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melodrama[Gr.,=song-drama], originally a spoken text with musical background, as in Greek drama. The form was popular in the 18th cent., when its composers included Georg Benda, J. J. Rousseau, and W. A. Mozart, among others. Modern examples of the true music melodrama are found in Richard Strauss's setting of Tennyson's Enoch Arden, and in Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. J. J. Rousseau's melodrama Pygmalion (1762; first performed 1770) helped create a vogue for stage plays in which the action was generally romantic, full of violent action, and often characterized by the final triumph of virtue. The common use of the term melodrama refers to sentimental stage plays of this sort. The leading authors of melodramas in the early 19th cent. were Guilbert de Pixérécourt of France and the German August von Kotzebue. The term was used extensively in England in the 19th cent. as a device to circumvent the law that limited legitimate plays to certain theaters. One of the most-popular of theatrical genres in 19th. cent England and America, its "tear-jerking" style easily made the transition to film, radio and television, where they are represented by the maudlin excesses and unbelievable coincidences of contemporary soap operas. The term is now applied to all scripts with overdrawn characterizations, smashing climaxes, and appeal to sentiment. Famous examples of stage melodramas include East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood and Ten Nights in a Barroom by W. W. Pratt.
See D. Gerould, ed., Melodrama (1980).
(1) A dramaturgical genre; a play characterized by a tense plot, exaggerated emotionalism, a sharp contrast between good and evil, and a moralizing, didactic tendency. Melodrama originated in the late 1790’s in France and reached its peak in the 1830’s and 1840’s. The best melodramas, including works by J.-M. Monvel, E. Souvestre, and F. Pyat, protested against social injustice and religious fanaticism and exposed the poverty and disenfranchisement of the people. Gradually, however, melodrama lost its democratic, humanistic orientation and became a form of superficial entertainment pervaded by cloying sentimentality.
In Russia melodramas were first written in the late 1820’s by N. V. Kukol’nik and N. A. Polevoi. V. G. Belinskii and N. V. Gogol sharply criticized the genre for being divorced from the vital interests of Russian society and for presenting unrealistic characters and situations.
In the Soviet theater and dramaturgy interest was first shown in melodramas in the years immediately after the Great October Socialist Revolution. Gorky and A. V. Lunacharskii defended the melodrama, equating it, essentially, with romantic social drama. Certain elements of melodrama are characteristic of the works of several Soviet playwrights, including A. N. Arbuzov and A. D. Salynskii.
(2) A musical dramatic work in which the monologues and dialogues of the dramatis personae are combined with music, either as an interlude or as accompaniment. One of the early examples of this form was J. J. Rousseau’s lyric, one-act play Pygmalion (1762). A number of melodramas were written by the 18th-century Czech composer J. Benda. The Russian composer E. I. Fomin created the melodrama Orpheus (1792). (See .)
REFERENCESIstoriia zapadnoevropeiskogo teatra, vol. 3. Moscow, 1963.
Glumov, A. N. “Neskol’ko znachenii termina ’melodrama.’“In his book Muzyka v russkom dramaticheskom teatre. Moscow, 1955.