Nineteenth-century Theatre - Melodrama


Beginning in France after the theatre monopolies were abolished in 1791 during the French Revolution, melodrama became the most popular theatrical form. Although monopolies and subsidies were reinstated under Napoleon, it continued to be extremely popular and brought in larger audiences than the state-sponsored drama and operas. Although melodrama can be traced back to classical Greece, the term mélodrame did not appear until 1766 and only became popular after 1800. August von Kotzebue's Misanthropy and Repentance (1798) is often considered the first melodramatic play. The plays of Kotzebue and René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt established melodrama as the dominant dramatic form of the early 19th century. David Grimsted, in his book Melodrama Unveiled (1968), argues that:

Its conventions were false, its language stilted and commonplace, its characters stereotypes, and its morality and theology gross simplifications. Yet its appeal was great and understandable. It took the lives of common people seriously and paid much respect to their superior purity and wisdom. And its moral parable struggled to reconcile social fears and life's awesomeness with the period's confidence in absolute moral standards, man's upward progress, and a benevolent providence that insured the triumph of the pure.

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 was to come 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—synchronized 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).

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Famous quotes containing the word melodrama:

    If melodrama is the quintessence of drama, farce is the quintessence of theatre. Melodrama is written. A moving image of the world is provided by a writer. Farce is acted. The writer’s contribution seems not only absorbed but translated.... One cannot imagine melodrama being improvised. The improvised drama was pre-eminently farce.
    Eric Bentley (b. 1916)