, beautiful, vulnerable (status = middle class +)
  • VILLAIN: male, immoral, evil, greedy, dishonest, sly, corrupt (status = middle class +)
  • VILLAIN’S ACCOMPLICE: male, useless, cowardly helper, sidekick, comic relief (status = lower class)
  • FAITHFUL SERVANT: hero’s loyal servant, does dirty work, sometimes provides comic relief though not very funny (status = lower class)
  • MAIDSERVANT: female, heroine’s loyal servant, flirtatious (status = lower class)

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 (Clausen, M., Centre Stage, p.119)


  • most scholars argue a presentational icon-link style of acting
  • exaggerated movement
  • large, over-the top, sweeping gestures
  • highly emotional vocal and facial expression
  • yet other scholars argue a more inward acting style

… acting should employ the tenets of realism … lifelike character creation, predominately representational mode (except for asides) … natural speech and movement (Styan, J.L., Acting in Person and in Style, p.242)


  • key plot elements occurred on stage before the audience
  • spectacles (earthquakes, train crashes, explosions, burning buildings)
  • sensationalism
  • excess
  • sometimes 100+ cast members
  • horses on stage
  • moving panoramas (huge scenic backdrops) were an early 19th century invention that gave the impression of a horse race, for example

Realistic spectacle, thrilling effects, novelty, suspense, and the vindication of virtue were the major appeals of melodrama (Brocket, O., The Essential Theatre, p.171)


  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (adapted for the stage)
  • 200+ plays by August von Kotzebue
  • 100+ plays by René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt
  • Plays by Dion Boucicault


Brockett, Oscar, G., The Theatre: An Introduction
Brockett, Oscar, G., History of the Theatre
Brockett, Oscar, G., Essential Theatre
Abel, L. (ed.), Theatre: Art in Action
Clausen, M., Centre Stage
Crawford, Jerry, L., Acting in Person and in Style
Chambers C. (ed.), The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre
Northern Virginia Community College, 19th Century Melodrama icon-link 
crossref-it.info, A Guide to Nineteenth Century Melodrama icon-link 

6 Responses

  1. Felicity says:

    Who developed melodrama?

  2. Maddison says:

    What is melodrama

  3. Bethany says:

    Hi, I’m doing an IB research presentation on Victorian Melodrama and I’m wondering if you could give me sources where I can learn more about codified gestures that were used? Or any physical performance conventions? Thanks.

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