Melodrama is still one of the most exciting
and challenging theatre genres and indeed, the elements of melodrama
can be identified in almost every theatrical period from Euripides
in ancient Athens to the plays of William Shakespeare.
The name comes from the French 'melodrame' -
a combination of music and drama. In terms of further defining
melodrama, I rather like a dated but still relevant quote from
Rahill (1976) who writes:
Melodrama is a form of dramatic composition in prose partaking
of the nature of tragedy, comedy, pantomime and spectacle and intended
for a popular audience. Primarily concerned with situation and plot,
it employs a more of less fixed complement of stock characters,
the most important of which are the suffering heroine or hero, a
persecuting villain and a benevolent comic. It is conventionally
moral and humanitarian in point of view and sentimental and optimistic
in temper, concluding its fable happily with virtue rewarded after
many trials and vice punished. Characteristically, it offers elaborate
scenic accessories and introduces music freely, typically to underscore
dramatic effect. (in Jump 1973, p.5)
- How did melodrama gain popularity? We need to look at the social
and cultural conditions of Europe in the nineteenth century to
found our answer. The Industrial Revolution meant that many uneducated
country people worked long and difficult hours at noisy machinery
in conditions that were hot and cramped. They slept in dormitory
style accommodation on factory floors and many of them were illiterate.
For these people, the only form of escape or entertainment was
the pub, the circus, the brothel, the Church or the theatre. And
so to the theatre they came. It was accessible entertainment that
was cheap and welcoming. Covent Garden was rebuilt in 1792 so
it could house an audience of over 3000 people. Drury Lane in
1794 held 2,500, the Royal Coburg, 2800 and Whitechapel Pavilion,
over 3500 people.
- The new stages were so big however, that every effect on stage
needed to be exaggerated and fine comic pointing and speech was
transformed into broad gesture and ranting.
- The crowd wanted to forget the drudgery of the everyday and
demanded colour, adventure, romance, thrill, defeat, and triumph.
- The melodramatic form that grew out of the nineteenth century
very much reflected a notion that the essential goal of drama
was to 'extol virtue and condemn vice.' (Randall & LeGro Bushnell1986,
p.7). Popular plays of this period dealt with the struggle between
good and bad. This struggle was always intense and passionate
and resulted in the triumph of good over evil. The concepts of
defeat and victory underpinned the essential tension and conflict
that characterised melodramas.
- Melodramas were characterised by extreme conflicts to extreme
conclusions of which there were only three: stalemate, victory
- Characterisation was one dimensional of good or bad. Comic relief
was common and there was always a character side-kick who helped
keep the drama interesting and lively.
What are the defining elements of melodrama?
- Stock characterisation, an emphasis on the dichotomy between
good versus evil
- Chaotic and at times, absurd plots
- Episodic structure
- Perfunctory style
- Scenic marvels (waterfalls, horses, monkeys, donkey, ducks,
performing dogs, etc)
- Musical background
- Comic relief
- Rigid poetic justice
- Fast action
- Sweeping flowing movements and exaggerated gestures
- Intense emotion
- Ideologically coded: could bring sub-textual messages of protest
about social injustices etc..
(References: Randall, C & Le Gro Bushnell, J. (1986). Hisses,
Boos and Cheers. Illinois:Dramatic Publishing Company.
Jump, J.D. (1973). Melodrama. London: Methuen)