The term melodrama refers to a dramatic work which exaggerates plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions. It may also refer to the genre which includes such works, or to language, behavior, or events which resemble them. It is also used in scholarly and historical musical contexts to refer to dramas of the 18th and 19th centuries in which orchestral music or song was used to accompany the action. The term originated from the early 19th-century French wordmélodrame, which in turn is derived from Greek melos (music) and French drame (drama)
18th-century origins: monodrama, duodrama and opera
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 dialog 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, 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 more well-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)
19th century: operetta, incidental music and salon entertainment
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; 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 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 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, complete with several melodramas, for instance, No. 12 found here.
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 was to come to an end, however, when most of these theatres were demolished during the rebuilding of Paris by Baron Haussmann in 1862.
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).
Victorian stage melodrama
The Victorian stage melodrama featured, a limited number of stock characters: the hero, the villain, the heroine, an aged parent and a comic man 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.
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. A notable French melodramatist was Pixérécourt whose La Femme a deux maris was wildly popular with the masses.
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’sThe Mutiny at the Nore (1830) and The Red Rover (1829) by Edward Fitzball (Rowell 1953).
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 Tom Taylor’s The Ticket-of-Leave Man are a unique record of a bygone art-form.