A theatre guide to nineteenth century melodrama

A theatre guide to nineteenth century melodrama

The world of Shakespeare and the Metaphysical poets 1540-1660

The world of the Romantics 1770 - 1837

The world of Victorian writers 1837 - 1901

Brontës, selected poems: context links

The General Prologue: context links

Gerard Manley Hopkins, selected poems

The Mayor of Casterbridge: context links

The Nuns Priests Tale: context links

The Return of the Native: context links

Romantic poets, selected poems: context links

Thomas Hardy, selected poems: context links

The Wife of Baths Prologue and Tale

QueenVictorias reign, from 1837 until her death in 1901, was a period of peace, prosperity and growth for Britain. The end of the era saw Britain established as a major industrial power with a global Empire, ruling over a quarter of the worlds population.

The Victorian Age was characterised by rapid change and developments in nearly every sphere - from advances in medical, scientific and technological knowledge to changes in population growth and location. It was a complex and often contradictory time that saw great expansion of wealth, power, and culture.

During Victorias reign the theatre continued to attract large audiences, but there was a significant increase in mass popular entertainment, in keeping with the changing mood of the times. Although Victorian social classes were very clearly defined, reflecting the sharp divisions that existed between rich and poor, a good deal of popular Victorian entertainment appealed to everyone regardless of their social position.

Some forms of nineteenth century popular entertainment

Magicians, illusionists, hypnotists andspiritualists

were popular attractions in theatres and exhibition halls

featured human beings with disabilities or physical abnormalities

, especially Madame Tussauds

, featured lifelike replicas of current murderers after their executions. From 1888 Jack the Ripper was a very popular exhibit

were the back rooms of public houses where singers entertained the audience and admission cost one penny. They were rarely frequented by the upper classes but were hugely popular with the working poor

were more comfortable small scale theatres with a bar and a variety of entertainments such as acrobats, trapeze artists,black-face minstrels orcan-candancers

toured throughout the country with collections of performing animals along with acrobats, clowns and other novelty acts. The first famous circus proprietor, George Sanger, produced shows in Astleys Amphitheatre in London

in Regents Park was opened in 1828 and was famous for its rattlesnakes and giraffes. In 1849 there were nearly 170,000 visitors

, especially works by Gilbert and Sullivan, produced by Richard DOyley Carte, was very popular at the Savoy Theatre

were found in cites and at fairs. They included:Punch and Judyroutines; puppet shows; street acrobats; conjurors; fire-eaters and sword-swallowers; stilt walkers; contortionists; ballad singers and musicians

had been popular in the eighteenth century and the most famous of these, at Vauxhall, remained open until 1859. Cremorne Gardens opened in Chelsea in the 1840s and proved very popular because of its use of gas lighting and spectacular firework displays.

Melodramais a genre of drama that exaggerates plot and characters with the intention of appealing to the emotions. The form developed in France and Germany and consisted of short scenes interspersed with musical accompaniment. The intense emotions of the actors were underpinned by the music and performed in an extravagant theatrical style.

Melodrama became popular in England in the early part of the nineteenth century, developing its unique style from thesentimental dramas of the eighteenth century. The first English melodrama wasA Tale of Mystery(1802) written by Thomas Holcroft and based on a French workCoelina, ou lEnfant de Mystre(1800) by French playwright Guilbert de Pixrcourt.

Characterswere alwaysstereotypicaland usually included an aristocratic villain, a wronged maiden and a noble hero. They enacted a plot that featured sensational incidents, before an ending in which virtue triumphed over vice.

Acting styles for melodrama were taken from classical and contemporary dified gestures were used to convey certain emotions and the acting style was very presentational, with the actors facing out to the audience. Facial expressions and voice were exaggerated and a well-received speech might be replayed several times before the action of the play moved on.

Another convention of the genre was to have the actors freeze on stage to create adramatic tableauat certain moments of heightened emotion. The actors would group in a series of striking poses which were held for a time to intensify the emotional impact on the audience and emphasise relationships between the characters on stage.

All melodramas were simplistic and written to a strict formula:

Usually but not always, good triumphed over evil in the end

No matter how desperate the situation, there was usually a happy ending

Horror and mystery were central elements in every story

Heroes and s were always placed in situations of extreme danger

Heroines were always pure and virtuous

Villains were always evil, wicked, vicious and immoral

Success was always snatched at the last moment from the jaws of defeat

The audience was expected to experience extreme emotion.

Although melodrama is now used as a common term for the genre, Victorian playwrights and theatre managers used a simpler form of description. Plays were described and advertised as dramas, nautical dramas, dramatic romances, domestic dramas, temperance dramas or simply just plays.

Whatever the description, these works tended to fall into several different categories, each with its own particular style, content and theme:

and supernatural stories featured ghosts, vampires and grotesque themes

featured not only patriotic heroism and bravery, but also the horror of conflict and war

were popular with audiences of the time and often dealt with serious moral issues such as adultery, illegitimacy, the evils of gambling / drink and the battle between the sexes

were often based on notorious criminals and their crimes.

There were also many works which did not fall into any recognisable category or combined one or more of the above styles.

Whatever the category or description, Victorian melodrama was consistent in its reflection of everyday life. The genre worked because it was rooted in reality and what audiences saw on the stage reflected situations, social issues, emotions and experiences that were totally recognisable. In that sense, they were forerunners of modern televisionsoap operas.

Fitzball was a prolific and popular Victorian melodramatist who enjoyed a successful London career lasting for twenty five years.

Fitzballs plays earned a reputation for being elaborately staged. He is reputed to have inventedback projection, using a light set on a backstage track to project a shadow onto cotton gauze downstage, so that the shadow of the object increased as the light moved further back from the object. The stage set for his most famous play,The Murder at the Roadside Inn(1827), was a cross-section of a building, exposing four rooms with simultaneous and overlapping action sequences in each.

Fitzball specialised in military and nautical melodrama but also wrote domestic, supernatural and sensational works, as well as operalibretti,burlettas,tragedies,comedies,farces and popular songs.

Fitzball wrote for at least twenty five theatres and produced about 170 melodramas:

From 1828 he wrote for Covent Garden

From 1830 - 1838 for outdoor performances in Vauxhall Gardens

From 1835 to 1838 he was resident dramatist and reader at Covent Garden

He then became reader at Drury Lane in 1838.

Fitzball also adapted novels by Sir Walter Scott and James Fennimore Cooper for the stage and throughout his life wrote verse and popular songs, his most famous beingMy Pretty Jane; or The Bloom is on the Rye

Fitzballs first West End play was

The Innkeeper of Abbeville, or The Ostler and the Robber

(1820), a domestic crime melodrama. The play was a resounding success, featuring murder, robbery, torture, mistaken identity, villainy and remorse

The Floating Beacon; or Norwegian Wreckers

(1824) was a nautical melodrama that reunited a mother, Mariette, the Woman of the Beacon, with her young sailor son Frederic, a supposed orphan. The moment of revelation at the end of the play, is typical of the genre:

: My child, my child! I am thy wretched mother!

Frederic: Thou thou heavens blessings on thee, dearest, dearest mother!

Mariette: Providence, this one moment of delight, amply repays me sixteen years of suffering!

: They approach! We will die in each others arms!

Flying Dutchman; or the Phantom Ship: a Nautical Drama, in three acts

(1826) was a very popular supernatural melodrama about a haunted ship whose sailors are doomed to sail the seas forever as a penance for crimes they have committed

Jonathan Bradford, or Murder at the Roadside Inn

(1833) was one of Fitzballs biggest successes and combined elements of domestic and sensational melodrama. In the following extract, Bradford, the innkeeper of the title, has been condemned to death for a murder he did not commit. Now he is being visited in prison for the final time by his loyal wife Ann and their two children:

: How shall I tell it them how will they understand? Home! Where is their home? No mothers voice. No fathers admonition! Outcasts abject branded with the name of infamy. Shunned degraded! Oh, my children, my children! What will become of them? (

The overblown style of Victorian melodrama is evident in the dialogue and the stage direction.

Jerrold began to write plays in 1827 and, as resident playwright at the Coburg Theatre, quickly established himself as a notable melodramatist with two plays in particular:Fifteen Years of a Drunkards Life(1828) andBlack-eyed Susan(1829).

After a very short career in the Navy, Jerrold trained as a printer and later became a journalist and theatre critic. In June 1841 Douglas Jerrold joined with fellow journalists Mark Lemon, Henry Mayhew, and John Leech to form Punch Magazine, for which he wrote political and humorous articles. The magazine remained in print until its final edition was published in 2002. Jerrold also contributed to other journals and worked as a sub-editor on theDaily Newsfor his friend Charles Dickens, the novelist.

Fifteen Years of a Drunkards Life(1828) is considered to be the prototype of temperance dramas. Many people in Victorian society were concerned about alcohol abuse and temperance societies tried to encourage abstinence among those who drank to excess. Jerrolds play was the first stage production to identify the characteristics of the stage drunkard and was a harsh condemnation of the evils of drink in both the lower and middle classes. The plays two main characters - Vernon, a middle class man of means and Copsewood, a struggling farmer - are drunkards and both meet an unhappy fate. In a drunken stupor, Vernon gambles away his money before murdering his wife and dying himself. Copsewood commits many crimes under the influence of alcohol, loses the family farm and condemns his family to ruin. At the end of the play he is publicly disgraced and led off to prison.

Black-Eyed Susan; or, All in the Downs(1829) is a nautical melodrama which used a serious plot with comic sub-plots to examine the forces of good and evil; innocence and corruption; poverty and wealth. The story involved a sailor, returning to England from the Napoleonic Wars to find his wife tormented by her crooked uncle and the drunken captain of the heros ship. Attempting to save his wife results in a court-martial for attacking a senior officer. The play praised the patriotic British sailor and criticised the harsh rules of the Navy. Gilbert and Sullivan used elements of the story in their comic operaH.M.S. Pinafore(1878).

One of the most significant domestic melodramas of the early part of the nineteenth century did not have a specific author, but was a devised piece based on a real crime. This had been committed in 1827 by William Corder, who murdered his lover, a young woman called Maria Marten and buried her body in the Red Barn in Polestead, Suffolk.

Corder fled the scene and although he sent Marias family letters claiming she was in good health, her body was later discovered buried in the barn after her stepmother claimed she had dreamt about the murder. Corder was tracked down in London, where he had married and started a new life. He was brought back to Suffolk, and, after a well-publicised trial, found guilty of murder. He was hanged in Bury St. Edmunds in 1828 where a huge crowd witnessed the execution.

The story provoked numerous articles in the newspapers as well as songs and plays. The case was a national sensation andfit-up companies, often called portable theatres, performed versions of the story in thepenny gaffs, halls and fairgrounds up and down the country. There was no standard text of the play but actors knew a wide repertoire of speeches from a wide range of plays and could adapt, improvise and invent within their given characters. As actors moved from company to company they took the better bits with them and gradually certain additions became part of the traditional structure. By 1840 the play was being performed in provincial and outer-London theatres and it remained one of the most popular melodramas of Victorian times.

Many popular novels were adapted for the stage during the Victorian era and a number of them were very successfully transformed into melodramatic plays. Some of the most noteworthy were:

(1852) was a novel about the evils of slavery by American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe and was hugely admired by abolitionists. The book was adapted for the stage in 1852 and opened at Londons Adelphi Theatre after its American premire

East Lynne (1861) was a domestic melodrama featuring marital infidelity and betrayal together with the most famous line in melodrama:

Dead! Dead! And never called me mother!

The novel was written by Ellen Wood and dealt with themes which were of very real concern for the mid-Victorian middle class, in a society in which female personality was dominated and governed by masculine will

(1895) a sensational play adapted from a novel by George du Maurier about a young opera singer who is seduced and hypnotised by a sinister older man called Svengali. The work inspired a later novel

by Gaston LeRoux and was the inspiration for Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webbers musical of the same name

(1896) was an adaptation of a novel by Anthony Hope, telling the story of an English gentleman on holiday in the fictional country of Ruritania, forced to impersonate the King and be crowned in a fake coronation. The play opened in New York in 1895 and transferred a year later to Londons West End

was staged in 1899. Charles Dickens was an amateur actor as well as the Victorian periods best known novelist.

is the story of a man who sacrifices his own life so that his rival may have the woman they both love. The novel was adapted for the stage forty six times.

The popularity of attending the theatre, plus the increasing population of London and other major cities in Victorian times, led to a change in the law with regard to permission to open theatres. The Regulation of Theatres Act was passed in 1843 and led to the opening of many new theatres, as well as other venues such as concert halls and music halls.

By the end of the century theatres and other performance venues had been built in every major city in the country. In London existing theatres had been modernised and increased in size: Covent Garden and Drury Lane, for example, both had auditoriums that could seat three thousand people. By 1900 there were sixty other theatres, as well as forty music halls, in the capital alone.

Victorian audiences loved excitement and large scale productions and a fashion developed for staging spectaculars which showcased the very latest developments in Victorian stage technology.

Bruce Sensation Smith of Drury Lane Theatre was one of the greatestset designersof the age and was responsible for some of the most spectacular theatre sets in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. He worked for and with some of the greatest names in live entertainment, including Gilbert and Sullivan, Anna Pavlova, Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Smiths designs and special effects for productions ofThe WhipandBen Hurincluded a train crash; a chariot race and the running of the Two Thousand Guineas horse race using real horses on stage.

As the century progressed, realistic and convincing scenic design, together with the development ofelaborate stage machinery, meant that not only melodrama, but all types of theatrical productions could include theatrical spectacle. Trapdoors and lifts, flying scenery,pyrotechnicsand water effects meant that productions could feature spectacular events such as shipwrecks, battles, fires, earthquakes and horse races. All the stage machinery around, above and below the stage was hidden behind the proscenium arch, which conveniently also hid all the stagehands. The stage itself was hollow and housed removable panels, slots, lifts, scruto (slatted rolling surfaces) and hand-operated and hydraulic trapdoor machinery.

There were huge advances instage lighting, from oil to gas in 1817, followed by limelight in 1837 and finally electric light, in the form of arc lamps from 1848 then filament lamps from 1881. This meant that actors could perform within the scenery, upstage of theproscenium arch, while the auditorium was completely blacked out. Lighting was developed so that images could be projected from magic lanterns and translucent gauzes could be back-lit. Smoke effects, coloured light and flares added to the scenic spectacle.

Melodrama was the product of a major social change in the nineteenth century. TheIndustrial Revolutionproduced a much bigger middle class which was morally and socially conservative and anartisanworking class whose lives were often monotonous. Both sections of society craved an excitement that also reinforced their moral beliefs and melodrama, whether in the form of novels or stage plays about good overcoming evil, virtue overcoming vice or right triumphing over wrong, met that need.

In Britain, melodrama became the most popular kind of theatrical entertainment for most of the nineteenth century, a period when more people went to the theatre than at any time in history. Despite the decline in the popularity of melodrama on stage by the end of the century, its influence continued to be immense. It certainly had a significant influence on the development of early silent films and its techniques persist today in cinema, television, fiction, and theatre.

British monarch from 1837 until her death in 1901.

Someone who believes that disembodied spirits of the dead seek to communicate with the living.

Victorian drinking places for the lower classes, where short, theatrical entertainments were staged wherever space permitted, such as the back room of a public house or in a small hall.

The minstrel show was a theatre form which originated in America in the 1830s becoming popular in the 1840s and developing as a music hall act.

The can-can was a lively high kicking dance that came into fashion about 1830 in Paris.

A dramatic piece which uses heightened situations and reactions (and originally, musical accompaniment) to appeal to the emotions.

A form of drama which focussed on sentiment and sensibility, virtue rather than vice, and evoked an emotional response.

A fixed, often conventional and unoriginal pattern of thought or expression or way of doing things. Characters lacking in originality who behave predictably or according to type.

Where an actor uses a very specific set of body movements to communicate a particular meaning to the audience.

A form of silent theatre in which a group of actors freeze in fixed positions to create a still picture or scene.

1. A style of fiction evoking mystery and terror. 2. Connected with or characteristic of the Middle Ages. 3. Style of architecture current in Western Europe from the 12th century to the 16th century, characterised by the pointed arch. 4. Relating to

A television or radio drama serial featuring characters and story lines reflecting everyday life and reality, which can tend towards the melodramatic.

Projecting a scene onto the back drop of a theatre set to give the illusion of a particular location; a method of staging using a light set on a backstage track to project a shadow onto cotton gauze downstage.

From Italian, contains all the words and stage directions for a musical play or an opera.

A musical drama containing rhymed lyrics and resembling comic opera, or a comic play containing songs.

A drama in which the main character falls from power, dignity and prosperity to misery, defeat and (usually) death

a genre of drama that has a happy ending and produces laughter

A comedy based on unlikely situations and exaggerated effects.

A traveling theatrical group that carries its own scenery and properties.

Victorian drinking places for the lower classes, where short, theatrical entertainments were staged wherever space permitted, such as the back room of a public house or in a small hall.

The use of fireworks for a display.

A proscenium arch creates a frame around the scenery and performers.

The very rapid development of industry in Britain through the growing use of machines in the late 18th and early 19th century.

A worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand.

A theatre guide to nineteenth century melodrama

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