What Is Melodrama?

Melodrama is a theater genre in which music, played beneath or between delivered lines, emphasizes and exaggerates characters or the plot, heightening the emotional impact of the story. It usually only has a few stock characters, such as a hero, heroine, villain, and one or two sidekicks, with the overarching theme of good triumphing over evil. Although it began on stage in the 1700s, it has since been used in operas, operettas, musicals, salon performances, television and radio programs, and films. Although the style’s popularity has waned in the twenty-first century, melodramatic plots remain popular in comics and cartoons. In modern times, the terms “melodrama” and “melodramatic” are more commonly used in a negative sense to describe any story with sensational situations and an overly emotional storyline that appears to be designed to play on the emotions of the audience.

Basic Components

Melodrama is derived from the Greek words melos, which means “music,” and dran, which means “to perform” — literally, “to do music.” It alluded to an art form in which people spoke between musical sections or recited lines over the top of the music. Themes were very important in the compositions, with specific harmonies and melodies serving as motifs for the characters and enhancing the emotional aspects of the story.

Melodramas, in general, depict a very basic view of the world, breaking everything down into the basic categories of “good” and “evil.” In almost every story, there is a hero who fights for what is right and a villain who tries to defeat the hero for his own maniacal goals. A heroine is usually the object of both the hero and the villain’s affections, and she must be rescued in some way at some point during the plot — she is the damsel in distress.

Sidekicks are extra stock characters who serve as apprentices to the hero and villain, assisting them in whatever quests or needs they may have. Despite the fact that the plots can be quite complex, they usually boil down to the hero establishing himself and his relationship with the heroine, the villain posing a threat and attempting to steal the heroine through deception or force, the hero defeating the villain, and everything ending happily.

History of the Theatre

Melodrama’s origins can be traced back to late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century stage productions. Although other works contain scenes or sections that can be grouped with the genre, experts believe Pygmalion, a play Jean-Jacques Rousseau that was first performed in 1770, is the first full example. To distinguish his work from the popular Italian opera at the time, Rousseau coined the term “mélodrame,” which refers to spoken dialogue with musical undercurrents.

In 19th-century France, playwright Rene Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt channeled his real-life experiences into his successful plays, which took melodrama to new heights. He used full orchestras and pyrotechnic effects, for example, where previously pianos or small chamber groups provided the majority of the music. Pixérécourt proposed a structure for the genre, which was eventually copied other forms of entertainment. The first act was usually antagonistic, followed a second act of increased conflict, and a final, third act of complete moral resolution, according to his template. The use of comedy, romance, or an upbeat ending helped to mitigate any tragedy in the story.

Melodramas on stage began to lose favor toward the end of the 1800s. They evolved into salon entertainment, with performances in private homes or other small venues. People began to associate these versions with actors and composers who were unable to truly “make it,” as they usually acted a little while delivering their lines.

Make the transition to film.

Melodramatic elements were saved from extinction when movies became the most popular form of entertainment in the twentieth century. Because actors and actresses could only use their gestures and facial expressions to convey the plot to the audience during the silent film era of the late 1910s and early 1920s, producers relied heavily on Pixérécourt’s successful use of music to enhance emotional aspects of a story. Many of these films used short adaptations of popular stories and novels, partly to capitalize on public interest in the plots and characters, and partly to ensure that the audience understood what was going on.

With Broken Blossoms in 1919 and Orphans of the Storm in 1922, D.W. Griffith was one of the first directors to successfully use movie melodrama. Lillian Gish, a frequent guest star, mastered the art of evoking emotion through stories about long-suffering women. “Weepies” were huge hits during the “talkie” era of the 1930s. These were usually very sentimental stories about strong female characters who struggled through adversity in their lives but ultimately found happiness. Soap operas, which became popular with women in the 1950s and 1960s, eventually replaced them.

Melodramatic elements have been used producers and directors in a large number of classic films since then. One of the most well-known examples is James Stewart’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, which starred Lionel Barrymore as the antagonist, Henry Potter, and James Stewart as the protagonist, George Bailey. Bailey endures a series of frustrating misfortunes at Potter’s hands, even contemplating suicide, before an overwhelmingly emotional and happy conclusion. Casablanca, a romantic tearjerker released in 1942, also falls into this category. During the 1950s, producer Douglas Sirk continued to explore the genre with films like Magnificent Obsession (1954) and Imitation of Life (1959), but critics viewed many of these later attempts as less sophisticated than earlier attempts.

Radio and television

Melodrama found success in radio and television as well, as it did on the big screen. The Lone Ranger, which featured a heroic lawman fighting for justice and order and was adapted to television in 1949, is one of the most well-known American radio examples. The hero as a civil servant became a major theme in television as a result of this precedent, peaking in the 1970s and 1980s, when crime dramas were very popular during prime-time hours.

In Today’s World

The term “melodrama” has many negative connotations in today’s society, and it is associated with excessive action or emotion that appears unrealistic. Nonetheless, some productions can be classified as part of the genre. Moulin Rouge is a film example (2001). TV shows like Law and Order demonstrate that the concept of a hero defeating evil is still important, albeit with more violence, adult language, and realistic situations.

Cartoons and comics are perhaps the best examples of how the genre is still alive and well. The adventures of superheroes like Batman, Spiderman, and Superman continue to captivate audiences decades after their debut, with many of their adventures being turned into popular TV series or blockbuster films. Many children around the world create similar plots in their active, everyday play, demonstrating that the style can be enjoyed people of all ages.