Concerning Melodrama

( Originally Published 1911 )

THE use of the term melodrama has undergone many changes, and it is a question whether at the present moment it is not being subjected to another modification or crucial shifting of the point of view. Such a bastard form of art has it been regarded by the majority of theatre-goers, that one has lost sight of its origin in the sixteenth century, and of the romantic stock from which it sprang. The term melodrama or melodramatic, as applied to a play, is popularly looked upon as a sign of condemnation„ yet if we consider . the essential ingredients for a moment, we will see that the melodrama itself is not the thing to be condemned, but rather the special form in which it is expressed.

The historical side of the subject has received scant attention from the scholar. While in general we are told that Ottavio Rinuccini toward the end of the sixteenth century invented the term melodrama, from the Greek words meaning melody and action, and while we are given to understand that in its application it related entirely to opera, Jean Jacques Rousseau having written his "Pygmalion" for instrumental music; still a scholar has yet to unravel its development from the intricacies of the romantic period, which swept through Italy and France and thence to England. It is hardly conceivable that the music written by Beethoven for "Egmont," or by Massenet for "Phédre," should be classed in the same genre as "Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model" or "Convict 999;" yet such is the case, and from such a loose application of the term there has arisen a misunderstanding as to the true elements in melodrama.

Analyzing the relation between music and drama, we note the point from which melodrama might be said to start. Always the highest moments in an opera, the most brilliant moments, are those which involve the characteristic elements of a glaring play. The characters sing longest when they are dying, they boast loudest in the most pronounced arias of the score; their actions are broad and lack subtlety, a subtlety which is dependent more upon the music than upon the play. Possibly it is because the musician has instinctively realized that the moments of greatest music are the moments of greatest human suffering; and undoubtedly the mélo-dramatist of to-day has grasped this fact, and is working it for all it is worth. Take away from our operas the orchestration, and the plots will be little more than out and out melodrama.

The student of the theatre will some day, in dealing with this subject of melodrama, be forced to disentangle its beginnings from the most heightened creations of the roman-tic period. He will not disdain to connect this genre of play-writing with that struggle which went on between the classic spirit and the romantic spirit, and which finally resulted in the victory of the latter, when Victor Hugo, in 1830, published "Hernani." It was the same struggle which had commenced in France when the Academicians, Boileau and Charles Perrault, became so deeply involved in a quarrel resulting in petty innuendoes and personal thrusts.

Practically the same result was accomplished in England as Dutton Cook claims was effected in France. For, to quote the latter: "Schlegel, writing early in the century, notes that dramatic poetry in Paris possessed a certain point of contact with the police, and that the restrictions placed upon the leading theatres banished to the minor stages all new and mixed attempts at histrionic entertainment."

The history of melodrama in England began in 1802, when Holcroft adapted a French manuscript which he called "A Tale of Mystery." And at this early period it is interesting to note the popular conception of the origin of the term melodrama, as conceived by the son of Harris, the manager of Covent Garden. He wrote to Frederick Reynolds from Paris regarding the peculiar type of plays which were classed under a name derived from the two words mêler and drame.'

Up to the time of the advent of the Dion Boucicault sensationalism, for he may be regarded as one of the first to combine the excess of situation with the excess of stage mechanism, melodrama might be said to have become almost conventional in its adherence to a species of foreign brigand literature. There was not very much desire to accentuate the events of everyday life, but, adhering to the stereotyped romantic passions and situations of the Radcliffe school of novels, the melodramatist of this earlier period wrote more in the tone of the opera librettist than of the dramatist. The history of melodrama in this country, to within recent years, is practically the same as that of England, and the two may be said to have been dependent upon French sources. In the period of 1860, America was inundated with a type of "dime novel" story, which spread. from ocean to ocean, affecting literature for growing boys, and likewise affording a new impetus to melodrama. For about this time, as we have said before, Mr. Belasco was enjoying such a glaring piece as "The Idiot Boy of the Rocky Mountains;" and when he reached the East, he found that Mr. Daly had made a success with a melodrama of that section, entitled "Under the Gaslight." The type of play such as "The Two Orphans," which is in its essentials nothing but a melodrama, could not long survive the reaction which in drama was now to take place. There is no doubt that, even as Pinero and Jones were to break from Robertson and Taylor, and realism was to usurp the boards, so melodrama would likewise be affected by this very realism. The ingredients have always been the same, but the objective point of view was obliged to undergo material alteration with the change of conditions. The present-day melodrama, which is better named sensational drama, has been materially affected by those forces which have been detected behind yellow journal-ism.

Let us get clearly in mind the characteristics marking melodrama. The dominant feature is situation; the broadest results of the very broadest and most elemental emotions. Mr. Walkley has expressed it by saying that there are two sides of a criminal, the outside and the inside, melodrama usually dealing with the former, whereas the novelist would search for the conditions resulting in the existence of the criminal. These two sides are in substance the distinctive difference between present-day melodrama and present-day fiction.

The old English and French miracle plays had in them all the essentials of this glaring stage type. The manner in which the miracle of "St. Nicholas and the Thieves" was presented, the careful delineation of Hellmouth, with the Devil and his demons rushing up and down the aisles of the church, appealed to the same instincts in the mass of mediaeval people, that the broad glorification of good and the meting of punishment do to the people of today. Fitzball, who was considered one of the most productive melodramatists of the early nineteenth century in England, heard Sheridan Knowles proclaim that he considered "Macbeth" one of the finest melodramas he had ever seen; and there is undoubted truth in what he said. Perhaps he asserted this as a defense of his own play, "The Hunchback" --which itself belongs to this class of drama. But even at that early day the term had been so misused and the species had so broadened, freed from the narrow restrictions of the patent theatres of Lon-don, that Douglas Jerrold, in his report before the Parliamentary Commission of 1832, appointed to examine into the status of the London theatres, inadvertently invented a new term, which is familiar to us to-day as the legitimate drama, and which he pitted against this other form. Not only did he deplore the over-accentuation of the physical result to the detriment of the mental cause in melodrama, but Macready likewise regarded the sensational with such disfavor that his contracts stipulated he should be given no part partaking of a melodramatic character.

Up to this time melodrama, which is not only a legitimate type, but also a dominant characteristic of our American life, has run wild. The writer of melodrama has misinterpreted his license, and the lovers of the melodramatic are being sated with a succession of situations and a minimum of plot. One of the most successful playwrights of this type of piece is Owen Davis, the author of "The Confessions of a Wife" — which is distinctive from his other plays by the fact that it calls for no "guns," to use a professional term, — "Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model" and "Convict 999." He has declared that a certain reaction is about to take place in this indiscriminate use of situation for situation's sake; that his audiences are now beginning to see the improbability of so many hairbreadth escapes occurring in the life of any human being within the three hours' traffic of the stage. The public libraries are improving the taste of the public. So that from excess we are forced to return to consistency.

Only a hairline separates the emotion of Broadway from that of the Bowery. Mr. Gillette's "Sherlock Holmes" was nothing more than a "thriller," acted with a certain refinement and a certain reserve; which characteristics are usually avoided by the manager of melodrama. Not only has the sensational play taken unto itself a certain formula by which virtue and villainy are expressed, but it likewise requires a diction which is excessive in its accentuation.

When all is told, therefore, the difference between the legitimate theatre and melodrama lies in this matter of accentuation. Bartley Campbell's "My Partner," Lester Wallack's "Rosedale," "The White Heather," Jones's "The Silver King," "The Ticket-of-Leave Man," C. M. S. McLellan's "Leah Kleschna," and "The Great Ruby" are accounted melodramas of the old school, containing all the distorted actions and passions of the present type, but differing from the present type, inasmuch as the stories were consistent and the characterizations human. Despite the sensational-ism in Dion Boucicault, the genial Irish atmosphere was dominant, and the heart interest was so romantic as to cover the daring ventures with the gloss of possibility. Now, however, such writers of melodrama as Owen Davis and Theodore Kremer have discarded the intermediate development between the glaring situations, and are dealing wholly with the situations themselves, one after the other, irrespective of their possibility in life, and with the sole intention of deadening the logical sense of the spectator with sensationalism.

Mr. Davis is a Harvard graduate, and was drawn into writing such plays as "Tony, the Bootblack" and "Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model" by his association with "The Great Ruby" company. He thought he could write just as clever a story for the stage, and so he began then and there, acting meanwhile, until he gained a footing as one of the principal manufacturers of the sensational play. He recognized the legitimate side of melodrama, he deplored the piling up of catastrophe upon catastrophe, he saw the bathos in the formula which states that the play ends only when every possible calamity has been exhausted. Mr. Davis was what one might call a student of his particular field. He understood his public, which in matter of taste is of the Laura Jean Libbey class. He knew wherein this public was credulous, — the point of appeal in its sentimental make-up. His audiences would not countenance the regeneration of a stage bad man; they must have the victory of virtue and the happy ending; the good must be rewarded suddenly, the bad must be punished lingeringly.

Mr. Davis has now deserted the realm of the sensational for that of the legitimate, but in doing so he has not forgotten the measure of that public to which he used to make appeal. In an interview, he has epitomized the characteristics of melodrama in this manner:

"On Third Avenue the treatment is different. Instead of avoiding the obvious you must insist upon it first, last and all the time. You must move up the ascending scale of emotions with directness. Your hero must be labeled at his first entrance. Nothing must be left to inference. It is almost indispensable that he knock down the villain in the first two minutes following his entrance. In the same easy way your comedian must get a laugh as he comes on. Instead of having your heroine pursued by some abstract thing such as fate, you must have her pursued by a tangible villain bent upon cutting her throat. You must pile catastrophe upon catastrophe. By the time the hero throws his protecting arms around her in the last act, she must have narrowly escaped scalping by Indians, been almost drowned in a mill-race, missed death in a train wreck, and been shot at and stabbed by the villain, to say nothing of having passed unscathed through several conflagrations, an earthquake or two, a mine cave-in, or a magazine ex-plosion. The play only ends when you have exhausted every possible calamity, but it ends happily; it must end happily. And the hero must remain the hero, and the villain must die as black as when he first came on. I know, because I have tried. The public has no faith in the regeneration of the stage bad man. He is there as the symbol of everything that 's bad, and by the fourth act he has committed every crime possible. The audience does n't want him to repent and get away free. He must be killed lingeringly, if possible. Right must triumph and wrong must be punished. That is one of the fundamental principles of the so-called cheap drama.

"In that particular the cheap drama is a power for good and a moralizing force of no little value. Our heroics are mock heroics, perhaps, but they have a salutary effect nevertheless. The lowly laborer who lives a life of squalor in the back room of a tenement, when he hears the hero declare that he would rather die than steal, may come to think that, after all, this is the sort of morality that suits him too.

"Speaking only of my own plays, I dare say that I have addressed each season an audience numbering upward of seven million people. I have had eighteen plays on the road at a time, and about ninety in stock. In every one of my pieces there is some wholesome truth, some good moral precept advanced, and yet almost invariably the attitude maintained by the press toward these plays is one of gentle derision. Serious criticism of them is never attempted. The one reason why newspaper men are sent to cover them is to poke fun at them the next day. They furnish the basis for funny stories, nothing else. Personally, I don't see any fairness in this. Certain papers which I need not mention make special effort to catch the proletariat by writing down their editorials to the mental level and understanding of the illiterate, prosaic, unlettered, uncultured classes, and then turn right about to another column and assume the superior and high-art tone in discussing the plays which these same people go to see."

And should we ask Mr. Davis to outline the formula for us succinctly, he would say that his audiences never take things for granted. You must emphasize for them that a certain event is going to happen, that it is happening, and that it has happened; three times each point must be driven home. Humanity being the keynote, the ten- and twenty-and thirty-cent theatre-goer must have action laid on in large sweeps. The emotions must not be subtle; they must ascend toward the climax, not in flowing consistency, but with intermittent thumps. The formula exacts that the heroine must be as young and fresh after twenty hairbreadth escapes as though she were attending a garden party. Yet from the technical side, Mr. Davis's ingenuity is striking. He wrote the dialogue for and planned the staging of "The Siege of Port Arthur" for the Hippodrome, and certain striking elements therein he transferred to his own melodrama, "Convict 999." He has written so many melodramas of the conventional type, he has studied the situation so thoroughly, that he is able to tell exactly in what respects the next change in melodrama will be revealed. Although his "Gambler of the West," his "Broadway after Dark," his "Chinatown Charlie," and his "Creole Slave's Revenge" are sure of a hearing from his particular following, he recognizes that this following is becoming sated, that their acceptance is being turned into incredulity, that they are being educated away from the old order and nearer the legitimate realm. of melodrama.

In this respect, it may be noted that A. H. Woods, one of the largest managers of melodrama in America, is himself being involved in this change. For while he has been the means of encouraging the thriller of the present, he likewise, as a manager, has been drawn nearer to the legitimate drama; and a reaction is likewise occurring in his own attitude toward this particular theatre which has made him a fortune. Where-as heretofore he would have discountenanced any attempt on the part of Owen Davis or Theodore Kremer, of John Oliver or of the other countless writers of melodrama to use any subtle methods in- depicting emotion, in treating consistent sequence of cause and effect, he is now himself becoming critical of the sensationalism of the past. Just so soon as Mr. Woods goes over the line which separates the melodramatic syndicate from the theatrical trust, just so soon will the new departure in melodrama occur). Then will Mr. Davis be able to put into practice his greatest hopes, and, provided his sense of proportion is not atrophied, he will be able to satisfy his own ambitions.

Mr. Theodore Kremer likewise shows the same dissatisfaction over being forced to produce such dramas as "Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl," "Fast Life in New York," "The Fatal Wedding," and "The King of Bigamists." He out-lines the melodramatic formula in this way: "My audiences are all from Missouri;, they want to be shown; unless you show them first they will not believe. In the play now being acted by Miss Ethel Barrymore ['Her Sister'], it is made clear during the conversation that the fortune-teller and the young man to whom she is engaged first met in a train. Now it is all right for the Broadway audiences to hear that the two met in a train, but the Eighth Avenue audiences have to be shown the train and the meeting. Instead of beginning the acquaintance by having him hand her a paper, he would — to please my theatre goers — have to fling the paper in her face. She would be insulted and address him, `Sir!' Then he would apologize, the acquaintance would begin, and it could then ripen into love, but not before. And in the first act of the play the fortune-teller would have to be shot on to the stage out of a trap-door."

Mr. Kremer was once regarded as the Clyde Fitch of melodrama, even as Owen Davis usurped the title of Augustus Thomas; and should one examine the manuscripts of each, this distinction might be readily seen, for Mr. Davis's sensationalism is fraught with the vigor of the masculine, whereas Mr. Kremer usually deals with the feminine.' Yet despite this sex view-point, their plays are worked absolutely upon the same lines; their heroes, their heroines, their villains, their inconsistencies, their colloquial humor, their virtues which obtrude to such a degree as to lack virtue, their seriousness which is so pronounced as to be humorous, are all of the same color. They write their plays according to a formula decided upon between themselves and their manager. The bill-board posters are drawn a long while before pen is even put to paper. The trap-doors, the bridges which are to be blown up, the walls which are to be scaled, the instruments of torture for the persecuted heroines, the freight elevators which are to crush out the lives of deserving characters, the elevated trains which are to rush upon the prostrate forms of gagged and insensible girls, — all these melodramatic accessories are determined upon before the manuscript takes shape. In fact, there is little shaping done after the situations are decided upon. The only thing left for the dramatist is to fill up the gaps with conversations which lead, however irrelevantly, to the situations them-selves. Herein are to be found those elements of melodrama which are finally to be the cause of its own undoing. For the masses are being better educated, are — because of the general interest in drama — coming under influences which raise their standards of living and soften their ideals. One cannot fool the public all the time at the theatre, even though it be on Eighth Avenue or on the Bowery. They have been fooled once, twice, thrice; and soon they will reach the point where the manager of melodrama will in turn find himself fooled. That is the hope of the legitimate melodrama. Besides which, those audiences once sated with such acting now find their tastes gratified by the moving picture which has to accentuate action in order to be seen.

It is hard to analyze any of the plays representing this peculiar type. The newspaper accidents, murders, intrigues, the electrical and mechanical marvels of the age, are all used. There is the conventional drunkard who maltreats the conventional cripple; there is the one character from whom all humor flows, a convention which marks the Yid-dish stage as well. The hero, in the course of his progress along the path of love, disguises himself a thousand and one times; and the grand finale usually comes with the arrival of a man-of-war, or the rushing on of soldiers. You cannot outline the plot; you can only enumerate the situations.

It is said that yellow journalism is dependent not so much upon the manner in which a leading article is written, as on the style in which the type is set and the manner in which the pictures are drawn.

This perhaps might likewise be claimed for melodrama. Once win a bad name, and it is hard to escape it. In Mr. Belasco's "The Girl of the Golden West" the wounded hero is hidden by the girl from the pursuing Sheriff, and from where he lies in the rafters of the room, blood drips upon the floor beneath. Had Mr. Kremer been the author of this piece, one would have smiled at it. But the two-dollar audiences accepted it because it was Mr. Belasco. However, the difference between "The Girl of the Golden West," softened by some attempt at subdued acting, and "The Girl of the Golden West" as it might have been given on the Bowery or Eighth Avenue, would lie wholly in the matter of accentuation.

Undoubtedly the melodrama of to-day differs from the melodrama of yesterday; and that it has fallen into disfavor is due solely to the fact that its essential characteristics have been misused. This does not mean that the characteristics, per se, are not healthy and dramatic. The melodrama of to-morrow will show an increased consistency on the part of the dramatist, and will indicate a corresponding improvement in the tastes of those audiences which are now stigmatized as a class, but which differ essentially from the legitimate audiences only in the fact that one pays twenty-five cents for a seat while the other pays two dollars.


On the subject of melodrama, the reader is referred to the following:

"Old Melodrama." H. D. Baker. Belgra., 50:331-39, 1883. "Possibilities of Melodrama." Spec., 56:1691.

"Melodrama." All the Year, 41:436.

"Melodrama." See Price's "Technique of the Drama." "Melodrama." Harry James Smith. Atlantic, March, 1907.

"Melodrama." Diccionario Enciclopedico Hispano-American de Literatura, Ciencias y Altos.

"The Taint of Melodrama and some Recent Books." F. T. Cooper. Bookman, 22:630-35, Feb., 1906.

"Melodrama." Dutton Cook. "On the Stage," 2:190. "Melodrama." A. B. Walkley. "Playhouse," 170.

"Melodrama." International. Dodd, Mead.

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