Nineteenth century melodrama

Historical background

The Victorian age  

Image of Queen Victoria by BassanoQueen Victoria's 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 world's 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 Victoria’s 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 and spiritualists were popular attractions in theatres and exhibition halls
  • Freak shows’ featured human beings with disabilities or physical abnormalities
  • Waxworks, especially Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, featured lifelike replicas of current murderers after their executions. From 1888 Jack the Ripper was a very popular exhibit
  • Penny gaffs 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
  • Music Halls were more comfortable small scale theatres with a bar and a variety of entertainments such as acrobats, trapeze artists, black-face minstrels or can-can dancers
  • Circuses 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 Astley’s Amphitheatre in London
  • London Zoo in Regent’s Park was opened in 1828 and was famous for its rattlesnakes and giraffes. In 1849 there were nearly 170,000 visitors
  • Comic opera, especially works by Gilbert and Sullivan, produced by Richard D’Oyley Carte, was very popular at the Savoy Theatre
  • Street artists were found in cites and at fairs. They included: Punch and Judy routines; puppet shows; street acrobats; conjurors; fire-eaters and sword-swallowers; stilt walkers; contortionists; ballad singers and musicians
  • Pleasure gardens 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.

The conventions of melodrama

A new style of theatre

Melodrama is 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 the sentimental dramas of the eighteenth century. The first English melodrama was A Tale of Mystery (1802) written by Thomas Holcroft and based on a French work Coelina, ou l’Enfant de Mystère (1800) by French playwright Guilbert de Pixérécourt.

Characters were always stereotypical and 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

Acting styles for melodrama were taken from classical and contemporary drama. Codified 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 a dramatic tableau at 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.

The formula

All melodramas were simplistic and written to a strict formula:

  • Good was always threatened by evil
  • 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 heroines were always placed in situations of extreme danger
  • Heroines were always pure and virtuous
  • Heroes were always brave
  • 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.

The categories 

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:

  • Gothic and supernatural stories featured ghosts, vampires and grotesque themes
  • Military and nautical stories featured not only patriotic heroism and bravery, but also the horror of conflict and war
  • Domestic dramas 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
  • Sensational plays 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 television soap operas.

Nineteenth century playwrights and works

Edward Fitzball (1792 -1873) 

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


Fitzball's plays earned a reputation for being elaborately staged. He is reputed to have invented back 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.

More on Edward Fitzball:


Fitzball specialised in military and nautical melodrama but also wrote domestic, supernatural and sensational works, as well as opera libretti, 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 being My Pretty Jane; or The Bloom is on the Rye


  • Fitzball’s 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:
Mariette: My child, my child! I am thy wretched mother!
Frederic: Thou — thou — heaven's blessings on thee, dearest, — dearest mother!
Mariette: Providence, this one moment of delight, amply repays me sixteen years of suffering!
Frederic: They approach! We will die in each other's 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 Fitzball’s 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:
Ann: How shall I tell it them – how will they understand?  Home! Where is their home? No mother’s voice.  No father’s admonition! Outcasts – abject – branded with the name of infamy. Shunned – degraded! Oh, my children, my children! What will become of them? (wringing her hands)

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

Douglas Jerrold

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 Drunkard’s Life (1828) and Black-eyed Susan (1829).

More on Douglas Jerrold:


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 the Daily News for his friend Charles Dickens, the novelist.

The plays

Fifteen Years of a Drunkard’s 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. Jerrold’s 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 play’s 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 hero’s 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 opera H.M.S. Pinafore (1878).

Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn

Murder in the Red BarnOne 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 Maria’s 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 and fit-up companies, often called ‘portable theatres’, performed versions of the story in the penny 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. 

Adaptations of popular works of fiction

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:

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin (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 London's Adelphi Theatre after its American première
  • 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 

  • Trilby (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 The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston LeRoux and was the inspiration for Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical of the same name
  • The Prisoner of Zenda (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 London’s West End
  • A Tale of Two Cities was staged in 1899. Charles Dickens was an amateur actor as well as the Victorian period’s best known novelist. A Tale of Two Cities 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.

Nineteenth century theatres

The growth of theatres

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 greatest set designers of 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. Smith’s designs and special effects for productions of The Whip and Ben Hur included 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 of elaborate stage machinery, meant that not only melodrama, but all types of theatrical productions could include theatrical spectacle. Trapdoors and lifts, flying scenery, pyrotechnics and 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 in stage 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 the proscenium 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. The Industrial Revolution produced a much bigger middle class which was morally and socially conservative and an artisan working 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.

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