Ben Singer, assistant professor of film studies at University of Wisconsin–Madison, argues in Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts that melodrama consistently displays "key constitutive factors": pathos, overwrought or heightened emotion, moral polarization (good vs. evil), non-classical narrative structure (e.g., use of extreme coincidence and deus ex machine), and sensationalism (emphasis on action, violence, and thrills). This applies to both Victorian stage melodrama and 20th-century film melodrama. Singer uses as examples Stella Dallas or Imitation of Life from the studio era in Hollywood: the former generally features all five factors, while the latter focuses primarily on pathos and emotional intensification.
Movie director Sidney Lumet stressed the primacy of plot, saying in 2007 "In a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story."
The relationship of melodrama to realism is complex. The protagonists of melodramatic works may either be ordinary (and hence realistically drawn) people who are caught up in extraordinary events, or highly exaggerated and unrealistic characters. According to Singer, late Victorian and Edwardian melodrama combined a conscious focus on realism in stage sets and props with "anti-realism" in character and plot. Melodrama in this period strove for "credible accuracy in the depiction of incredible, extraordinary" scenes. Novelist Wilkie Collins is noted for his attention to accuracy in detail (e.g. of legal matters) in his works, no matter how sensational the plot.
Beginning in the 18th century, melodrama was a technique of combining spoken recitation with short pieces of accompanying music. In such works, music and spoken dialogue typically alternated, although the music was sometimes also used to accompany pantomime. The earliest known examples are scenes in J. E. Eberlin's Latin school play Sigismundus (1753). The first full melodrama was Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Pygmalion, the text of which was written in 1762 but was first staged in Lyon in 1770. The overture and an Andante were composed by Rousseau, but the bulk of the music was composed by Horace Coignet. A different musical setting of Rousseau's Pygmalion by Anton Schweitzer was performed in Weimar in 1772, and Goethe wrote of it approvingly in Dichtung und Wahrheit. Pygmalion is a monodrama, written for one actor. Some 30 other monodramas were produced in Germany in the fourth quarter of the 18th century. When two actors are involved the term duodrama may be used. Georg Benda was particularly successful with his duodramas Ariadne auf Naxos (1775) and Medea (1778). The sensational success of Benda's melodramas led Mozart to use two long melodramatic monologues in his opera Zaide (1780). Other later, and better-known examples of the melodramatic style in operas are the grave-digging scene in Beethoven's Fidelio (1805) and the incantation scene in Weber's Der Freischütz (1821).
After the English Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Most British theatres were prohibited from performing "serious" drama, but were permitted to show comedy or plays with music. Charles II issued letters patent to permit only two London theatre companies to perform "serious" drama. These were the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and Lisle's Tennis Court in Lincoln's Inn Fields, the latter of which moved to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1720 (now the Royal Opera House). The two patent theatres closed in the summer months. To fill the gap, the Theatre Royal, Haymarket became a third patent theatre in London in 1766. Further letters patent were eventually granted to one theatre in each of several other English towns and cities. To get around the restriction, other theatres presented dramas that were underscored with music and, borrowing the French term, called it melodrama. The Theatres Act 1843 finally allowed all the theatres to play drama.
In the early 19th century, the influence of opera led to musical overtures and incidental music for many plays. In 1820, Franz Schubert wrote a melodrama, Die Zauberharfe ("The Magic Harp"), setting music behind the play written by G. von Hofmann. It was unsuccessful, like all Schubert's theater ventures, but the melodrama genre was at the time a popular one. In an age of underpaid musicians, many 19th-century plays in London had an orchestra in the pit. In 1826, Felix Mendelssohn wrote his well-known overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and later supplied the play with incidental music.
In Verdi's La Traviata, Violetta receives a letter from Alfredo's father where he writes that Alfredo now knows why she parted from him and that he forgives her ("Teneste la promessa..."). In her speaking voice, she intones the words of what is written, while the orchestra recapitulates the music of their first love from Act I: this is technically melodrama. In a few moments Violetta bursts into a passionate despairing aria ("Addio, del passato"): this is opera again.
In a similar manner, Victorians often added "incidental music" under the dialogue to a pre-existing play, although this style of composition was already practiced in the days of Ludwig van Beethoven (Egmont) and Franz Schubert (Rosamunde). (This type of often-lavish production is now mostly limited to film (see film score) due to the cost of hiring an orchestra. Modern recording technology is producing a certain revival of the practice in theatre, but not on the former scale.) A particularly complete version of this form, Sullivan's incidental music to Tennyson's The Foresters, is available online, complete with several melodramas, for instance, No. 12 found here. A few operettas exhibit melodrama in the sense of music played under spoken dialogue, for instance, Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore (itself a parody of melodramas in the modern sense) has a short "melodrame" (reduced to dialogue alone in many productions) in the second act; Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld opens with a melodrama delivered by the character of "Public Opinion"; and other pieces from operetta and musicals may be considered melodramas, such as the "Recit and Minuet" in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer. As an example from the American musical, several long speeches in Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon are delivered over an accompaniment of evocative music. The technique is also frequently used in Spanish zarzuela, both in the 19th and 20th centuries, and continued also to be used as a "special effect" in opera, for instance Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten.
In Paris, the 19th century saw a flourishing of melodrama in the many theatres that were located on the popular Boulevard du Crime, especially in the Gaîté. All this came to an end, however, when most of these theatres were demolished during the rebuilding of Paris by Baron Haussmann in 1862.
By the end of the 19th century, the term melodrama had nearly exclusively narrowed down to a specific genre of salon entertainment: more or less rhythmically spoken words (often poetry) – not sung, sometimes more or less enacted, at least with some dramatic structure or plot – synchronised to an accompaniment of music (usually piano). It was looked down on as a genre for authors and composers of lesser stature (probably also the reason why virtually no realisations of the genre are still remembered). Probably also the time when the connotation of cheap overacting first became associated with the term. As a cross-over genre mixing narration and chamber music, it was eclipsed nearly overnight by a single composition: Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (1912), where Sprechgesang was used instead of rhythmically spoken words, and which took a freer and more imaginative course regarding the plot prerogative.
Within the context of the Czech National Revival, the melodrama took on a specifically nationalist meaning for Czech artists, beginning roughly in the 1870s and continuing through the First Czechoslovak Republic of the interwar period. This new understanding of the melodrama stemmed primarily from such nineteenth-century scholars and critics as Otakar Hostinský, who considered the genre to be a uniquely "Czech" contribution to music history (based on the national origins of Georg Benda, whose melodramas had nevertheless been in German). Such sentiments provoked a large number of Czech composers to produce melodramas based on Czech romantic poetry such as the Kytice of Karel Jaromír Erben. The romantic composer Zdeněk Fibich in particular championed the genre as a means of setting Czech declamation correctly: his melodramas Štědrý den (1874) and Vodník (1883) use rhythmic durations to specify the alignment of spoken word and accompaniment. Fibich's main achievement was Hippodamie (1888–1891), a trilogy of full-evening staged melodramas on the texts of Jaroslav Vrchlický with multiple actors and orchestra, composed in an advanced Wagnerian musical style. Josef Suk's main contributions at the turn of the century include melodramas for two stage plays by Julius Zeyer: Radúz a Mahulena (1898) and Pod Jabloní (1901), both of which had a long performance history.
Following the examples of Fibich and Suk, many other Czech composers set melodramas as stand-alone works based on poetry of the National Revival, among them Karel Kovařovic, Otakar Ostrčil, Ladislav Vycpálek, Otakar Jeremiáš, Emil Axman, and Jan Zelinka. Vítězslav Novák included portions of melodrama in his 1923 opera Lucerna, and Jaroslav Ježek composed key scenes for the stage plays of the Osvobozené divadlo as melodrama (most notably the opening prologue of the anti-Fascist farce Osel a stín (1933), delivered by the character of Dionysus in bolero rhythm). The practice of Czech melodramas tapered off after the Nazi Protectorate.
The Victorian stage melodrama featured six stock characters: the hero, the villain, the heroine, an aged parent, a sidekick and a servant of the aged parent engaged in a sensational plot featuring themes of love and murder. Often the good but not very clever hero is duped by a scheming villain, who has eyes on the damsel in distress until fate intervenes at the end to ensure the triumph of good over evil. Two central features were the coup de théàtre, or reversal of fortune, and the claptrap: a back-to-the-wall oration by the hero which forces the audience to applaud.
English melodrama evolved from the tradition of populist drama established during the Middle Ages by mystery and morality plays, under influences from Italian commedia dell'arte as well as German Sturm und Drang drama and Parisian melodrama of the post-Revolutionary period. A notable French melodramatist was Pixérécourt whose La Femme à deux maris was very popular.
The first English play to be called a melodrama or 'melodrame' was A Tale of Mystery (1802) by Thomas Holcroft. This was an example of the Gothic genre, a previous theatrical example of which was The Castle Spectre (1797) by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Other Gothic melodramas include The Miller and his Men (1813) by Isaac Pocock, The Woodsman's Hut (1814) by Samuel Arnold and The Broken Sword (1816) by William Dimond.
Supplanting the Gothic, the next popular subgenre was the nautical melodrama, pioneered by Douglas Jerrold in his Black-Eyed Susan (1829). Other nautical melodramas included Jerrold's The Mutiny at the Nore (1830) and The Red Rover (1829) by Edward Fitzball (Rowell 1953). Melodramas based on urban situations became popular in the mid-nineteenth century, including The Streets of London (1864) by Dion Boucicault; and Lost in London (1867) by Watts Phillips, while prison melodrama, temperance melodrama, and imperialist melodrama also appeared – the latter typically featuring the three categories of the 'good' native, the brave byt wicked native, and the treacherous native.
The sensation novels of the 1860s and 1870s not only provided fertile material for melodramatic adaptations, but are melodramatic in their own right. A notable example of this genre is Lady Audley's Secret by Elizabeth Braddon adapted, in two different versions, by George Roberts and C.H. Hazlewood. The novels of Wilkie Collins have the characteristics of melodrama, his best-known work The Woman in White being regarded by some modern critics as "the most brilliant melodrama of the period".
The villain is often the central character in melodrama and crime was a favorite theme. This included dramatizations of the murderous careers of Burke and Hare, Sweeney Todd (first featured in The String of Pearls (1847) by George Dibdin Pitt), the murder of Maria Marten in the Red Barn and the bizarre exploits of Spring Heeled Jack. The misfortunes of a discharged prisoner is the theme of the sensational The Ticket-of-Leave Man (1863) by Tom Taylor.
Early silent films, such as The Perils of Pauline had similar themes. Later, after silent films were superseded by the 'talkies', stage actor Tod Slaughter, at the age of 50, transferred to the screen the Victorian melodramas in which he had played villain in his earlier theatrical career. These films, which include Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn (1935), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) and The Ticket of Leave Man are a unique record of a bygone art-form.Northrop Frye saw both advertising and propaganda as melodramatic forms, which the cultivated cannot take seriously.
Politics at time calls on melodrama to articulate a world-view. Thus Richard Overy argues that Thirties Britain saw civilisation as melodramatically under threat - “In this great melodrama Hitler's Germany was the villain; democratic civilization the menaced heroine”; - while Winston Churchill provided the necessary larger-than-life melodramatic hero to articulate back-to-the-wall resistance during The Blitz.
Classic melodrama is less common than it used to be on television and in movies in the Western world. However, it is still widely popular in other regions, particularly in Asia and in Hispanic countries. Melodrama is one of the main genres (along with romance, comedy and fantasy) used in Hispanic television dramas (telenovelas), particularly in Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil, and in Asian television dramas, particularly in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, Pakistan, Thailand, Indian and (in a fusion of the Hispanic and Asian cultures) the Philippines. Expatriate communities in the diaspora of these countries give viewership a global market.
Melodrama films are a subgenre of drama films characterised by a plot that appeals to the heightened emotions of the audience. They generally depend on stereotyped character development, interaction, and highly emotional themes. Melodramatic films tend to use plots that often deal with crises of human emotion, failed romance or friendship, strained familial situations, tragedy, illness, neuroses, or emotional and physical hardship.
Victims, couples, virtuous and heroic characters or suffering protagonists (usually heroines) in melodramas are presented with tremendous social pressures, threats, repression, fears, improbable events or difficulties with friends, community, work, lovers, or family. The melodramatic format allows the character to work through their difficulties or surmount the problems with resolute endurance, sacrificial acts, and steadfast bravery.
Film critics sometimes use the term pejoratively to connote an unrealistic, pathos-filled, campy tale of romance or domestic situations with stereotypical characters (often including a central female character) that would directly appeal to feminine audiences."
During the 1940s the British Gainsborough melodramas were very successful with audiences.
A director of 1950s melodrama films was Douglas Sirk who worked with Rock Hudson on Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows, both staples of the genre. Melodramas like the 1990s TV Moment of Truth movies targeted audiences of American women by portraying the effects of alcoholism, domestic violence, rape and the like. Typical of the genre is Anjelica Huston's 1999 film Agnes Browne.