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What Is Melodrama?

By Greg Brian
Updated May 23, 2024
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Melodrama is a genre of theater in which music, played underneath or between delivered lines, emphasizes and exaggerates characters or the plot, making the story more emotional. It usually involves just a handful of stock characters, including a hero, heroine, villain and one or two sidekicks, and the overall concept is always that good triumphs over evil. Although it started in the 1700s on the stage, it eventually was used in various ways for operas, operettas, musicals, salon performances, television and radio programs and movies. The popularity of the style has declined in the 21st century, but melodramatic plots are still popular in comics and cartoons. In modern times, the terms "melodrama" and "melodramatic" are more often used in a negative way to refer to any story that features sensational situations and an overly emotional storyline that seems designed to play on the viewer's feelings.

Basic Elements

The term "melodrama" comes from the Greek words melos, meaning "music," and dran, meaning "to perform" — it literally is translated as "to do music." It referenced an art form in which people recited lines on top of underlying music, or alternately, spoke between musical sections. The themes in the compositions were very important, with particular harmonies and melodies serving as motifs for the characters and enhancing the emotional aspects of the plot.

In general, melodramas show a very basic view of the world, breaking things down into the fundamental categories of "good" and "evil." There is almost always a hero, who fights for what is right, and a villain, who tries to defeat the hero for his own maniacal purposes. A heroine usually holds the affection of both the hero and villain, and she typically needs to be saved in one way or another over the course of the plot — she is the damsel in distress.

Sidekicks are additional stock characters, learning from the hero and villain as apprentices and helping them in whatever quests or needs they might have. Although the plots can be quite complex, ultimately, they usually boil down to the hero establishing himself and his relationship with the heroine, the villain posing a threat and trying to steal the heroine away through conniving or force, the hero defeating the villain and everything ending happily.

Theatrical History

The earliest uses of melodrama go back to the stage productions of the late 18th and early 19th century. Although other earlier works contain scenes or sections that can be grouped with the genre, experts believe that the first full example is Pygmalion, a play by Jean-Jacque Rousseau that was first performed in 1770. Rousseau used the French word, "mélodrame," to distinguish his work from the Italian opera that was popular at the time, specifically describing spoken dialogue with musical undercurrents.

Theaters took melodrama to new heights in 19th century France, where Playwright Rene Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt funneled his real-life experiences into his successful plays. He used full orchestras — previously, pianos or small chamber groups provided the music in most cases — and pyrotechnic effects, for example. Other forms of entertainment eventually copied what Pixérécourt suggested as a structure for the genre. Under his template, the first act was usually an antagonistic event, followed by a second act of increased conflict and a final, third act of complete moral resolution. Any tragedy in the story became reduced by the use of comedy, romance or an upbeat ending.

Toward the end of the 1800s, theatrical melodramas began to fall out of favor. They continued to develop as salon entertainment, which was performed privately in homes or other small venues. Performers usually acted at least a little as they delivered their lines, but over time, people came to see these versions as being very amateurish, associating them with actors and composers who weren't able to really "make it."

Shift into Film

When movies became the popular form of entertainment in the 20th century, melodramatic elements were saved from fading away. During the silent film era of the late 1910s and early 1920s, actors and actresses could use only their gestures and facial expressions to get the plot across to the audience, so producers relied strongly on Pixérécourt’s successful use of music to enhance emotional aspects of a story. Many of these movies used short adaptations of well-known stories and novels, partly to capitalize on the interest the public already had on the plots and characters, and partly to make sure the audience would understand what was going on.

D.W. Griffith was one of the first directors to use movie melodrama effectively, creating Broken Blossoms in 1919 and and Orphans of the Storm in 1922. Actress Lillian Gish was his frequent star, and she mastered the art of emoting through plots of long-suffering women. In the "talkie" era of the 1930s, "weepies" were huge hits. These were usually extremely sentimental stories about strong female characters who tried to fight through tribulations in their lives, but who typically enjoyed happy outcomes. They eventually gave way to soap operas, which became popular with women starting in the 1950s and 1960s.

Producers and directors since have applied melodramatic elements in a large number of movies that are considered classics. One of the most well-known examples is the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, which starred James Stewart as the protagonist, George Bailey, and Lionel Barrymore as the antagonist, Henry Potter. Bailey suffers through various frustrating calamities at the hands of Potter, even considering suicide, before an overwhelmingly emotional and happy finale. The 1942 romantic tearjerker, Casablanca, also fits into this category. Producer Douglas Sirk further explored the genre during the 1950s with movies such as Magnificent Obsession (1954) and Imitation of Life (1959), but people saw many of these later attempts as being less sophisticated compared to earlier films.

Radio and TV

As melodrama was captured on the big screen, it found success in radio and television, as well. One of the most beloved American radio examples is The Lone Ranger, which featured a heroic lawman fighting for justice and order — the story moved to TV in 1949. With this precedent, the hero as a civil servant became a major theme in television, reaching a peak in the 1970s and 1980s when crime dramas were very popular during prime-time hours.

Contemporary Use

In contemporary society, the term "melodrama" has gained many negative connotations and is associated with excessive action or emotion that looks unrealistic. Even so, some productions still fit into the genre. An example from film is Moulin Rouge (2001). TV franchises such as Law and Order show that the concept of a hero overcoming evil is still important, although violence, adult language and realistic situations are included to a greater extent.

Perhaps the best area where the genre still thrives is in cartoons and comics. The stories of heroes such as Batman, Spiderman and Superman still hold the attention of audiences decades after their introduction, with the adventures often turned into popular TV series or blockbuster films. Many children around the world make up similar plots in their active, everyday play, showing that people of all ages can enjoy the style.

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Discussion Comments

By lluviaporos — On Nov 18, 2013

@MrsPramm - I have to wonder whether that's got more to do with realism or with the rights to music. Including music and songs, particularly well known songs, in films is extremely expensive. It costs something like tens of thousands of dollars just for the right to sing Happy Birthday in a movie.

Back when they were making real melodramas they were using live music and there wasn't the same problem with having to pay companies for the rights to use a particular score.

I mean, I understand that musicians have a right to be paid for their work, but it does get a bit ridiculous sometimes. The amounts that they ask for seem exorbitant and, let's face it, having a song on a popular film or TV show is actually going to be good for the musician, particularly these days when people can just immediately buy and download the song after hearing it.

By MrsPramm — On Nov 18, 2013

@pleonasm - There is actually a movement in film making where they attempt to do away with all background music, except that which would normally be playing in the scene (like whatever is on the radio) in order to make the film more realistic.

I guess the melodrama is responsible for shaping modern media, because I actually find it kind of strange to watch a show or film without any music at all.

By pleonasm — On Nov 17, 2013

I knew the other elements, like the kind of story and characters needed, but I didn't realize that music was such a large part of the definition of melodrama.

It made me think of the kind of dark music that would traditionally play to signify that someone was the bad guy and how a lot of films and TV shows carry on that tradition today by making a score just for a particular character that plays whenever they are on screen. The most famous is probably the music that plays when Darth Vader comes onscreen, but there are plenty of other examples that people don't realize they know until the music plays off the screen and they recognize it.

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