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Melodrama is a type of highly emotional narrative that was popular throughout the 19th and 20th century.

Through this lesson, you will learn how to define melodrama, gain insight into some of its characteristics, and explore some examples in theater and film.

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Definition of Melodrama

What types of movies are your favorite? Do you like action? Comedy? Or maybe drama? Possibly you like a certain kind of drama, one with big performances and hyper-dramatic story lines. You might like movies from the 1940s and 50s like Double Indemnity, or maybe you prefer more modern-day, over-the-top weepies. If so, you might be a fan of melodrama.Broadly, melodrama is a type of narrative in which the over-dramatic plot-line is designed to play on people’s emotions;sometimes at the expense of character development, sub-text, and nuance. Moreover, melodramas tend to feature reductive plot lines and characters that are stereotypical archetypes. In literature and narrative, an archetype is a character that is a quintessential example of a theme or virtue or idea.

Satan, for example, is a classic archetype of absolute evil.Melodrama is a term that has been widely applied over the last two centuries, which is a big part of why it’s hard to define in any concrete way. Given this ambiguity, it might be easier to explain through example. For instance, the 1935 film The Wizard of Oz contains many characteristics of a melodrama; there are very clear lines drawn between good and evil: each character is a classic archetype (Dorothy = innocence, Aunt Em = love, Lion = courage, etc.

), and it follows a familiar plot line from disruption (tornado) to adversity (witch/finding Oz) to resolution (returning home).

Characteristics of Melodrama

In the present, the word melodrama tends to have negative connotations. For example, a person who is acting hysterical or over-emotional might be called melodramatic. In the context of literature and theater, however, it is merely used to describe a certain type of story that emerged around the late 18th and early 19th century.The earliest melodramas were classified as such for the ways in which they used music. Fight scenes, for example, might be accompanied by intense orchestral arrangements, while romantic scenes could be accompanied by something softer. This was to heighten the emotional impact of scenes.

If we go back to The Wizard of Oz, think about when Dorothy first sees the witch riding her bicycle in the tornado—the music is high pitched and fast to convey a sense of dread. Another good example would be the shower scene in Psycho (1960), where the screech of stringed instruments underscores the terror of the moment.As the genre grew, audiences came to associate melodramas with other characteristics, like those mentioned in the previous section. Moreover, they became hugely successful throughout the 19th century, in part because they were so accessible.

Melodramas take very complicated concepts and themes—like love or war—and reduce them to binary opposition, which means something is on either side of a system, but never in between. Examples of binary opposition are things like men and women, love and hate, or good and evil; each side defines the other by virtue of its existence.For example, Metamora, a popular American melodrama first performed in 1829, tells the story of the conflict between Puritan settlers and the Wampanoag tribe of what is now Massachusetts. During a time when Native people were revered by Americans for their supposed connection to nature, the play reduces an incredibly complex situation (colonialism and Native/Western conflict) to a matter of noble Indians and villainous settlers.Metamora illustrates how melodramas took very complicated concepts and made them easily digestible through the use of familiar characters, story arcs, and well-established expectations.

Unlike reality, in which Native/Western conflict was very complicated and nuanced, this play reduced it to a matter of good Indians and bad white people, never asking the audience to consider anything else but these most basic binary terms.

Melodrama at the Movies

Throughout the 19th century, melodramas dominated theatrical stages because they were simple stories that neither challenged the mind or critiqued society. Instead, they provided entertainment and escape from daily life. These defining characteristics made them perfectly suited for the transition from the stage to the screen in the early 20th century.During the first decade of the 20th century, silent films were an instantly popular way for audiences to enjoy melodramas without the formality of stage production. At that time, the technology did not exist to include sound in the film, which is why these movies are referred to as silent films.

The lack of spoken dialog in silent films made melodramas well-suited for the film industry because silent films instead used music to emphasize particular emotions. In the 1921 horror melodrama Nosferatu, for example, the sense of dread and terror were emphasized with big orchestral arrangements.Once the technology existed to incorporate sound into film, melodramas continued to flourish on the screen. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, was a popular stage production that has been made into a film on 12 separate occasions. Adapted from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel of the same name, both the stage production and the films reduce the incredibly complicated issue of slavery down to binary oppositions while generally ignoring the nuances of the story.By making the story secondary, producers ensured that audiences would focus on the emotional pay off of the heightened drama, terror, or romance.

Generally, this was possible because the plot had been so simplified that it could have taken place anywhere at any time—it was just a vehicle for pure, simple entertainment.

Lesson Summary

Melodrama is a type of literature or narrative that is designed to exploit audience’s emotions with simple plots and dramatic performances. These narratives rely heavily on basic archetypes (which are characters that are quintessential examples of themes or virtues or ideas), simple plots, and the strong use of music to underscore strongly-depicted emotional attachments and feelings. Melodramas also tend to oversimplify the realities of the world through binary opposition, which means something is on either side of a system, but never in between.In early examples like the popular 1829 American melodrama Metamora, audiences could enjoy the drama, romance, or thrills of a story without it being complicated by reality.

This made melodramas a natural fit in the silent film era, during which there was no audio, particularly in films like Nosferatu or Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the latter of which has been adapted into a film on 12 separate occasions).

The Characteristics of Melodrama

Definition of melodrama
  • Use of music to enhance the intended emotion of the scene
  • Concepts and themes reduced to binary opposition
  • Reductive plot lines
  • Stereotypical archetypes

Learning Outcomes

Once you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Define melodrama
  • Discuss the characteristics of a melodrama
  • List examples of melodramas in film

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