In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Melodrama

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Introductory Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Resources
  • Primary Texts
  • New Histories and Theories of 19th-Century Theatre
  • Plays, Performances, Professionals, Theatres
  • Audiences
  • Censorship and Illegitimate Theatre
  • Class and Marxist Approaches
  • Gendered Approaches
  • Race, Empire, and National Identity
  • The Ideology of the Aesthetic
  • Melodrama, Modernity, and Film

Victorian Literature Melodrama
Juliet John
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0042


Melodrama is a genre that emerged in France during the revolutionary period. The word itself, literally meaning “music drama” or “song drama,” derives from Greek but reached the Victorian theatre by way of French. In Britain, melodrama became the most popular kind of theatrical entertainment for most of the 19th century, a period when more people went to the theatre than at any time in history. Its unprecedented popularity during the Victorian period owes much to its appeal to working-class or artisan audiences and to a ready-made nexus of so-called illegitimate theatres (theatres forbidden by law to perform drama involving the spoken word unaccompanied by music). Despite the decline in the popularity of melodrama on stage by the end of the 19th century, its influence both during and after its heyday has been immense. Melodrama’s influence went beyond the stage, affecting novelists throughout the period—to mention just a few examples, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, sensation novelists, and even Henry James. It was a direct influence on the silent screen, and its techniques persist today in film, television, fiction, and theatre.

General Overviews

For a century, melodrama was virtually ignored by literary criticism. Its popular cultural status was anathema to the Arnoldian tradition of literary criticism dominating approaches to “literature” from Matthew Arnold’s day to that of his disciple F. R. Leavis, so influential in English studies until the 1960s. Since the 1960s, however, the reaction against the humanist approach to literary study in many ways epitomized by Leavis has meant an increasing critical attention to melodrama. Though the sea change in the critical fortunes of melodrama was enabled by the rise of cultural studies, with its leftist interest in popular culture, critical orthodoxy positions the publication of Brooks 1976 as the initiating moment in the “serious” study of melodrama. Even before Brooks’s seminal work, critics had begun to examine stage melodrama. Heilman 1968 opposes tragedy and melodrama as “versions of experience,” and Bentley 1964 maintains that melodrama “is the quintessence of drama” (p. 216). Brooks’s approach to melodrama, though influential, has been widely contested—Kaplan 1983, for example, offers a clear statement of the differences between his theory of melodrama and that of feminists, while helpful edited essay collections (such as Gerould 1980 and Redmond 1992) illustrate the diversity of possible approaches to melodrama.

  • Bentley, Eric. The Life of the Drama. New York: Atheneum, 1964.

    Bentley’s classic text contains a great deal of help to students of melodrama, not least his defense of types and archetypes (in characterization) and his assertion that melodrama “is drama in its elemental form; it is the quintessence of drama” (p. 216).

  • Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.

    A groundbreaking work that uses tools like psychoanalysis and expressionism to argue that “the melodramatic mode” is a means of “uncovering, demonstrating, and making operative the essential moral universe in a post-sacred era” (p. 15). Influential though contested.

  • Gerould, Daniel, ed. Melodrama. New York Literary Forum 7. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980.

    A crucial text containing many essays and quotations on melodrama from a variety of different perspectives. It also contains a good bibliography.

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

    Opposes tragedy and melodrama as “versions of experience,” arguing that while melodramatic “types” are characterized by “monopathy” or “the singleness of feeling that gives one the sense of wholeness” (p. 243), tragedy is centered on the division of the protagonist. Psychological and aesthetic rather than historical or political in its approach and interests.

  • Kaplan, E. Ann. “Theories of Melodrama: A Feminist Perspective.” Women in Performance 1 (1983): 40–48.

    A useful feminist discussion of melodrama and its theories, including a summary of feminist film theorists’ analyses of spectatorship and gender in melodrama. Contains a clear statement of the differences between Brooks’s theories of melodrama and feminist ones (p. 45).

  • Redmond, James, ed. Melodrama. Themes in Drama 14. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    A useful collection of essays on melodrama from a variety of perspectives.

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