What is a ‘Melodrama’?

A melodrama is a play with a sensational and exciting plot. It features very simply-drawn characters. Regular characters are:

Melodrama uses exaggeration of mood, body language and facial expression. It was often played in very big theatres so the large gestures made it easier for the audience to understand what was happening in the story.

Melodramas were often in episodic form with a ‘cliff-hanger’ at the end of each act or episode – the villain poses a threat, the hero or heroine escapes etc.

Melodramas usually end happily with good winning over evil.


When were the first ‘Melodramas’?

Melodramas were popular in the 1800s on the stage and in novels; they were the primary form of theatre during the 1800s.

It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who invented the melodrama in his dramatic monologue Pygmalion, first performed in Paris in the early 1760s.

Melodrama became popular in Britain throughout the 1800s. The first English melodrama was A Tale of Mystery (1802) written by Thomas Holcroft.

Historically, melodramas dealt with romantic or sensational topics. They appealed strongly to the emotions.


What does ‘Melodrama’ mean?

The term ‘melodrama’ comes from the Greek words for ‘music’ and ‘drama’.

The ‘melo’ part of melodrama comes from the Greek word ‘melos’, which also gives us the word melody.

A melodrama was originally a stage play, interspersed with songs, that had a live orchestral accompaniment.

Music in Melodrama

Music is very important in melodrama. It does very much the same sort of thing that film music does.

It creates atmosphere and mood. Individual characters often have their own individual tune.

There’s also what is called “hurry music”. This is when something exciting is happening and you need some lively music to get people worked up.

And, of course, there’s music to express more sentimental moments as well.


Melodrama today

Melodrama is still with us today.

Melodrama, in the 1800s, was a drama of everyday life for the people watching it.

Today, we might talk about ‘realism’ and we might well say, ‘I saw a soap opera on TV recently that was very realistic.’ Someone, in the 1800s, might have used the term ‘melodramatic’ instead.

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