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A Thousand Years of British Theatre History (Part 5a)

The Nineteenth Century

Dateline: 23rd January, 2000

At the beginning of the nineteeth century the division between legitimate and illegitimate theatres still continued, a division which in some ways stultified the growth of the drama but in other ways had a beneficial effect in the development of new theatrical forms. And the main new form that the new century was to contribute was the Melodrama.

We tend today to think of melodrama as being a Victorian form, and we relate it to stories such as that of Maria Marten and the murder in the red barn, with impossibly pure heroines and implausibly villainous villains, but these modern survivals are the product of a development which began in Germany towards the end of the previous century with the work of Kotzebue. In 1798 two of his plays had been translated into English and we can see the effect that these (very watered down) versions had in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. There the younger generation rehearse Lovers' Vows, Mrs Inchbald's translation of Kotzebue's Das Kind der Liebe, to the horror of their elders.

As well as Lovers' Vows, other plays appeared at the turn of the century which set the scene for the development of melodrama. There was Thompson's adaptation of Menschenhass und Reue (The Stranger - 1798); Matthew Lewis' The Castle Spectre (1797), which was in the style of the Gothic novels of Lewis himself and Mrs Radcliffe; Thomas Morton's Speed the Plough (1800), which he called a comedy but which had many of the features we now associate with melodrama; and the very first play to call itself a melodrama, Thomas Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery (1802).

What is Melodrama?

There are, to a casual glance, similarities between tragedy and melodrama: in both the hero or heroine is placed in a situation of grave danger which threatens to destroy them, but the differences are extremely significant:

  • in tragedy the hero is of heroic stature (Oedipus is the saviour of Thebes, Macbeth of Scotland), whereas the hero or, more usually, heroine of melodrama is really just an ordinary person, albeit one who is pure and innocent;
  • in tragedy the events which take place are the result of the hero's actions (Macbeth chooses to kill Duncan; in spite of warnings Oedipus chooses to pursue the cause of the plague). Behind the choices made by the tragic hero lies a spirit of justice: he brings about his own downfall, whereas things happen to the hero(ine) of melodrama;
  • the tragic hero perishes as a result of his actions (and of justice, which is seen as a real force in the universe), whereas the hero of melodrama either survives or, if (s)he dies, it is a death which shocks and horrifies because of its manifest injustice;
  • in tragedy the death of the hero seems totally right for it shows us something of the workings of the universe - as is said of Lear, the ripeness is all - whereas the death of the hero of a melodrama seems arbitrary, for intervention a moment earlier might save him.

The characteristics of a melodramatic plot are impossible purity and impossible villainy, narrow escapes, a thinly-disguised eroticism, playing on the nerves rather than the feelings. The catharsis which Aristotle emphasises so much in the Poetics is impossible in a melodrama.

The taste for melodrama grew from a major change in society. The Industrial Revolution had produced a much bigger middle class and the repressive measures against the working class which were Britain's response to the French Revolution inculcated in them a political conservatism which led to a moral and social conservatism, which in turn led to a life which was somewhat humdrum. They craved excitement, but an excitement which reinforced their moral beliefs. Melodrama answered this need, and we see it not just in the plays of the time, but also in the art form which was the period's great strength, the novel. The novels of Dickens, for instance, are novelistic melodramas. In fact, they are very theatrical, which is why the lend themselves so readily to dramatic adaptation.

Developing alongside the melodrama, we see various spectacular forms of entertainment, such as the equestrian events at Astley's Amphitheatre (a kind of horse circus to which he added elements of drama, such a clowns), dioramas, waxworks, freak shows, magic lantern shows, all of which were tinged with the exotic and thus fed the need for some kind of excitement to help escape the humdrumness of everyday life mentioned in the last paragraph.


The mention of the Amphitheatre (which went through a number of incarnations between 1788 and 1804) reminds us that this was a period in which quite a number of new theates were built. Sadler's Wells had opened as far back as 1765, and then in 1806 we had the Olympic, the Adelphi and the Surrey (this latter was rebuilt then). 1809 saw the opening of the Lyceum, and nine years later the Coburg opened, now known by what was originally its nickname, the Old Vic. The Strand opened later still in 1832.

Go to the next page: tragedy, comedy, actors and actor-managers, Oscar Wilde.


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©Peter Lathan 2001