Melodrama (theater)

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The advertisement for theater melodramas (here a play by David Belasco from around 1900) is already reminiscent of movie posters

The melodrama (from ancient Greek μέλος melos "song, speech melody" and δρᾶμα drama "action, drama") has been the popular counterpart to aristocratic tragedy since the later 18th century . As a serious, but not to be taken seriously, theatrical genre, it was related to the courtly tragedy of Corneille or Racine as the cheerful or funny farce was to the courtly comedy of a Molière . In contrast to tragedy , the heroes of the melodrama are not nobles , who here rather belong to the sphere of villains (cf. class clause ). Unlike tragedy, melodrama can have a happy ending.

Synonymous German terms in the 19th century are: life picture , character painting, moral picture, time picture, often simply drama . One sub-genre was called Destiny Drama . The melodramas, staged with great stage effort, were called spectacle pieces or sensational dramas.

The term melodrama or melodrama is more narrowly defined in German than in English or French, where it also includes adventure and crime stories. In German it is more related to an emphasis on feelings in love, friendship or family matters (according to Thomas Koebner : "Obstacles that stand in the way of love"). In the following, melodrama is treated in a broader international sense.


The typical melodrama on Paris' Boulevard du Temple from Daumier's point of view


The stage melodrama originated in France in the second half of the 18th century. The background for this is the cultural, economic and political emancipation in the Age of Enlightenment , in early capitalism and in the French Revolution of 1789. Realistic adventure and crime stories are freed from the magical surroundings of baroque magic in melodrama .

The common horror at the omnipresence of deception, violence and corruption, which is celebrated in melodrama, unites his audience. In a time of social upheaval, it contributed to a new order in which the law or the police should not be regarded as a means of oppression by the authorities, but as something of the common good. Work zeal, courage and honesty as ideals of a bourgeois ethic were henceforth placed at the center. Melodrama thus developed into a form of culture among the bourgeoisie, in which the nobles and clergy , but also the proletariat , were criticized.

The "bastard genre" or "genre larmoyant ", as it was contemptuously called even then, dealt more with emotional suffering and individual paths to happiness. This removed the aristocratic tragedy according to which the human being is solely at the mercy of an externally determined fate or divine will and according to the audience's feeling that duty must take precedence over personal preferences.

Melodrama can be understood as the demarcation of a self-confident, aspiring middle class from the emerging proletariat. Until then, the contrast between comedy and tragedy could be understood as the difference between the bourgeois and the aristocratic as well as between the ridiculous and the serious. The melodrama thus met a petty bourgeoisie who no longer wanted to see themselves portrayed in a ridiculous manner (cf. class clause ). The stirring piece of Denis Diderot or Jean-Jacques Rousseau , the civic tragedies of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and the moralistic dramas of Friedrich Schiller are models of melodrama.

France and England

The famous actor Frédérick Lemaître in a cartoon

The French theater writer René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt is considered to be the first to popularize this genre. His play The Dog of Aubry (1814) was also successful in the German-speaking area. On the Parisian Boulevard du Temple , permanent venues were created in succession to the Parisian fairground theaters , in which pantomimes and melodramas were performed. Other important authors of the melodrama were Caigniez and Victor Ducange , and later Adolphe d'Ennery . Also Eugène Scribe was the melodrama Yelva ou l'russe Orpheline successful (1828). - One of the most famous actors in melodrama was Frédérick Lemaître .

In the English-speaking area, melodrama was able to develop as a generally accepted dramatic genre. Since Thomas Holcroft it has been on the London stages like the Adelphi Theater and flourished with Victorian melodrama (for example with James Planché and later with Dion Boucicault ). Fictional characters like Sweeney Todd or historical events like the West Port murders served as fabrics.

German language area

Despite its popularity, melodrama remained in a taboo area in the German theater landscape . Melodramas were very similar to the great circus mimes that were common in the 19th century (see History of the Circus ). Numerous German playwrights, such as August von Kotzebue ( misanthropy and regret , 1789), Zacharias Werner ( The twenty-fourth February , 1808) and later Karl von Holtei ( Leonore , 1829) or Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer ( The Hunchback of Notre - Lady , 1848). Ignaz Franz Castelli's translation of the French melodrama The Orphan and the Murderer dominated the German-speaking stages since 1817.

The Vienna Burgtheater devoted itself quite extensively to melodrama, as it were as a bourgeoisisation of court tragedy and as a counter-image to the old Viennese popular theater . The greatest successes here were Die Schuld (1816) by Adolf Müllner , Die Ahnfrau (1817) by Franz Grillparzer and Der Müller und seine Kind (1830) by Ernst Raupach .

An international enthusiasm for "German", for example for Schiller's dramas, which became popular models for operas , for the so-called Sturm und Drang or German Romanticism , was reflected in popular art products such as melodrama and the trivial novel, which in the German-speaking area - mainly from the academic side - was considered a misunderstanding and ignored. On the other hand, Goethe's literary appreciation of the subject matter was never really recognized internationally. The fist material remained in the sphere of melodrama, as in the piece The Black Crook (1866), which was phenomenally successful in New York City and later in London .

Further development

The Italian poet Vittorio Alfieri created an Italian variant of the melodrama called Tramelogödie . However, it could not prevail here against the opera. Verismo opera has been a variety of melodrama on the opera stage since the 1860s.

American melodrama developed as a tradition in its own right since the second half of the 19th century. Before that, moralizing Shakespeare adaptations formed the basis for the theater troupes (such as for Isaac Merritt Singer around 1830). The spectacle The Black Crook (1866) is considered a landmark . One of the most successful melodrama writers was David Belasco .

Around 1900 the stage melodrama tended towards elaborate pieces of equipment with many decorations and numerous extras . Max Reinhardt's mass spectacles such as Sumurun (1910) are essentially inspired by the melodramatic tradition.

In the 20th century, the stylistic devices of melodrama were adopted and further developed from film . Today, stage melodrama is almost non-existent as popular entertainment has shifted to other media .

Movie melodrama

Main article: Melodrama (film)

In the era of the silent film there were many melodramas that are more or less forgotten today. The gestures of the stage melodrama of that time can be reconstructed from them . The possibility of camera work enables the audience to identify with characters in the game much more effectively. That is why the film has almost completely absorbed the stage melodrama, so that only operatic forms remain on the theater stage. Melodramatic films are also sometimes referred to as “film operas”.

As the viewer perceives the narrative perspective from the victim's point of view, identification with them is established. By formulating the responsibility for “evil” on a social level on the one hand and the personalized, emotionalized victim's view on the other, melodrama exposes patterns of oppression and exploitation more directly than other genres and derives its drama from them.

In line with this, types are transfigured: the positive heroes are given the most beneficial properties to make it easier for the audience to identify. Negative characters, on the other hand, are not evil because they are evil by nature (as in the Western, for example ), but because they stand in the way of the hero's happiness. Despite being condemned as villains, they appear driven. Showing and clarifying the motifs of all characters makes melodrama a “democratic medium”. In general, the film appeared in its early days as the “democratic medium” compared to the theater of the money bourgeoisie.

Consequently, absolute happiness in classical melodrama is defined from the center of society, not from its fringes. It can still be on the outer border, but not beyond these conventions that are invoked until morality has prevailed. Melodrama cannot therefore tell a story that only takes place among social outsiders.

Nevertheless, the melodrama does not necessarily adopt the moral consensus : the partisanship into which the viewer is forced always happens in favor of the lovers, from which both social criticism and moral conformity can develop. According to Thomas Elsaesser, whether the melodrama takes on a subversive or an escapist function depends on the emphasis on either the “odyssey of suffering” or the happy ending . Morality takes on an overarching responsibility by showing the heroes limits and thereby binding them to itself. Melodrama therefore not only describes an aesthetic practice, but also a way of asking the world questions and finding answers in relation to one's heroes.


In 1930, in a criticism of the works of Eugene O'Neill, the drama and myth theorist Francis Fergusson defined melodrama as " to accept emotions uncritically" , which subsequently led to an increasingly emotional, unrealistic and unrealistic language Take action.

Based on the idealizing, not undisputed representation of Peter Brooks, a tradition of descriptive theories about melodrama has developed.

Struggle and triumph of will

The world experiences melodrama as the arena of a violent moral struggle in which the powerless but good are persecuted by the powerful but corrupt. The driving force of the melodrama is the villain. He can be portrayed as a criminal in the penal sense or as an arrogant nouveau riche, a decadent aristocrat, an oppressive factory owner or a political extremist. In the end, it is mostly the likeable characters who win, and evil is punished. Even if the heroine or the hero are physically defeated, they are shown as better characters and ideal winners. Your love is a symbol of personal will, which is generally valued positively, even if it rebels against authorities. Often, however, enforcing one's own will is disguised as a devoted sacrifice.

Clarity and comprehensibility

The word “melodramatic” means that a meaning is suggested through sound (verse, raised voice, music, etc.) . A pathetic presentation makes it easier for the audience to understand what is presented or an interpretation is forced upon them. These stylistic devices seem to provide guidance in a confusing world.

Melodrama is essentially about recognizing or differentiating in front of an audience: between good and evil, love and hate, self and foreign, powerful and powerless, male and female, living and dead. The melodrama exposes itself without reservation to the attractiveness and dangers of black and white painting.

In this sense, the distinctions in melodrama are often underlined by suitable musical accompaniment: the pure innocence or the villain are clearly recognizable through characteristic music. But other signs can also make such figures clearly recognizable, such as a white or black costume or a pleading or threatening pose. These clarifications have a solemn effect, but easily tip over into the caricature (see overdrawing (art) ).

In contrast to the “elevated” tragedy, the melodrama refrains from internal conflicts in its characters: In tragedy, a character can wrestle with himself and desire contradicting things (e.g. revenge and be generous, Maria and Gabriele marry ...). In melodrama, different intentions are represented by different characters, especially the main character and the adversary. Not the good person, but virtue , not the bad person, but vice appears ( allegory ). Nevertheless, in contrast to medieval drama, the characters appear as modern individuals.


Emotions in melodrama from the point of view of the cartoonist Honoré Daumier

The dramaturgy of the melodrama is characterized by sharply contrasted and simplified (flat) characters as well as a colorful mixture of violence, pathos and humor. As a rule, a love story and / or a crime or horror story is central , often based on popular novels .

Logic instead of wonder

In contrast to the tragedy of French classical music , which was about the permissible behavior of the heroes , the melodrama was supposed to be exciting . Action highlights are set up for shocking effects and powerful emotional shocks. Confrontation, persecution and flight serve to increase. Often a deterministic causality is demonstrated: causes have compelling effects and vice versa, which stimulates the audience to combine logically and promotes trust in the natural sciences . Records such as letters, official documents or traces of a crime that need to be deciphered have a central function. The melodrama mostly takes place in a decidedly "normal" environment, which differs effectively from a half-world .

The gender roles in melodrama are clearly defined and are not criticized, in contrast to social inequalities: the female heroines are drawn from the world of reason into a world of feelings, the male fight against overpowering opponents. The melodramatic conflict arises from the heroes' confrontation with (changeable) social conditions and expectations as well as with (unchangeable) natural laws. It arises from situations of separation or re-encounter, from suddenly revealed secrets, surprisingly emerging memories, growing up, prevented love or dying; from natural disasters, illnesses or social inequalities that prevent love.


The threat of a helpless innocent as a frequent dramatic starting point calls the three other main characters on the scene: the hero (and / or heroine), an ally who assists them, and the villain they face off.

The melodrama often contained leading roles in pantomime , mostly as characters who are mute due to a disability. In this way, the failure of communication was made an issue and the audience's attention was drawn to telltale or undisguised gestures in contrast to the deceptive nature of the spoken language.


Main article: Melodrama (music)

Usually the theater performance was accompanied by an orchestra, in later British and American melodrama often only a piano. The importance of melodram music for the creation of film music has received increasing attention in recent years. - Not only dramatic background music could play a role in theatrical melodrama, but also parades, dances, choirs and even inserted songs.


  • Peter Brooks: The Melodramatic Imagination. Balzac, Henry James and the Mode of Excess. Yale: Univ. Press 1976, reprint 1995.
  • Michael Hays, Anastasia Nikolopoulou (Ed.): Melodrama. The Cultural Emergence of a Genre. New York: St. Martin's Press 1999
  • Winfried Wehle : French popular drama at the time of the Empire and the Restoration . In: Neues Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft Vol. 15 (Ed. K. Heitmann), Wiesbaden (Athenaion), 1983, pp. 153–171. PDF

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Zander Brietzke: The Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O'Neill. McFarland, 2015, p. 20.
  2. Peter Brooks: The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New edition Yale UP, 1995.