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What is a Melodrama? - Definition, Characteristics & Examples

What is a Melodrama? - Definition, Characteristics & Examples
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  • 0:02 Definition of Melodrama
  • 1:42 Characteristics of Melodrama
  • 4:15 Melodrama at the Movies
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Melodrama is a type of highly emotional narrative that was popular throughout the 19th and 20th century. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define melodrama, gain insight into some of its characteristics, and explore some examples in theater and film.

Definition of Melodrama

What types of movies are your favorite? Do you like action? Comedy? Or maybe drama? Possibly you like a certain kind of drama, one with big performances and hyper-dramatic story lines. You might like movies from the 1940s and 50s like Double Indemnity, or maybe you prefer more modern-day, over-the-top weepies. If so, you might be a fan of melodrama.

Broadly, melodrama is a type of narrative in which the over-dramatic plot-line is designed to play on people's emotions—sometimes at the expense of character development, sub-text, and nuance. Moreover, melodramas tend to feature reductive plot lines and characters that are stereotypical archetypes. In literature and narrative, an archetype is a character that is a quintessential example of a theme or virtue or idea. Satan, for example, is a classic archetype of absolute evil.

Melodrama is a term that has been widely applied over the last two centuries, which is a big part of why it's hard to define in any concrete way. Given this ambiguity, it might be easier to explain through example. For instance, the 1935 film The Wizard of Oz contains many characteristics of a melodrama; there are very clear lines drawn between good and evil: each character is a classic archetype (Dorothy = innocence, Aunt Em = love, Lion = courage, etc.), and it follows a familiar plot line from disruption (tornado) to adversity (witch/finding Oz) to resolution (returning home).

Characteristics of Melodrama

In the present, the word melodrama tends to have negative connotations. For example, a person who is acting hysterical or over-emotional might be called melodramatic. In the context of literature and theater, however, it is merely used to describe a certain type of story that emerged around the late 18th and early 19th century.

The earliest melodramas were classified as such for the ways in which they used music. Fight scenes, for example, might be accompanied by intense orchestral arrangements, while romantic scenes could be accompanied by something softer. This was to heighten the emotional impact of scenes. If we go back to The Wizard of Oz, think about when Dorothy first sees the witch riding her bicycle in the tornado—the music is high pitched and fast to convey a sense of dread. Another good example would be the shower scene in Psycho (1960), where the screech of stringed instruments underscores the terror of the moment.

As the genre grew, audiences came to associate melodramas with other characteristics, like those mentioned in the previous section. Moreover, they became hugely successful throughout the 19th century, in part because they were so accessible. Melodramas take very complicated concepts and themes—like love or war—and reduce them to binary opposition, which means something is on either side of a system, but never in between. Examples of binary opposition are things like men and women, love and hate, or good and evil; each side defines the other by virtue of its existence.

For example, Metamora, a popular American melodrama first performed in 1829, tells the story of the conflict between Puritan settlers and the Wampanoag tribe of what is now Massachusetts. During a time when Native people were revered by Americans for their supposed connection to nature, the play reduces an incredibly complex situation (colonialism and Native/Western conflict) to a matter of noble Indians and villainous settlers.

Metamora illustrates how melodramas took very complicated concepts and made them easily digestible through the use of familiar characters, story arcs, and well-established expectations. Unlike reality, in which Native/Western conflict was very complicated and nuanced, this play reduced it to a matter of good Indians and bad white people, never asking the audience to consider anything else but these most basic binary terms.

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