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Transcript of Melodrama
Since the acting was over the top, the stage was mostly empty and only a few props were used.
Aside: confession of a secret that is adressed directly to the audience, often behind a raised hand so that other characters will not hear it
The melodrama is a form of theater that was popular in the 19th century. The English melodrama came out of the tradition of the mystery and morality play. It developed under the influence of the Italian commedia del'arte and the German Sturm und Drang (named after Maximilian Klinger's play). "A Tale of Mystery" (1802) by Thomas Holcroft was the first English play to be called a melodrama.
When the realism movement became popular, it demanded more life-like sets. The stage floor was dropped and stagehands moved the scenery manually.
Traits: no morals, dishonest, evil, mean, threatening
The villain is usually middle class or higher. He has money but wants more and is trying to get it from the weak. He tries to reach his goals by threatening his victims, usually the poor heroine.
Costume: The villain wears black clothes with red accents. He often wears a cape. Even though his clothes are mostly nicer fabrics, he wears the bowler hat of the lower class. He also has a mustache.
Movement/Voice: The villain speaks slowly with a threatening voice. He twirls his mustache and makes a grim face. If he wears a cape, he might swing it like a matador to make himself more threatening. The villain tries to get the audience upset and enjoys their boos and hisses. He often rubs his hand together or raises his cape to cover his face to show how bad he is.
Traits: handsome, honest, brave young man
The hero is often working class and does not have much money but wants to improve his status. He is in love with the heroine and wants to save her from the villain. He is willing to make a sacrifice to fights for justice.
Costume: The hero most often wears lower class clothes, sometimes a morning waistcoat with gloves and a cane.
Movement/Voice: The hero has a strong voice and acts very sure of himself. He swings his arms out to the side or shows his muscles to prove his strength. He is kind to the heroine and the elderly.
Traits: good, beautiful, innocent, honest, vulnerable
The heroine is the target of the villain. She is vulnerable because she often has to care for a sick or elderly relative. The heroine is poor. Sometimes she has a secret that she does not want to tell anyone. The villain uses that to gain power over her.
Costume: Wears simple, sometimes old and worn clothes.
Movement/Voice: The heroine acts weak and sometimes faints when bad things happen. She has a high voice and uses dainty gestures like putting her hand to her forehead. Her movements are light, she almost floats across the stage.
The villain's accomplice is often a beautiful woman who is a little bit floozy. She tries to get her way by charming the other characters with her looks.
The hero's sidekick is often a funny, not very smart man who is very honest and loyal. He often has lots of good ideas how to help the hero against the villain and might uncover evidence against him. He also provides comic relief through his clumsiness, sometimes using slapstick.
Elderly relative: This might be a parent or grandparent of the heroine who is sick and needs care.
Maid servant: Funny, energetic woman who likes to flirt with the hero's sidekick.
Comic character: This character can be male or female and is used to add humor to the play.
The characters in a melodrama are called "stock-characters" because they were very stereotypical and not life-like. In the 1800s, the actors trained in the classical style. Each character had a set of movements to express certain emotions. That way the audience was able to identify them easily. Once the actors learned the movements for each stock-character, they were able to act in new plays without much rehearsal. This was very important because the theaters often showed several plays a week.
The actors used exaggerated movements (strong facial expressing, large gestures) to show the emotions. They over-emphasized words or syllables (extending vowels and sounds) to show what was important to their character.
Audience interaction was very important. The characters spoke directly to the audience, telling them jokes and encouraged them to boo the villain.
Asides were an important tool to connect to the audience. The actor speaks directly to the audience, telling them a secret or a plan, drawing them into the action.
The melodrama became popular because at this time the scientific and industrial discoveries were being made and machines took over. Many people lost their jobs and moved to the cities. The wealthy built huge theaters and the poor were looking for an escape from their sad existence. The plays offered them a chance to forget about their troubles and escape to exotic worlds where good won over evil.
The word melodrama comes from the 19th century French word melodrame which comes from the Greek word melos (music) and the French word drame (drama.
Why did the melodrama become popular?
Where does the word come from?
The melodrama has an exaggerated plot and characters because it appeals to the emotions of the audience. It combines spoken recitation with accompanying music. It usually has a simple plot that centers on the struggle of good vs. evil.
Soliloquy: Character tells their thoughts to the audience while alone on stage
Narration: One actor tells the story that happens with the drama
Flashback or Flashforward: The action back and forth to give the audience a different perspective on the action
Tableau: Actors use their bodies to make an image or freeze frame to capture a moment or an idea
Audience Interaction: Audience is asked to get involved in the play by booing or cheering
The plot is fast paced with a lot of suspense and plot twists. There are many spectacular events such as battles, chases, explosions, fires and fights. It also uses music to increase the dramatic effect. The hero always wins in the end and morality and justice are restored.
Early productions used stock drop sets (street scene, forest, library) which could be reused in many plays.
Changes in Staging and Technology
In the mid 1870s, more realistic sets were used. The drop set was replaced by box sets with tree walls that represented interiors. Geographical detail and accuracy of historic costumes were more important. In 1880s the use of electrical light offered Tmore staging possibilities. The advantage was that light could be manipulated and the house lights could be turned down.
Later revolving stages, elevators, rolling platforms and closed front curtains were added.
The front of the stage was used for the actor talking to the audience, the middle for the actor talking to another character and the back of the stage was used for suspense, like a person sneaking up on another one.
In 1830s candelabra lights were replaced by gas lights.
The melodrama used many special effects like explosions , fires, and chases to make the play more exciting.
The audience constantly demanded even more spectacular machinery because they spent their hard-earned money and did not want to see the same things again.
Melodrama and Victorian Society
The style of melodrama has survived until today and is frequently used in theater, TV and movies.
The culture in the Victorian Society moved away from rationalism and toward romanticism. The focus was on intuition and emotions. People were hoping to improve their situations, rise up from the lower to the middle class. Moral norms were important.
Many popular films (and soap operas) follow the scheme of hero and heroine being in love, torn apart by bad circumstances and misunderstandings and then them being reunited in the end.
The melodrama also is the basis for thrillers with good and evil characters, lots of action and the just punishment for the villain in the end.
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