The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Melodrama: Originally, any drama accompanied by music used to enhance the emotional impact and mood of the performance (for instance, opera); today, any work that relies on the improbable and sensational for dramatic effect and emotional appeal. Melodramas typically feature implausible plots emphasizing romance and thrilling, often violent action; stock or flat characters; extravagant emotion; and a happy ending in which virtue prevails.

Melodrama began to develop as a literary mode or genre in the late eighteenth century, particularly in France, and became the main theatrical form in Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century. In early-nineteenth-century London, melodramas became increasingly popular as a means of circumventing the Licensing Act of 1737, a law requiring government preapproval of plays and authorizing only the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theaters to present them; as musical entertainments, melodramas could be performed elsewhere — and reduce the threat of censorship.

In the Victorian Period, melodrama came to emphasize the conflict between pure good and evil, pitting heroes and heroines of impeccable morality against despicable villains engaged in malevolent intrigue. Romantic plots twisted by a scheming villain were typical, as were unbelievably happy endings in which poetic justice required that evil be punished and good rewarded.

Today, melodrama and melodramatic are generally used pejoratively.

EXAMPLES: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1762; first performed 1770); Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (1802), often considered the first English melodrama; Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo (1844); Dion Boucicault’s The Corsican Brothers: A Dramatic Romance (1852); Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

Although Charles Dickens poked fun at “modern melodramas” in Oliver Twist (1837), contemporary critics would say that his novel is itself a Victorian melodrama, thanks to scenes like the one in which Oliver finishes his gruel, extends his empty bowl to the workhouse master, and says, “Please, sir, I want some more.” Jean Cocteau’s play Les parents terribles (Intimate Relations) (1938) simultaneously exemplifies and parodies the excesses of melodramatic convention.

Critically acclaimed melodramas include Charlie Chaplin’s silent film City Lights (1931); Fred Gipson’s children’s novel Old Yeller (1956; adapted to film 1957); the movie Terms of Endearment (1983), based on Larry McMurtry’s eponymous novel (1975); and John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars (2012; adapted to film 2014). Other well-known melodramas include the television series Lassie (1954—74), a long-running canine melodrama; Erich Segal’s Love Story (1970), which ends with the death of the female heroine and the line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”; Spanish-language telenovelas; Bollywood cinema; and Danielle Steel’s novels, which typically feature an embattled, faultless heroine, improbable plot twists that provoke stock responses of anger and compassion, and a traditionally happy ending involving marriage and the birth of a child.