Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: melodrama from Philip's Encyclopedia

Theatrical form originating in late 18th-century France, and achieving its greatest popularity during the following century. It relied on simple, violent plots in which virtue was finally rewarded.


Summary Article: melodrama from The Columbia Encyclopedia

[Gr.,=song-drama], originally a spoken text with musical background, as in Greek drama. The form was popular in the 18th cent., when its composers included Georg Benda, J. J. Rousseau, and W. A. Mozart, among others. Modern examples of the true music melodrama are found in Richard Strauss's setting of Tennyson's Enoch Arden, and in Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. J. J. Rousseau's melodrama Pygmalion (1762; first performed 1770) helped create a vogue for stage plays in which the action was generally romantic, full of violent action, and often characterized by the final triumph of virtue. The common use of the term melodrama refers to sentimental stage plays of this sort. The leading authors of melodramas in the early 19th cent. were Guilbert de Pixérécourt of France and the German August von Kotzebue. The term was used extensively in England in the 19th cent. as a device to circumvent the law that limited legitimate plays to certain theaters. One of the most-popular of theatrical genres in 19th. cent England and America, its "tear-jerking" style easily made the transition to film, radio and television, where they are represented by the maudlin excesses and unbelievable coincidences of contemporary soap operas. The term is now applied to all scripts with overdrawn characterizations, smashing climaxes, and appeal to sentiment. Famous examples of stage melodramas include East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood and Ten Nights in a Barroom by W. W. Pratt.

  • See Gerould, D., Melodrama (1980).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

Related Credo Articles

Full text Article MELODRAMA
Dictionary of Italian Literature

A fervent desire to recreate the dramatic art of ancient Greece impelled Italian poets and musicians at the close of the sixteenth century to...

Full text Article melodrama
The Cambridge Guide to Theatre

Like farce , melodrama is a popular form of theatre which has been denigrated by critics, so that it is associated with sensationalism and...

Full text Article Melodrama
Bloomsbury Guide to Human Thought

Melodrama (Greek, ‘action with music’) originally meant a single scene or monologue played to music. (In this sense it was revived...

See more from Credo