Characterization is not an important part of melodramas. The characters are usually fairly simple and stereotypical. The events of the play or other literary work should evoke emotion and strong reactions from the characters. The reader of a piece of melodrama, or someone in the audience during a performance, is also meant to feel strong emotions about what they’re seeing/reading.
The topic of melodrama is likely to be romantic or sensational in some way. It should be something the audience easily connects to and is interested in seeing play out. The plays and stories are populated by one-dimensional characters who are very simply written. Readers are meant to connect more to the overall story than find themselves moved by one’s character’s plotline.
Definition of Melodrama
A melodrama is a subgenre of drama. It is a more over-the-top, exaggerated form of the latter. In a melodrama, the characters are simple, the emotions are high, and the audience should have a good time following the storyline. There are usually stereotypical characters in these stories, like a basic hero or heroine who is easy to admire and a villain who is easy to hate. It is from this genre that the term “melodramatic” arose. It’s usually used as a pejorative to refer to something that’s overly emotional. For example, sobbing over the loss of something worthless or throwing a temper tantrum when someone is late.
Examples of Melodramas
“Pygmalion” by Jean Jacques Rousseau
“Pygmalion” is a highly influential example of a melodrama. It was the first full-length example of the genre. It included spoken words with musical interludes and was written in 1762. The work wasn’t performed until eight years later. It was inspired by the story of the sculptor Pygmalion who falls in love with one of his own creations. Venus, the Greek goddess of love, takes pity on him and brings the statue to life. In Rousseau’s version, the sculpture brings this own work to life with the last impact of his chisel.
Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Mildred Pierce is a novel that tells the story of a hardworking woman who lives an independent life with the intention of supporting her daughter. It is set in California in the 1930s. Mildred attempts to maintain her family’s position while also battling the effects of the Great Depression. The book was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Here are a few lines from the book:
Mildred sat quite still, and when she heard Veda drive off she was consumed by a fury so cold that it almost seemed as though she felt nothing at all. It didn’t occur to her that she was acting less like a mother than like a lover who had unexpectedly discovered an act of faithlessness, and avenged it.
Mildred separates from her husband, works as a waitress, and finds success and failure in the following pages. Loss and sorrow also plague her life.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Collins’s novel, The Woman in White, is another great example of melodrama. It was written in 1859 and is also sometimes referred to as a “sensation novel.” The story follows Walter Hartright as he travels throughout England and uses investigative techniques to uncover the truth about certain events around him. Here is a quote from the novel:
I say what other people only think, and when all the rest of the world is in a conspiracy to accept the mask for the true face, mine is the rash hand that tears off the plump pasteboard, and shows the bare bones beneath.
The novel was incredibly successful but received mostly negative reviews from critics. In 1860, it was made into a stage melodrama with the same title. It has been adapted for the stage several more times since.
Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is another example of a sensation novel. It was published in 1862 and was the writer’s most successful work. It focuses on bigamy or the act of entering into marriage with someone while married to another. It follows a woman who marries twice and considers various murderous ways to get out of her situation. Here is a quote from the novel:
He forgot that love, which is a madness, and a scourge, and a fever, and a delusion, and a snare, is also a mystery, and very imperfectly understood by everyone except the individual sufferer who writhes under its tortures.
The novel was quite shocking when it was first published as it played on many readers’ fears about the ways in which the domestic sphere might be disrupted. This normal-seeming Victorian woman turns out to be something very different.
Other Types of Drama
Melodrama is only one type of drama. Others include:
- Musical Drama: storyline includes some songs and some dialogue. Characters sing together about the conflicts they’re facing. There is a musical score that’s often accompanied by dancing—for example, Phantom of the Opera.
- Tragedy: the darkest of all dramas. It features a tragic hero, flaw, and a central conflict that leads to the deaths of one or (usually) more characters. There is a tragic catharsis at the end of the story—for example, Macbeth and Othello.
- Tragicomedy: a combination of tragedy and drama. This type of story has a serious plotline that’s told humorously. There are tragic characters whose actions don’t lead to deaths, as they do in pure tragedies. The end is not happy, nor is it sad.
Why Do Writers Create Melodramas?
Writers create melodramas in order to tell storylines that keep the audience engaged, force them to have an emotional reaction, and explore the sensational subject matter. Melodramas also give writers a chance to focus on stereotypes without worrying about complex characters and layered character arcs. It is most effective on stage, film, or in the form of a television show. The stories often include tragedy, such as in the case of Mildred Pierce and protagonists who have suffered at the hands of others.
Related Literary Terms
- Aside: a dramatic device that is used within plays to help characters express their inner thoughts.
- Dramatic Monologue: a conversation a speaker has with themselves, or which is directed at a listen or reader who does not respond.
- Point of View: what the speaker, narrator, or character can see from their perspective. This can change dramatically, depending on the character.
- Soliloquy: a dramatic literary device that is used when a character gives a speech that reveals something about their thought process.
- Watch: A Ten Minute Melodrama
- Watch: What is Melodrama?
- Watch: The Myth of Pygmalion and Galatea