The origins of melodrama coincide roughly with the origins of opera in Italy very late in the 16th c. Opera developed from an attempt to revive Classical tragedy, and the mixture of music and drama was either opera or melodrama. In the 18th c. George Frideric Handel called some of his works opera and some melodrama. Towards the end of the 18th c. French dramatists began to develop melodrama as a distinct genre by elaborating the dialogue and making much more of spectacle, action, and violence.
Sensationalism and extravagant emotional appeal became popular. One of the main influences from earlier in the century was very probably the gloomy tragedies of Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon. Some of the more notable examples of inchoate melodrama were Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1775), Gabiot’s L’Auto-da-Fé (1790), and Gilbert de Pixerécourt’s Caelina, ou l’enfant du mystère (1800). The French influence, plus the Gothic element in the work of Goethe and Schiller, plus, no doubt, the increasing vogue of the Gothic novel and the popularity of M. G. ‘Monk’Lewis’s melodrama The Castle Spectre (1797), all contributed to produce an extraordinary number of melodramas on the English stage during the 19th c., a period during which a very large number of novels (by Walter Scott, Charles Reade, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and others) were adapted for the stage in the form of melodrama. It can be no coincidence that in this period of decadence in the theatre very little original work of any note was created. Writers had lost their ‘ear’ for dramatic verse and prose.
The flourishing of melodrama in the 19th c. produced a kind of naively sensational entertainment in which the main characters were excessively virtuous or exceptionally evil (hence the luminously good hero or heroine and the villain of deepest and darkest dye), an abundance of blood, thunder, thrills, and violent action which made use of spectres, ghouls, witches, vampires and many a skeleton from the supernatural cupboard, and also (in more domestic melodrama) a sordid realism in the shape of extravagant tales of the wickedness of drinking, gambling and murdering.
Among the hundreds of extant examples of the genre, the following are some of the better known: Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (1802), an unacknowledged translation or adaptation of Pixerécourt’s Caelina; Douglas Jerrold’s Black-Ey’d Susan (1829); Maria Marten; or, The Murder in the Red Barn (c. 1830), a classic story of melodrama which was worked over a number of times; Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1842), which, like Maria Marten, provided themes for a number of variations; Miss Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1863), based on the novel of that title; Tom Taylor’s The Ticket-of-leave Man (1853); East Lynne (1874), which was based on Mrs Henry Wood’s novel The Bells (1871); Henry Arthur Jones’s The Silver King (1882); and William Terriss’s The Bells of Hazlemere (1887).
During the mid-century period, Dion Boucicault (1820–90) wrote a number of fine melodramas, some of which have worn well, as was amply shown in 1988 with the National Theatre production of The Shaughraun (1874). This was one of his best comic melodramas; two others were The Colleen Bawn (1860) and Arrah-na-Pogue(1864). Boucicault was very prolific. Other successes of his were: The Corsican Brothers (1852), The Vampire (1852), Faust and Margaret (1854), The Streets of Dublin (1864), Jessie Brown; or, The Relief of Lucknow (1858) and The Octoroon (1859). We can also mention George Bernard Shaw’s ‘intellectual’ melodrama The Devil’s Disciple (1897), and his short curtain raiser Passion, Poison, and Petrification, or The Fatal Gazogene (1905), a hilarious burlesque of some of the more grotesque features of Victorian melodrama. Shaw included this among his Trifles and Tomfooleries, but the graver hierophants of the Theatre of the Absurd have detected in it certain foreshadowings of the absurd’. Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), is a perfect example of comic melodrama, which influenced the surrealists and the absurdists.
Since about the 1920s, the cinema has largely ousted melodrama from the stage, but the melodramatic can still draw big and appreciative audiences (hence the success of The Shaughraun in 1988). Between the wars, memorable successes were The Green Goddess (1923), Diamond Lil (1928), Patrick Hamilton’s Rope (1929), and Gaslight (1938), which he followed with The Governess (1945). There were also Edgar Wallace’s On the Spot (1930) and his The Case of the Frightened Lady (1931). Post-Second World War varieties of melodrama have been distinguished and include Jean-Paul Sartre’s intellectual’ melodrama Crime passionel (1948), Maxwell Anderson’s The Bad Seed (1954), Joe Orton’s The Erpingham Camp (1966) and Loot (1965), Tom Stoppard’s parodic The Real Inspector Hound (1968) and Simon Gray’s comedy-thriller melodrama Stagestruck (1979).