The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VIII. Nineteenth-Century Drama

§ 7. Melodrama

The first half of the nineteenth century was a period of very brisk dramatic activity. The pressure of the public demand for theatrical entertainment caused prolific production. The comparatively low state of public taste and the insecurity of tenure of unlicensed theatres caused that production to be of little value. The kinds of drama were many—comedy, farce, extravaganza, burlesque, opera and melodrama; and authors, many of whom were attached to certain theatres and paid fixed salaries to produce whatever kind of play might be wanted, wrote in haste dramatic pieces of all sorts. Under these conditions, originality in plot could scarcely be expected. Stories were snatched from all sources; especially from French and German drama and from French and English novels. The works of Scott, of Dumas and of Dickens were especially favourite hunting-grounds for plots; and the law of copyright then offered no protection to the novelist against the playwright. The period exhibits a confusing jumble of trivial aims and poor accomplishment; from which may be extricated two principal characteristics—the degradation of comedy into farce, and the growth of what is now known as melodrama. The name, melodrama, was taken from the French mélodrame, which, as in English, meant a play of sensational incident and broad humour, interspersed with songs and dances. In England, the musical adjuncts were introduced not only to please public taste but, largely, in order to evade the law by presenting a stage-play in the guise of a musical entertainment. In character and content, melodrama was very various. It included the operas of Isaac Pocock and Henry Bishop; the adaptations of Fitzball; the wild imaginigs of Shirley Brooks; the nautical drama made popular by T. P. Cooke, the actor; the equestrian drama of Astley’s; the domestic drama of Tom Taylor; and the Irish drama of Dion Boucicault. In Taylor and Boucicault, it had practitioners of skill and sense; at the opposite extreme were authors of blood-curdling pieces performed at the outlying theatres. To the composition of this heterogeneous mixture, many strains contributed. So far as it had any descent from English tradition, it may be traced back to the fairy plays and spectacles of John Rich. These were melodramas, inasmuch as they were opera without operatic singers; but the musical element was destined to give way to the dramatic. By the time of The Miller and his Men (1813), the author, or, rather, the adapter, Pocock, is as important as the composer, Bishop; and, before long, the music disappeared altogether, as it had disappeared from the French mélodrame, leaving the sensational incidents and the broad humour unrelieved. The romantic movement, which had produced The Mysteries of Udolpho and the works of “Monk” Lewis, contributed not a little of the sensational element; and the new theatrical public brought with it the taste for horrors which continued to be stimulated and fed by ballads and broadsheets. The French drama of incident and sensation, which had come into being after the revolution—the drama of Pixérécourt, of Caigniez and of Cuvelier de Trye—lent something; shows and spectacles, performing animals and acrobatic exhibitions, with which licensed houses recouped themselves for their losses over “legitimate” drama, flowed, at the Surrey theatre, at Sadler’s wells, or at Astley’s, into the stream; and, by the middle of the century, melodrama had taken a form which has scarcely been altered since. Melodrama divides human nature into the entirely good and the entirely bad, the two being bridged by an uncertain structure based on the possibility of reform (in minor personages only) by sudden conversion at a critical moment of the action. That is to say, incident and situation, not character, are its aims. It allies itself boldly with the democrat against the aristocrat. To be rich and well-born is, almost inevitably, to be wicked; to be poor and humble is all but a guarantee of virtue. These characteristics did not become crystallised all at once; they grew by degrees through works of a large number of playwrights, some among whom may be particularised.