The Victorian drama, that is to say, the English drama of the 19th century is not a memorable one in terms of dramatic literature. In fact, the English dramatic literature which began to decline in the 18th century reached its lowest ebb during this period in terms of artistic quality and originality. According to Downer (1950), “playwrights produced limp imitations of bygone successes”.
Brockett and Hildy (1999) observe that new plays written for the great theatres were “neo-Elizabethan in subject matter and approach, for they treated historical themes and sought to recapture Shakespeare’s glory”. The audience’s interest in theatrical extravaganza and craze for stage spectacle encouraged hack playwriting. As Downer posits:
It must be said frankly that the managers were not aware of the loss. Hack writers were good enough for a theatre with other interests, and there was an ample supply of hacks to keep actors and stage carpenters busy. The emphasis was upon theatre and not upon drama, upon the actor and not upon the playwright, upon the production and not the script. No new play was as attractive as a great star in a favourite role, and the happiest weeks of the season were those when two stars performed the same role at the rival theatres.
Since the period was equally marked by the aesthetic movement, the actor and the scenic effects were given undue attention. Coloured lights which were part of the innovations in the theatre caused producers to pay attention to the projection of scenic effects than in highlighting themes. The Victorian audience comprised largely men and women who work in the industries and who see the theatre as a means of recreation, a good night out.
The Victorian taste was catholic, and as such, the theatre accommodated diverse dramatic forms such as comedy, tragedy, burlesque, and melodrama, etc. However, the audience was predominantly inclined to the melodrama. Downer (1950) gives reason for this preference as follows:
It is perhaps difficult to realise how desperately the Victorian common man needed entertainment and escape from his grimsy and hardworking life. He was a total stranger to the “comforts of home”, unable or unwilling to read, and the theatre was almost the only relief available. If he went to one of the great patent houses, he was thrust into a gallery, a block from the stage, where he could not see or hear what was going on. Scorned by the pit and boxes and ignored by the actors, he was told stories he could not understand. So he turned to the minors, the illegitimate houses like Surrey, the Lyceum, Sadler’s Wells, or the Royal Victoria, where he could afford the best seats in the theater, and where the stories thrilled him to the core and the sentiments of the characters could be understood and approved by every true-born Englishman, where the actors tore their lungs and three – sheeted their passions for his exclusive benefit.
What is Melodrama?
Melodrama is a drama of boisterous actions and extravaganza. It rings with excitement and sentiments but it is not interested in creating intellectual puzzle because it makes its point broadly and unambiguously. In it, suffering does not emanate from fate but from the activities of a thoroughly evil villain who works assiduously to undermine a virtuous hero or heroine. Melodrama presents the world as it ought to be and not the world as it really is. It is a drama of reformation in which erring human beings are given an opportunity to turn a new leaf.
Melodrama is a drama on a fast lane. Events develop quickly, and characters usually face monumental and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but “problems, despite their overwhelming odds, are overcome” (Schnupp 1993). According to Schnupp, over simplification of matters removes any “sense of ambiguity” since “issues are presented in a clear, simple fashion” (244).
In discussing the universe of melodrama, A.S. Downer (1950: 276) posits that:
The world of melodrama is a gaudy world, rendered in a showcard colors, a world of rose-covered cottages and wealthy homes filled with gilt –and- ivory tables and chairs, with of course, some mechanical wonders to keep pace with nineteenth – century innovativeness… the people of this world are rarely kings and princes, but more commonly the types who moved within the real world of the audiences; policemen, sailors, farmers and farmers’ daughters, foundlings, revengers, rent collectors, bailiffs, and bankers. The society of the world of melodrama is divided into two classes, the rich and the poor; two conditions, the happy and the unhappy; and two evaluations, the good and the bad. That is to say; the world is made up of the bad, the unhappy rich, and the good happy poor.
The term melodrama was first used in Germany and France in the late 18th century. According to Roberts (1971: 214):
About the year 1780, the word melodrama was applied to two really opposite kinds of theatrical performance. In Germany, it was used to designate a passage in an opera which accompanied spoken words with music. In France melodrama meant a musical passage intended to convey a character’s emotional state while he was silent. The practice had been first used by Rouseau in his monologue Pygmalion (1775). It was not until 1800 that it appeared in the playbills of Guilbert de Pixerecourt in Paris to designate the new theatrical form of a highly moral plot accompanied by music, ballet, combats, processions and intricate scenic effects which universally came to be called melodrama.
It is important to note that the elements of melodrama were not, however, the products of one age. Its ingredients emanated from dramatic fares of many epochs. Roberts (1971) argues that by the time melodrama “became thus officially designated, no new ingredients remained to be discovered, and those which were used in varying combinations could trace a long line of decent”. He further states that:
The conflict of virtues and in vices in symbolic form goes back at least to the medieval moralities, and the ranting, tyrannical, Herod of the cycle plays is a prototype of one of melodrama’s villains. The distressed heroines, the revengeful ghosts, domestic agonies, inflated language and physical sensations of much Elizabethan playwriting (The Spanish Tragedy, Titus Andronicus, The Jew of Malta, The Yorkshire Tragedy and Arden of Feversham) were just the kinds of things that melodrama would later used to good effect.
In addition to the foregoing, the sentimental comedy and bourgeois tragedy of the 18th century provided melodrama with “ringing moral sentiments” as well as “pathos and distress designed to wring tears from the audiences”.