On melodrama

Like the term “sentimentality”, the term melodrama is frequently used in criticism in a pejorative sense, but is rarely defined. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us the following:

melodrama in early 19th-cent use, a stage play (usually romantic and sensational in plot and incident) in which songs and music were interspersed. In later use the musical element gradually ceased to be an essential feature, and the name now denotes a dramatic piece characterised by sensational incident and violent appeals to the emotions, but with a happy ending.

Sensational events, violent emotions, happy ending … do these characteristics justify us seeing melodrama as necessarily a Bad Thing? If so, we must be censorious even of such peaks of human achievement as The Oresteia, or The Winter’s Tale. But leaving aside dictionary definitions, the term “melodrama” is usually applied to works in which, regardless of whether or not it all works out happily at the end, emotions appear overblown and dramatic situations over the top. Definition along such lines, however, doesn’t really help us, as there is no point that we may all agree upon beyond which an emotion is necessarily “overblown”, or drama necessarily “over the top”. Furthermore, writers are surely entitled to depict extreme emotions, or frenzied states of mind: are such depictions necessarily meoldrama? And if so, are such depictions to be deplored? If that were the case, should we not deplore even works of the stature of Dostoyevsky’s Demons or Ibsen‘s Hedda Gabler? Or King Lear, or Oedipus, or The Mayor of Casterbridge, or…

As with the term “sentimentality”, it seems impossible to define “melodrama” in a way that makes clear at some objective level what constitutes melodrama, and what doesn’t. For that reason, we should, I think, be careful how we use this term in literary criticism. I think the reason we tend to object to that which we perceive as melodramatic is similar to the reason we object to that which we perceive as sentimental: if we find fault with the sentimental because certain important emotions are accessed in too facile a manner, then we find fault with the melodramatic because conflict, which is the basis of all drama, has been accessed with a comparable glibness. In dramas of sophistication, conflicts can be subtle in nature: sometimes, they are implied rather than openly stated; often, they can be internal as well as external, with complexities and contradictions made apparent even within a given side. None of this applies to melodrama: here, conflict is invariably overt, with unambiguous good pitched squarely against unambiguous evil, with no nuance or subtlety admitted that might compromise the clear-cut dichotomy. The result, as with sentimentality, can give an impression of lack of depth, a lack of substance, and even, perhaps, of simple-mindedness.

But we must be careful: is melodrama, even if it is as characterised above, necessarily a bad thing? If it is, then is it somehow indicative of bad taste on my part to find myself enjoying without the sligtest sense of embarrassment such works as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, or Puccini’s Tosca? I’m afraid I do not know. But it does make me think twice before criticising anything for being “melodramatic”.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Ha ha, I once tried to argue about melodrama with a teacher in university, using the word in the sense of corny, cheap, etc, and she quickly corrected me about it being a theatrical genre that had music. That really shut me up 🙂


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