A genre of theater that emerged in late eighteenth-century France, melodrama is distinguished by spectacle and sensationalism, intense and extravagant displays of emotion and affect (often through the use of stage tableaux), polarized characters who are hapless victims, dastardly villains, and virtuous heroes, highly schematized plots centered around family secrets, domestic scandals, or calumnious mysteries, and the ultimate revelation and resolution of such affairs when the forces of good triumph over evildoers. Peter Brooks's important study (1976, The Melodramatic Imagination) points to French playwright François-René Guilbert de Pixerecourt (1773—1844) as the founder of this genre. But the influence of melodrama extends beyond the stage onto the pages of the modern European and Anglo-American novel, exemplified by Honoré de Balzac's Le Père Goriot (1835, Father Goriot) and Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (1902). Responding to modernity's desacralization and loss of tragic vision (see MODERNIS), the melodramatic imagination in the modern novel underscores the theatricality and excess of fictional representation. This dramatic excess locates and articulates the “moral occult,” namely “the domain of spiritual forces and imperatives that is not clearly visible within reality,” but has to be revealed (Brooks, 20). James's characteristic dense and sinuous prose, and his portrayal of female protagonists like Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), can be read as the work of a melodramatic imagination. Similarly, Balzac's combination of literary realism and theatrical melodrama may be thought of as subversions of the prevailing social conventions underpinning these genres.
In nineteenth-century Britain, the adaptation of many novels for the theater created more intersections between melodrama and the novel, exemplified by Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1859) and Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1861). Dickens in particular is noted for his adaptation of gothic villains for novelistic melodrama and his externalization of private emotions, which helped popularize the novel as a cultural form that both instructs and entertains a mass audience. The rise of sensation theater later in the century was concomitant with the emergence of sensation novels such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862) and Ellen Wood's East Lynne (1861). Winifred Hughes (1980, The Maniac in the Cellar) traces its roots to the traditional romance, the gothic novel, and the Newgate novel of crime and prison houses (see DETECTIVE), but argues that melodrama is key to understanding the sensation novel's combination of romance and realism, and how its heightened affect and exaggerated style react against the prosaicness of mainstream domestic fiction. However, sensation novels' focus on female propriety, marital relations, and family connections suggests a form of domestic melodrama that problematizes rather than rejects the family as an ambiguous and contested space.
In the U.S., sensationalist writing in popular city novels contributed to a growing consciousness of nation and empire in the nineteenth century. The melodramatic imagination has been an important part of historical and contemporary representations of race in American popular culture, ranging from novels such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) to the media coverage of O. J. Simpson's trial in 1995 (L. Williams, 2001, Playing the Race Card). Outside the U.S. and Britain, melodrama also played an important part in late nineteenth- and turn-of-the-century fiction in Spanish America and Japan. Colombian writer Soledad Acosta de Samper's Los Piratas de Cartagena (1886, The pirates of Cartagena) used sensational swashbucklers and beautiful heroines to dramatize the conflict between different political forces in the nation-building process (N. Gerassi-Navarro, 1999, Pirate Novels). Novels such as Natsume Sseki's Gubijins (1907, Poppies) drew on melodrama's moral polarization and sentimental domesticity to represent social and ideological struggles during Japan's sweeping Meiji Restoration (see IDEOLOGY). Furthermore, reading melodrama as a sensational mode of representation rather than a strictly defined genre has enabled analyses of different types of narratives. Ann Cvetkovich (1992, Mixed Feelings) draws attention to sensationalist rhetoric in Karl Marx's discussion of commodities in Capital, while Anna Maria Jones (2007, Problem Novels) shows how certain strands of Victorianist criticism are also marked by literary sensationalism.
1. Ito, K. (2008), Age of Melodrama.
2. John, J. (2001), Dickens's Villains.
3. Kirby, D. (1991), Henry James and Melodrama.
4. Prendergast, C. (1978), Balzac.
5. Pykett, L. (1992), “Improper” Feminine.
6. Streeby, S. (2002), American Sensations.