You might recognise the term 'melodramatic' as it is used in everyday conversation, where one might refer to situations or behaviours that are overly emotional and exaggerated. This originates from the literary and dramatic genre of melodrama, which includes sensationalised events and characters.

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Table of contents

    Melodrama: meaning

    We may know the colloquial meaning, but let's consider the term's literary definition:

    Melodrama is a literary or dramatic genre in which standard tropes and elements are exaggerated to elicit emotional responses from audiences or readers.

    Usually, in melodramas, characters exhibit overly emotional behaviours, and events are extremely sensationalised, creating a kind of outlandish and unrealistic tone.

    Melodramas are most recognisable in theatre, and in modern times, on television and in films. However, some do appear as novels, short stories and even poems.

    Melodrama: origin

    The term 'melodrama' can be traced back to ancient Greek theatre (c. 550 BC - 220 BC), where it was used to describe musically accompanied recitations performed on stage.

    This gave the name, with the Greek word melos (meaning 'song'), paired with the French word drame (meaning 'drama).

    Melodrama: genre

    Elements of melodrama have been incorporated into narratives throughout literary history. However, the genre of melodrama as we recognise it today emerged in the late 18th century and early 19th century.

    Initially, the pairing of live music and dramatic performance remained popular with audiences and magnified emotional responses.

    Soon, however, writers began creating longer and more dramatic works which incorporated melodramatic elements like dramatic language, exaggerated situations and stereotypical characters. These inclusions led to the eventual elimination of music but still managed to achieve similar powerful reactions from audiences.

    By this point, the genre of melodrama was established as its own form of entertainment. The first English melodrama, Thomas Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery, was performed in 1802 to major success, cementing the genre's popularity.

    The mid-19th century brought the advent of the sensation novel in Britain, which explored melodramatic elements in literary works.

    The sensation novel was a literary genre that combined the philosophies of romance and realism with abstract stories and scenarios that often involved crime, mystery and secrets. An important example is Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1859-60).

    Literary realism is a genre that attempts to represent its depictions of subjects in truthful and realistic ways.

    Sensation novels elicited the same kinds of responses from readers as melodramas did with audiences, creating a kind of overlap that saw the continuation of the genre. In the same vein, sensation novels usually involved shocking secrets with over-the-top emotional language and outlandish events.

    By the 20th century, melodrama reached new heights of popularity as it became associated with the film and television industries. Though still present in some modern-day dramatic and literary works, the genre exploded in these new entertainment forms, still managing to succeed in its original aims: providing significant entertainment value and creating an emotional reception in viewers.

    Melodrama: characteristics

    We can easily classify melodramas by identifying these common key elements:

    • A simple plot. Melodramas tend to be straightforward stories, relying instead on exaggerated actions and events unfolding to convey powerful but somewhat basic themes like good, evil, freedom, oppression and betrayal.

    • Stock characters. Characters in melodramas are usually stereotypical, with one-dimensional personalities that rely heavily on one magnified trait.

    • Dramatic dialogue. Action tends to unfold largely through dialogue, which uses flowery language in grand proclamations and sweeping declarations. Narration is sometimes used to further embellish scenes with more exaggerated wording and pronouncements.

    • Private settings. Domestic environments, like characters' homes, tend to be used to magnify personal struggles, creating an intimacy that magnifies emotional reactions from audiences.

    Melodrama: examples

    Now that we've established what a melodrama is, let's look at some important examples!

    Pygmalion (1770)

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 1770 play Pygmalion adapts the classic Greek myth about its eponymous protagonist, Pygmalion, a sculptor who creates a statue that eventually comes to life after he falls in love with it.

    Rousseau pairs dramatic speech with live music in the tradition of contemporary ideas of the genre. Rather than how melodramas operate now, Rousseau's work expresses the pinnacles of intense emotion through music instead of speech, matching the climax of the story with swells of orchestral performance.

    Pygmalion is widely known as the first full-length melodrama and was hugely significant in the later development of the genre.

    East Lynne (1861)

    One of the best-selling sensation novels was Ellen Wood's East Lynne (1861), originally written using the pseudonym 'Mrs. Henry Wood'.

    The novel follows Lady Isabel Carlyle after she leaves her kind lawyer husband and their infant children to elope with aristocratic Captain Francis Levison. Various exaggerated tragedies ensue as a result, including a train accident, an illegitimate pregnancy, and ultimately, Lady Isabel's death.

    East Lynne is most famously known for melodramatic line: 'Dead! Dead! And never called me mother!'. This is incorrectly attributed to the novel when it actually comes from the later stage adaptations in New York, beginning in 1861.

    Grey's Anatomy (2005-present)

    A modern-day example of a melodrama can be found in the American dramatic television show Grey's Anatomy, created by Shonda Rhimes in 2005.

    The show follows Meredith Grey and other characters at Seattle Grace Hospital through their personal and professional lives. In the series' 17-year-long run, over-the-top events have occurred, including aeroplane crashes, bomb threats, and active shooters with dramatised dialogue and scandalous secrets, relationships and betrayals.

    Grey's Anatomy is known in popular culture for portraying unlikely, overly dramatic events, placing the characters in frequently emotionally distressing situations. The success and longevity of the show have proven that even though it is unrealistic, it is still highly entertaining for viewers, the foremost purpose of the melodrama.

    Melodrama - Key takeaways

    • Melodrama is a literary and dramatic genre that exaggerates its elements for entertainment value.
    • Initially, melodramas were a kind of musical theatre, incorporating live music with performances.
    • The first full-length melodrama was Pygmalion (1770) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
    • Key characteristics of melodramas include a simple plot, stock characters, dramatic dialogues and private settings.
    • The genre has adapted with entertainment forms as they have developed, e.g. sensation novels in the Victorian era and melodramatic film and television during the 20th century and into the present day.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Melodrama

    What is melodrama?

    Melodrama is a literary and dramatic genre with exaggerated tropes and elements. 

    What is an example of a melodrama?

    Pygmalion (1770) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

    What is the difference between drama and melodrama?

    Drama is the term for any play as a genre of theatre, however, melodrama is a specific kind of drama.

    What are the 4 elements of melodrama?

    Four central elements of melodrama are a simple plot, stock characters, dramatic dialogues and private settings.

    When did melodrama begin?

    During the late 18th century.

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