Many thanks to Professor Jim Davis and Dr Janice Norwood for providing a fascinating overview of theatrical melodrama, its rich diversity and defining characteristics. We discover that melodrama was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 19th century. Although it was often dismissed as a cultural product, there is a growing awareness of its importance in theatrical history and how it influenced both film and TV. Jim persuasively argues that our modern perception of the world, based on a diet of sensational news stories and happy endings, is perhaps a modern spin on the conventions of melodrama. The role of Victorian women actresses in melodrama is a fascinating topic that Janice addresses in her interview.
Professor Jim Davis
Theatre Studies, University of Warwick
I was born and grew up in Bristol. From a very early age I went to the theatre including the Bristol Old Vic. My interest in 19th century theatre really developed when I was an English student at Oxford and I thought it might be an interesting area to pursue especially as there was very little work on it at the time. Nobody did popular theatre or looked at the Victorian period. But now there are a lot of people working in depth and it is a growing area. I was a very bad actor when I was a student and that helped me realise that I certainly wasn’t able to become an actor which I probably wanted to be when I was younger. I really got hooked on theatre more than academia in a sense but somehow I’ve ended up turning my hobby into my day job.
The first use of the word melodrama or mélodrame in French was to signify a dramatic piece of music. So from the start, the melo in melodrama actually implies drama with music.The first time the word melodrama was used in English is to describe a play in 1802 and its Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery which was based on a French melodrama.
Melodrama was very much influenced by the French revolution. This was regarded as a peoples revolution and the melodrama which was performed after this in France was seen as a peoples drama. The old order, classical theatre and the church became far less important. It was said by some commentators, including those who wrote melodrama, that melodrama was the new morality. A sort of bible for secular times. That was one way in which ideas of melodrama were being thought about in France and I think that explains the moral notion that melodrama teaches a lesson in some sort of way.
So melodrama becomes a descriptive term for plays that seem to contain certain conventions and features that recur from play to play. So there is quite a broad spectrum: dramas with nautical themes, dramas about industry or fallen women. The generic term melodrama tends to have been applied to a huge range of 19th century plays. Melodrama became the most popular form of play throughout the 19th century and probably is the most performed genre of drama not only in Britain, but also in Europe, in Australasia and in North America. So we are actually talking about a genre that has had an extraordinarily wide impact historically.
The other big background influence is the industrial revolution. It’s very interesting that as people moved to cities, there has to be more entertainment and certainly when people are working long hours, they prefer perhaps to go and see a melodrama rather than something a little heavier. So melodrama becomes popular because there is an urban audience developing for that form of drama. In the agrarian past, people lived in the countryside, perhaps more idyllically or regarded in a more idealised way. So you often find in melodrama, that it’s the villagers who are heroes and they are usually put upon by the wealthy squires or viscous landlords. Good versus evil becomes the country versus town. The town in so many melodramas seems to be the root of all evil.
Constantine working on melodramatic story boards based on improvisations made by the People's Theatre Ensemble. Murder in the Bathroom is a country house who dun the murder in the bath. The butler apparently and the incriminating evidence is the loo paper still attached to the heel of his shoe! Lullaby for Baby Timmy is about a wedding ceremony thrown into disarray when a baby turns up. The art work for the latter story includes smoking chimneys and a grimy urban location.
I have to say that in teaching melodrama, what I’ve realised is that as soon as you define a genre, you find hundreds of examples that don’t fit. So what I have to say has to be very carefully circumscribed. But in principle, you expect a melodrama to feature a hero, a heroine and a villain. The problems the hero and heroine confront have been caused or perpetrated by the villain, who is the key motivator of action. Melodramatic characters often suffer and go through a number of problems that they have to solve or escape from and ideally in melodrama it ends happily and all is put right again. In melodrama you don’t find the moral ambiguities of tragedy. It’s a manichean world in which good and evil are confronting each other. In a sense, melodrama provides a rather simplistic world view.
Later in the century when you get plays like The Bells which was a famous melodrama, in which Henry Irving played Mathias, the protagonist is actually both the villain and hero. The interest is much more on his psychological situation than any straight forward rendition of good versus evil, So if you start looking for exceptions, you can easily find them and some melodramas are quite complex in the way they develop their key or principle characters. It’s not all simple black and white, good versus evil, But certainly in an awful lot of melodramas, the basic plot line is of good versus evil, heroes versus villains. Heroines are sometimes passive and the victim of the villain, but at other times heroines can be quite feisty. I think working class audiences preferred their heroines to be feisty rather than passive.
Sensation scenes were important to melodrama. You would have elaborate effects on stage. For instance Ben Hur’s chariot race which is run on a treadmill. In The Streets of London, there’s a fire and the fire engine comes on stage to put it out. You get train crashes. Before silent cinema, you get the first ever play with someone tied to a railway line and the train coming on towards them. It was all exciting stuff.
Photographic print of Act 3, Scene 6 from The Whip, Drury Lane Theatre, 1909
Gabrielle Enthoven Collection, Museum number: S.211-2016
© Victoria and Albert Museum
Music is also integral to melodrama and does very much the same sort of thing that film music does or even Wagner. Music creates atmosphere and mood. It’s a motif for individual characters. There’s what is called “hurry music” which is when anything exciting is happening and you need some lively music to get people worked up. And of course there’s music to express more sentimental moments as well.
Melodrama was on the whole a drama of everyday life for the people watching it. We talk about realism and we might well say, I’ve seen a soap opera on TV recently that was very realistic. My view is that melodrama was the realism of its own day. It’s not some exaggerated ridiculous form that we now look at rather contemptuously or patronizingly. It’s actually reflecting to the people that went to see it, the world they lived in. Just as soap opera has its cliches and heightened moments, its still got a sense of reality about it and the same is true of melodrama as well. It’s reflecting back, sometimes in a heightened way, the realism of everyday life and it is generating strong emotional reactions from its audiences because of its highly charged scenes.
Melodrama in theatre terms is a really important part of our theatrical past, There is a tendency to say don’t be so melodramatic, that its all exaggeration and excess. But 19th century theaters were large. You don't want to go to the theatre and see a play where the actor isn't making themselves clear through gesture and vocal delivery. It you were in an audience of three to four thousand it’s not like sitting in a black box theatre. So the notion that it’s over the top and exaggerated, only makes sense if you totally ignore the fact that these are huge theater's that need a strong declamatory, visually clear type of performance, So the burlesque notion of melodrama is one that I would question.
There are two distinct ways of seeing melodrama. One is to see melodrama as very much saying the world is not that bad because it all ends happily in the end. And however miserable you are, however poverty stricken you are, things do come all right. So it can be seen as a very coercive form or even an escapist form. But there is another way of looking at melodrama. Certainly some of the plays performed at theaters like Surrey and Coburg in South London, at the Britannia in the East End, and other theaters not in the West End, melodrama often has social commentary built into it. They often illustrate the ways in which people are exploited or unfairly treated and can be quite vociferous about the injustice of industrial conditions or even to the appalling situation that women are in. So within melodrama one can also argue there is quite a subversive strand.
I sometimes think that a working class audience struggling to make a living doesn't necessarily see a happy ending as anything other than ironic, The notion that people are so simple minded that they don’t see the irony and that real life is not like melodrama, is a suspect notion. So on the one hand we have this simplistic notion of good versus evil, but actually built into melodrama can be quite a lot of social critique and a form of theatre that is not just escapist. Not just simple minded, but might actually make one think about or even question the conditions one lives in.
Film and TV have been influenced by melodramatic conventions in the way they entertain us. You could argue that news bulletins on TV are constructed as melodrama. You have something sensational or visually spectacular to hold your attention, like the twin towers for instance. And you often find a news bulletin ends with a happy ever after story, So however awful the news, somebody's cat is saved from the tree. We all live happily ever after. Melodrama is also a way of seeing the world that has becomes so ingrained in the way we react or the way the media sometimes brings us news stories. We are not even aware any more how central the melodramatic conventions and narratives and storylines are to the way we think and perceive the world.
Dr Janice Norwood
School of Humanities, University of Hertfordshire
I was also born and lived in Bristol until I was eight. I went to Warwick University where I had a great time studying English and Theatre Studies. After I left, I went into book publishing. I had three children and worked freelance. Later on I did an M.A. in Victorian studies which lead to my dissertation on the social protest melodrama. I ended up doing my PHD on the Britannia theatre in Hoxton. I already had a link with the East End of London because my family were dockers there.
So the 19th century is my specialist area with a focus on the Britannia and East End theatre in general. More recently, I’ve been working on a project about a number of 19th century actresses, not the big names, like Ellen Terry. I’m talking about the women who just made a living out it and what their experiences were like. How they could combine having a family and working? What happens when you get old? All those sorts of things.
The Britannia theatre is quite unusual because it was run by one family and particularly Sara Lane who virtually for the whole of its time was the actress-manageress. After she died in 1899, it passed to her nephew and then in the early 20th century it was struggling to make money for a variety of reasons. It became a cinema for a short while and then it was bombed out in the war. Now there’s some council flats on the site. Also there’s a block round the corner called Sara Lane flats. So Constantine and John, why don’t you campaign for one of your new blocks of flats on the site of the Coronet to be called Marie Henderson? It’s important that people should know something about their heritage.
Interior View of the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton
Museum number: E.4884-1923
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Melodrama is the standard and most popular form of theatre in the 19th century. This type of theatre had a very bad press in the past. I suppose it’s always been the case of theatre is not what it used to be and it was felt that the national drama was at an all time low. Nevertheless theatre was very popular and places like the Britannia had huge audiences going regularly. What they were going to see was melodrama. Even Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the two big patent theatre’s of the time, were putting on melodramas.
Melodrama developed into sensation melodrama in the 1860s and is linked with fiction like Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White'. This also attracted very bad press. As opposed to serious drama which is intellectual, sensation drama appeals to the emotions and that has always been sniffed at by the high and mighty. Melodrama typically had at least one scene of sensation in it. So for example in The Colleen Bawn there is a scene where a woman is being thrown into the lake and the hero has to dive in to rescue her. On stage this is very spectacular. Then in other melodramas you get all the sensation scenes like when the train is coming across the stage and someone is tied to the tracks. This happens in theatre long before it happens in silent film.
Another feature of melodrama is the tableau with that frozen moment when the actors stop. Sometimes they are recreating a well known painting, but often it’s a moment where you see an emotional response being encapsulated or perhaps the hierarchical relationships of characters. The audience has a chance to take in that static moment. And of course the music is supporting that as well. It’s not the same as Brecht where he is asking you to reflect on the tableaux. In melodrama it is all aimed at an emotional response.
Self reflection on an artist as performer:
Face, voice and hand gestures in the drawing out of an image
2014, oil pastels.
In melodrama you also find numerous adaptions of novels. If you think of somewhere like the Britannia, the audience is probably not going to have read these lengthy novels and the melodrama is the first time they will encounter those stories. And there are big changes between the novels and what you see on the stage. I’ve written about the Woman in White, the Wilkie Collins novel, in which Collins did his own adaption for the stage. But there would be a different version at the Britannia and another one somewhere else. You get writers like Colin Henry Hazelwood at the Britannia who will write with his local audience in mind and for a particular stock company where he knows who the actors are and will need to write a very good part for Sara Lane. The play that he wrote or adapted might then get sold to Liverpool or Manchester or somewhere in the provinces, depending on how he sold the rights. He is what we would call, in a not very helpful way, a hack writer. People like Hazelwood would only get money if they sell their work. And Hazelwood would be living in the Hoxton area in awful penury. He’s no different from people who are attending the theatre. Also the actors of the Britannia would be living in that local area. So they are going to be aware of the kind of issues that might face ordinary people. Not that I think people necessarily want to see their own experiences on the stage all the time. But you can see in the playbills that quite often scenes are set in a Shoreditch church yard and there are views of Hoxton High Street. So the plays are showing the world that their audience knew. And of course with melodrama, nine times out of ten, the baddie is an aristocrat. Or perhaps if your talking about women’s piece work being featured in the play, artificial flower sellers for example, it would be the middle man whose exploiting them. So it’s always the person higher up the chain who is the baddie.
There is an old idea that by going to see a melodrama in which good always triumphs over evil, that the audience end up feeling better about themselves in some way. That idea is a bit passé now, The bottom line is if it wasn’t going to entertain them, they are not going to pay their money. Especially if you are a working person and you don’t have an awful lot of disposable income. At the Britannia where the majority of the audience comes from the local area, you have got to get them coming back, week after week, or the theatre didn’t make any money. So you can’t preach to the audience.
Remember that during this period all the plays that are put on, go to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for licensing. One of the things that he crosses out is blasphemy or any reference or representation of the royal family. This censorship of theatre goes on until 1968. There was also a particular fear that places like the Britannia because they’ve got a large working class audience, perhaps they were more susceptible to seditious argument. There is evidence that the Lord Chamberlain’s office were looking more closely at the plays at these theatres. You’d also get busy bodies from the general public writing into the Chamberlain's office saying: do you realise they are putting on a play about so and so? There was a limit to what could be expressed in melodrama.
Sheet music for The Belle of Belgrave Square
Or Lady Audley's Kitchen Maid's Secret
Museum number: S.338-2012
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Lady Audley’s Secret was a hugely popular novel written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon in 1862. It also became a big sensation play at the time. Hazelwood did one of the adaptations at the Britannia. It has a very good female part and Marie Henderson when she was at the Britannia or Elephant and Castle would have played this as well as the leading part in Aurora Floyd, which is another of Braddon’s novels. The play must have been of interest to the audience because Lady Audley herself is a woman pretending to be something that she is not. She had a husband and thinking that he’s dead, she marries again. Bigamy! The novel created a stir because of the idea that underneath this nice conventional society there’s a beautiful woman who actually has a dark secret and she’s leading men astray and attempting to kill, not one, but two men. It keys into anxieties about women in the period. The stage adaptions are very truncated and quite formulaic. But that doesn't seem to have stopped them being hugely popular at the time.
From the 18th century there had been an association between actresses and prostitutes and you get lots of accounts of backstage Johnnies or aristocrats hanging around the actresses. If you were a young actress, you would have to negotiate with people who are trying to use you for various ends. It must have been difficult touring as a young woman, especially if you were on your own. This is where if you came from a family of performers you were probably in a safer environment. I imagine actresses were very conscious of their image and whether they might be though of as being associated with prostitutes. There are a lot of writings about the actress Sarah Siddons, of her as a mother and how she became associated with virtuous womanhood. Ellen Terry, on the other hand, is very interesting because she had children born out of wedlock. But that doesn’t seem to have tarred her. But in the 19th century there is a sense of a better reputation for the acting trade. Henry Irving finally gets the first knighthood for an actor.
I think quite a number of performers must have been traumatised by accidents and fires which were common in the theatre. There are accounts of ballet girls who either died or were severely burnt because their costumes caught fire from the gas lamps. What happens to them after this? What if you witness this? It’s got to have a profound effect on you. The thing that has struck me from my research and I noticed when I was reading your blog about Marie Henderson, is that something terrible happens in their own family, say a sister dies, or a husband dies. What happens? The actors and actresses are not being paid unless they go back on stage. Or what if they’ve been ill and they are forced to work very quickly. And when they are touring, you think they might want to be home with their family. But no, they’ve got to go on tour to Bolton this week or Edinburgh next week. I think all these would have some kind of effect on performers. Fire, in particular, is such a terrifying thing. It is very common for theaters to be burning down in the 19th century. People are frightened because they know audiences have died in fires and on occasions been trampled when someone raised a false alarm.
I’ve just been looking at Emily Eliza Sanders who became Lady Don. She married a baronet who had run through all his money and went on the stage. They went out to Australia where he died. She came back and at one point took over the Theatre Royal in Nottingham. She then became ill and couldn’t perform and that was one of the reasons why she went bankrupt. Eliza had to sell all her costumes and there was a court case which raised the issue of how was she going to make a living without the costumes. Those sort of things are important. If you read accounts from autobiographies of actresses when they’ve not got much money, one of the difficulties is because they are responsible for their own costumes. Even in a lowly part, you have to have a couple of changes of costumes, so you can play whatever you are put into. If you rip your costume on stage, you have got to sort that out really quickly. Or become adept at putting different trimmings on to try and make it look different from when you wore it last week.
Actresses like Julia Seaman and Alice Marriott play the heavy woman in Victorian theatre. The heavy woman is a type of acting role and includes tragic parts. These particular ones also play Hamlet. It requires quite a ponderous deep voice and if you think of the size of the Britannia, long before you were miked up, you have got to project to connect to the audience in the gallery. This is another reason why the big gestures in melodrama are important. If someone’s just doing a small gesture, it’s not as easy to read.
Sarah Lane, Julia Seaman and Marie Henderson
Marie Henderson is one of a number of actresses who came to the Britannia for a few years to take a particular type of role and who consolidated her talent there. She had the leading lady role. For this you’ve got to be attractive to look at. Being young is very helpful as ever. Then when you got to this position, you would be able to specialise in certain roles. An awful lot of actresses aspired to this and some made it and some didn’t. I guess it’s partly talent, partly luck such as playing the leading lady role in a hit play.
There’s also a theatrical network you have to negotiate. I’ve been reading a lot of letters from a theatre manager in Newcastle. He would write to someone in Brighton and ask about Miss Smith: I see she has been on your stage and what is she like? The reply back might be: don’t touch her with a barge pole, or, yes I recommend her. These networks here had women at a disadvantage. Especially at the higher level in the West End because the critics and managers are in the gentleman's club and women aren’t allowed in there. So women have to get on in other ways. That’s why I think having a husband in this period might be quite useful. If you arrived with your husband at a meeting, that potential association of you being free and easy is not registered. It’s interesting that a lot of actresses performed as Miss Henderson did, using their maiden name, even if they’ve been married for 40 years. Maybe because they made their name that way and they didn’t want to change it with each new husband.
A women as a manager of a theatre is quite standard. We can regard them as the figure head and the man as the named lessee on the papers. That was the case at the Britannia with Sara Lane. Samuel Lane was the original lessee and Sara came in to the theatre as an actress. When his first wife died, he married Sara. But she was the key figure long before he died in 1871. She was directing everything. So there are quite a lot of female managers, but many managements were short lived. That is why the Britannia is really unusual given Sara Lane’s length of time. Marie Henderson and her husband John Aubrey at the Elephant and Castle Theatre were there for 5 years. Lady Don’s experience was just one season and this is much more common.
Theatre is one of the very rare places in Victorian society where women could earn as much as men and they could have more agency. Also just in terms of being able to move around the country and perform in different places. I’m sure that was one of the attractions for many women.
Reflecting the views of artists, actors, residents
and participants in
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle.
An art project about the Coronet from 1872-2017.
Past present future
Music and animation
Euan Vincent on Horror
Tiberius Chis on Chaplin
Final Curtain Call
Directing and acting
Jacko at the Coronet?
Ale and steak pies
This Is Where I Came In
Pollock's Toy Museum
Adventure with the Mayor
Reach for the stars
Ghost of Marie Henderson
Shop till the zombie drops
Faith, Hope and Charity
Singing and sketching
History and legacy
Dark Side of Metropolis
Interview with Sam Porter
Blood and Thunder
Culture and Capital