What is melodrama and how do we avoid it?
Over the years, I’ve noticed that quite a few people have differing interpretations of melodrama, which range from “a sad movie” to “soap operas” to “anything that’s on Lifetime” or, as one guy told me, “it’s anything written by Anton Chekhov.”
Indeed, variations abound in its definition:
“A genre with an opposition between good and evil, in which good prevails.”
“An extravagant comedy in which action is more salient than characterization.”
“A play characterized by stereotypical characters, exaggerated emotions, and simplistic conflict.”
“A film or literary work marked by ‘good guys’ vs. ‘bad guys,’ unexpected plot twists, surprise endings, action and suspense. Examples: Most horror movies and detective thrillers.”
“Exciting, emotional story. Often unsubtle and romantic.”
“The dramatic genre characterized by an emphasis on plot over characterization; typically, characters are defined as heroes or villains, conflicts are defined along moral lines, and the resolution rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Spectacle and action are important to the melodramatic effect.”
“n. a play in which there are so much violence, feelings and exaggerations that it does not seem to be true.”
“A play which suspends the audience through action and tension but contains the conventional ‘happy ending.’”
“Melodrama is a rigidly conventionalized genre of popular drama, theatrical rather than literary in appeal, characterized by rapid and exciting physical action, sharply contrasted and simplified characters, and colorful alternations of violence, pathos, and humor. The central situation in melodrama--victimization of helpless innocence by powerful evil forces--gives rise to four basic characters: the hero and the heroine, a comic ally who assists them, and the villain against whom they are pitted...”
“A melodrama in a more neutral and technical sense of the term is a play, film, or other work in which plot and action are emphasized in comparison to the more character-driven emphasis within a drama. Melodramas can be distinguished from tragedy by the fact that it is open to having a happy ending.”
A few other definitions:
Houghton Mifflin: “A play or film in which the plot is often sensational and the characters may display exaggerated emotion.”
Britannica: “Sentimental drama marked by extravagant theatricality, subordination of character development to plot, and focus on sensational incidents. It usually has an improbable plot that features such stock characters as the noble hero, the long-suffering heroine, and the hard-hearted villain, and it ends with virtue triumphing over vice.”
American Heritage: “A drama, such as a play, film, or television program, characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts.”
Let’s look at the word itself.
Melo = From "melos," Greek word for song (melody).
Drama = Greek for action, literally means “to do.”
Essentially, the word means “song-drama.”
A brief history: melodramas began in the 18th century theatre when they introduced music into plays, which was generally thought to have begun with Pygmalion (not the one by George Bernard Shaw, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Music was eventually used to make statements about the characters (i.e., this one is “good” and this one is “bad”), which had inadvertently simplified and weakened the characters.
According to Wikipedia:
“By the end of the 19th century the term melodrama had nearly exclusively narrowed down to a specific genre of salon entertainment: more or less rhythmically spoken words (often poetry) - not sung, sometimes more or less enacted, at least with some dramatic structure or plot - synchronized to an accompaniment of music (usually piano). It was looked down on as a genre for authors and composers of lesser stature (probably also the reason why virtually no realisations of the genre are still remembered). This was probably also the time when the connotation of cheap overacting first became associated with the term. As a cross-over genre mixing narration and chamber music it was eclipsed nearly overnight by a single composition: Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (1912), where Sprechgesang was used instead of rhythmically spoken words and which took a freer and more imaginative course regarding the plot prerogative.”
I’m always surprised when I see current definitions involving violence, comedy, characters of the “good vs. evil” stock, and stories with happy endings. I get the impression that when critics today label something as “melodramatic,” they are usually referring to exaggerated emotions and weak characters. I don’t recall anyone labeling Star Wars or Raiders as “melodrama.” I have a feeling that most contemporary thought about melodrama revolves around exaggerated emotions.
Personally, I assume something is “melodramatic” when I’m sitting through the kind of movie that’s filled with characters who are so sensitive to their plight that they're ready to burst into tears at a moment’s notice. Do you know what I mean?
I’ve been trying to come up with definitions lately that satisfy me personally and also help me to avoid this pitfall:
- When the emotions are high but the stakes are low.
- Sometimes it’s not a character's over-expression as much as it is under-motivation. The motivation has to match the expression.
- When you rely too heavily on music, clothes, sets, etc, to define the main characters.
- A scene with high emotions that feels weak because of its poor treatment, perhaps there's too much on-the-nose dialogue.
- When the emphasis in the narrative is on something other than the characters.
- When characters are highly emotional about something that doesn’t directly affect their lives.
A few examples off the top of my head:
- A scene early in Act One in which two characters who have just been introduced into the story are having a highly emotional argument about their PAST relationship, which was done solely to establish a backstory.
- Or it’s a dramatic treatment of a political, social, or health-related event and you have a lawyer or physician who gets involved in this event and goes on to make passionate, grandiose speeches about a cause that doesn’t really affect his/her personal life.
- Or, say, a dramatic treatment of something historical, where a character is used to be a prism to view those famous historical events and the emphasis in the narrative is on the events and not the character.
Am I wrong? Can anyone else give examples or definitions?