Elements of Melodrama: From Early Theater to the Modern Soap Opera

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  • 0:07 Melodrama
  • 0:32 Beginnings of Melodrama
  • 1:05 Characteristics of Melodrama
  • 3:17 Melodrama Changes Over Time
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Have you ever wondered where or when soap operas started? In this video, we will look at the history and transformation of the melodrama from the stage to the small (and big) screen.


I'm not going to lie. I've made fun of a soap opera or two. I mean, did you see Passions with its witches, closet portals to Hell and an orangutan nursemaid named Precious whose fantasies about another human character are actually part of the show? I wouldn't exactly call soap operas classic drama, but they are a distant relative of the melodrama, a quite legitimate and influential dramatic form.

Beginnings of Melodrama

France is attributed for creating the melodrama in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as part of the Romantic literary period. The romantics wanted to express their emotions through art and embraced imagination, individuality, nature as a source of spirituality and intuition. This new dramatic form triggered emotions through the use of spoken lines with alternating musical accompaniment to show a battle of good and evil, complete with special effects like train crashes, horse races and earthquakes.

Characteristics of Melodrama

In general, melodramas are moral tales that illustrate a battle between good and evil, where good would triumph and bring morality or justice in society. Rather than have realistic characters, the melodrama had what are known as stock characters, or characters based on set personalities or stereotypes. Typically, the melodrama includes:

  • A hero, who is moral, handsome and manly. He acts on his intuition and is in-tune to nature. And, while he believes in justice, he does not always follow the less-important rules of society.
  • A heroine, who is also moral in that she is innocent. She is also beautiful and courageous, but likely needed saving.
  • A villain, who is evil. These characters are often dishonest, greedy, vengeful and corrupt.
  • A villain's accomplice, who is usually rather idiotic and serves as comic relief.
  • A faithful servant, who helps the hero uncover needed information on the villain. This character also serves a comic relief, but does not come off as idiotic.
  • A maidservant, who is flirty, fun and loyal to the heroine.

Typically, the melodrama has three major plot elements: provocation is whatever provokes the villain to do evil to the hero; pangs are the pains that the hero, heroine and other good characters suffer through because of the villain's evil; and the penalty is the last part of the play, where the villain gets the punishment that he or she deserves.

This probably sounds familiar. Take Disney's Robin Hood as an example. Robin Hood, the handsome fox who robs the rich to feed the poor, and his sidekick, the loveable, funny and helpful Little John, are provoked to fight valiantly against the evil villain Prince John and his slimy sidekick, Sir Hiss, in their efforts to over-tax everyone in Nottingham. In his efforts, he wins over the heroine, the fair Maid Marian, who fights alongside him. And, don't forget the maidservant, Lady Kluck, the large chicken who is loyal, comical and always flirty with Little John. In the end, the villain and his sidekick are jailed with the return of justice: King Richard.

Melodrama Changes Over Time

One of the earliest examples of melodrama is Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Pygmalion. In his story, influenced by mythology, Rousseau took great care to unite words and music to tell the love story of Pygmalion and the sculpture that he created and loved. When Pygmalion is expressing his deepest of feelings, the music takes over and accompanies his pantomime. It might make sense that this combination of music and acting led to the operetta, or light operas, and eventually musicals.

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Additional Activities

Elements of Melodrama: From Early Theater to the Modern Soap Opera

Discussion Questions:

1. In the lesson, you read about the twentieth century animated television series Dudley Do-Right. You can probably think of other cartoons that will also qualify as melodrama. Why do you think the animated format lends itself so well to the depiction of a genre with stock characters and exaggerated action?

2. Watch an episode of a contemporary soap opera like The Young and the Restless or Days of our Lives. See if you can assign some of the stock character roles to the actors. What characteristics did you look for to make these judgments? Are there any of the stock characters mentioned in this lesson that are missing?

3. You learned about the characteristics of a melodrama in this lesson: stock characters, heightened emotion, and a fight of good against evil (the good guy wins). Think of a novel you like and consider how you might present it as a melodrama. Remember the key characteristics; you might need to alter the original story to make it fit the formula. For example, perhaps the original heroine is not so virtuous, or perhaps the villain has some redeeming qualities. Discuss the changes you would need to make.

4. Watch a silent film from the early twentieth century. Try to pinpoint the characteristics of a melodrama as they appear in the film. Take notice of the stock characters, the basic plot of good versus evil, the heightened emotion, and the acting style. The style of acting generally used for silent film features exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. Do you think this film was intended to be serious or comic? How does it appear to you as a contemporary viewer?

Note to Teachers and Parents:

Individual student answers will vary widely depending on the soap opera, novel, or silent film chosen for the activity. The best way to evaluate these items is to review the material in the lesson and determine if the questions in the item are answered in keeping with the information. Successful answers should demonstrate that the students remember the information in the lesson and can apply it to their chosen original story.

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