Cinema and Media Studies Melodrama
by
Linda Williams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0043

Introduction

Melodrama is a chameleon. The history of its use as a term shows it to be one of the most unstable in the Anglo-American cinema and media lexicon, even though we all know what it is when we see it. Generally taken to connote excessive and overwrought (nonclassic) drama, it was first taken seriously by film scholars as a minor but potentially “subversive” genre dealing with domestic frustrations and excessive emotions accompanied by equally excessive music—hence the melos best exemplified by the 1950s domestic melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli, whose special ability in the case of these more “progressive” examples was to stir up a lot of dust in the form of irreconcilable contradictions. In the then prevailing psychoanalytic context, the very excesses of melodrama—its heightened emotionalism in the dramatization of contradictions that could not be easily reconciled—became the very basis of critical interest in it. Where the emotional or musical excesses of melodrama might have been derided in an era of the supposed dominance of a classical realist film, here the excesses of melodrama seemed to subvert those norms. As Christine Gledhill put it in 1987, looking back at the emergence of melodrama as a field of study: “Through discovery of Sirk, a genre came into view” (Gledhill 1987, p. 7, cited under Anthologies). That genre was soon redefined and revalued by numerous feminist theorists and critics such as Doane, Gledhill, Modleski, Mulvey, and Williams, who located in the domestic melodrama a fascinated love/hate relation with a genre now renamed “the (melodramatic) woman’s film.” In this work a whole new realm of previously ignored American films were identified and understood in terms of the genre’s efforts to reconcile—whether through death, suffering, or wrenchingly unrealistic happy endings—female desires that were fundamentally irreconcilable under capitalist patriarchy. In more recent scholarship of the last two decades, melodrama has again morphed. Under the influence of the work of Peter Brooks and Christine Gledhill, it has come to be understood not only as a historical genre but as a pervasive mode of modern culture. Despite persistent associations with 19th-century stage melodrama, this mode is no longer viewed as diametrically opposed to realism nor as necessarily challenging to the putative norms of the so-called classical cinema, nor as addressed with any exclusivity to women, but as one of the most enduringly popular forms of moving-image drama, whose uniquely modern function is the quest for moral legibility in an era where moral, not to mention religious, certainties are no longer self-evident. Aside from comedy, it is what we mostly see at the movies and increasingly in both episodic and serial television. If the soap opera is dead, long live the soap on serial television!

Scholarship on Stage and Literary Melodrama

Before melodrama became a key—though perpetually evolving—term in cinema studies, and before it became attached to domestic women’s films, it had a long history of scholarship in literary and dramatic studies where it has been a more stable term: usually called sentimental fiction in literary studies, and regularly called melodrama on the stage. Some of these works, like Brooks 1995, have become influential in the melodramatic field of film and media; others have been less influential. All contribute to the wider understanding of melodrama as a cinematic mode inherited from many different traditions and existing in a range of subgenres. Heilman 1968 is a ponderous but valuable comparison between tragedy and melodrama that spells out the differences between a “polypathic” tragic hero and a more “monopathic” (undivided) hero of melodrama. Brooks 1995 introduces key ideas such as the “text of muteness,” the “moral occult,” and the idea that melodrama fills the void of the “loss of the sacred.” Gerould 1983 and Mason 1993 look at particularly important plays of the American experience; McConachie 1992 studies mid-19th-century American stage melodrama as expressive of American social and cultural history; Moretti 1983 offers the best explanation of what makes us cry; and Tomkins 1985 offers the classic explanation of the generation of tears in 19th-century literature by women.

  • Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. Rev. ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

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    Though primarily a study of the melodramatic elements of the 19th-century novel, this is the key work in the rehabilitation of melodrama in contemporary film and media. First published 1976.

  • Gerould, Daniel C., ed. American Melodrama. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1983.

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    An informative introductory essay on the Americanization of French and English stage melodrama of the 19th century, followed by three influential plays.

  • Heilman, Robert. Tragedy and Melodrama: Versions of Experience. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968.

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    Overlooked today, but very clear on essential differences between tragedy and melodrama.

  • Mason, Jeffrey D. Melodrama and the Myth of America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

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    Examines five 19th-century plays that fought out issues of race, class, and gender in American ideology.

  • McConachie, Bruce A. Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society, 1820–1870. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

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    A well-researched study of the mid-19th-century American stage melodrama as expressive of American social and cultural history.

  • Moretti, Franco. “Kindergarten.” In Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms. By Franco Moretti, 159–162. Translated by Susan Fischer, David Forgacs, and David Miller. London: Verso, 1983.

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    An influential essay on how tears are generated in melodramatic literature for boys.

  • Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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    Tompkins explores the sentimental fictions of wildly popular American women writers like Susan Warner and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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