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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Last update: November 3, 2004

19th Century Melodrama

Resource: Wilson/Goldfarb, Chapter 13 (cont.)

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:

The Primary 19th Century Theatrical Form

Characteristics of Melodramas

Types of Melodramas

Melodramatic Writers

Other Popular 19th Century Theatrical Forms

Major Trends in 19th Century Theatre

19th Century Staging


The Primary 19th CenturyTheatrical Form

Melodrama was the primary form of theatre during the 19th century, despite other influences, becoming the most popular by 1840. Melodrama is still with us today.

In the early 1800’s, most were romantic, exotic, or supernatural.

In the 1820’s, they became more familiar in settings and characters.

In the 1830’s, became more elevated: "gentlemanly" melodrama.

Characteristics of Melodrama:

Types of Melodrama:

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Melodramatic Writers

Melodramatic writers who formalized melodrama--in France:

August Friederich von Kotzebue (1761-1819) – German – over 200 plays: domestic melodramas:

Treated common people with dignity.

Often introduced controversial views without offending the audience, helping them to ask questions of life and society.

Often called the "father of sensationalism" – he mixed sentimental philosophy with startling theatrical effects.

René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt (1773-1844) – over 100 plays.

Specialized in canine melodramas, disaster melodramas (floods, volcanoes, etc.).

Sometimes he "directed" his own plays.

Plays had easily identified character types and startling theatrical effects that were more important than the dialog.

In the U.S.:

Dion Boucicault (1822-1890) – the most successful English-language melodramas.

Corsican Brothers (1852), The Octoroon (1859).

Combined sentiment, wit, and local color with sensational and spectacular endings.

He was the first in the U.S. to demand and receive royalties for performances of his plays.

Instrumental in The International Copyright Agreement of 1886.

His plays contained volcanoes, earthquakes, burning buildings, etc.

The most successful and popular melodrama:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) had several dramatizations:

George L. Aiken’s was the most popular--1853. Six acts, done without an afterpiece – established the single-play format. 325 performances in New York.

In the 1870’s, at least 50 companies doing it in the U.S.

In 1899: 500 companies.

In 1927: 12 still doing it.

12 movie versions since 1900.

The most popular melodrama in the world until the First World War.

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Other Popular 19th Century Theatrical Forms:

Specialty acts: jugglers, tumblers, etc.

Pantomimes – elaborate tricks with scenery and costume.

Short musical revues ("vaudevilles" in France) – topical.

Comic operas – sentimental stories, original music.

Revivals of Shakespeare – usually Bowdlerized ("Bowdlerizing" [or click here] a play -- refers to deleting or changing parts of a script, removing socially "unacceptable" or sexually "offensive" parts of the script

From Thomas Bowdler, who published the "Family Shakespeare," with sexual innuendo and reference left out, and turning sad endings into happy ones.


The well-made play: "piece bien-fait."

Eugène Scribe (1791-1861) (pronounced "Schreeb"). – French – over 300 plays.

His plays gave the appearance of having tightly woven plots unifies by causality, when in fact his plays had many lines of action unfolded by coincidence and chance.

But his influence on later writers was great—Ibsen in particular.

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Major Trends in 19th Century Theatre

The typical producing organization was the resident company performing a large number of plays each season, till the end of the 19th century.

"Stock companies" – actors together played a wide variety of roles in many plays, usually with fixed salaries.

Some variations: visiting stars, touring companies, long runs.

Exploitation of stars – the star system, after 1810, was popular. English actors would tour with American companies as stars, perform famous roles with resident companies. By 1850, the craze was universal. Many stars made round-the-world tours.

This was helped by the Romanticist’s idea of individual genius, and better transportation (U.S. railroad system from coast to coast complete by 1870).

Stars received unfairly high salaries – one French actress made as much as France’s Prime Minister (imagine ACTORS getting that much money!).

After 1850, the size of the repertory decreased as the length of the runs increased – took longer to recoup investment in the show (Wallock’s Theatre in New York had 60 plays per season in the mid 1850’s; only 5-10 by the 1880’s).

The repertory system finally fell when the long-term contract was deemed unfeasible, as some actors were idle during some shows; actors began to be employed only for the length of the play.

So, by 1900, the repertory system had all but disappeared in favor of the "single play, long run policy."

The number of plays and amount of theatrical activity increased, however.

With touring, came changes:

New York became the theatrical center –actors went there to get hired, local managers would book events. By the 1880’s, the booking system was chaotic, since managers had to negotiate with several producers – there were many defaults on contracts.

The Theatrical Syndicate was formed in 1896:

In effect, it was a monopoly, dominating American theatrical production from 1896 to 1915, placing commercial over artistic motives.

Other trends

Theatres grew in size – this encouraged spectacle.

After mid-1800’s, regular drama and specialty acts separated, and theatres specialized in one form of entertainment.

The pit was renamed the orchestra and became the best seats.

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19th Century Staging:

Increased interest in historical accuracy. Expanded to interest in unusual or exotic; therefore, authentic folk dances and costumes and picturesque settings became to be on stage.

Charles Kemble’s production of Shakespeare’s King John (London, 1823) was the first to claim complete historical accuracy. By 1850, it was important everywhere.

Realism of spectacle led to the elimination of the wing and drop sets, and the development of the "box set," with three walls and perhaps a ceiling to represent interiors. It was not used consistently until the end of the 19th century.

This "realism" also led to the leveling of the stage floor, stagehands moving scenery manually (though grooves or chariot-and-pole systems were still used), revolving stages, elevators, rolling platforms, groundrows (cutaway flats), closed front curtain, acting upstage of the proscenium line (rather than on the apron), and the 4th wall convention was accepted more fully.

With the use of electric lighting, which illuminated much better, there was an increased need for greater scenic realism.

But the plays themselves were still romantic and melodramatic. The movement of Realism would shake things up a bit.

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Next Section: Realism


Last update: November 3, 2004