Melodramatic Is Not a Dirty Word

Anthony J. Piccione


When the term comes up, many people tend to think of the old melodramas that theatergoers were accustomed to in the 19th century. Perhaps if they know enough about the history of theatre, they might think of plays such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Corsican Brothers and The Octoroon.

However, all of this overlooks what the term actually refers to: the usage of exaggerated aspects of performance and storytelling, whether it may be referring to the events in the plot or the emotions of the characters.

Now to be clear, I am not calling for a return to the old melodramas such as those that were produced well over a century ago. I personally don’t know many people who would even suggest that that’s what theatergoers today either want or need to see.

However, we should also consider the fact that we live in a time when funding for the arts is in short supply and continuously at risk of being cut. This means that money for theatre companies to put on high-tech productions can be hard to come by. Therefore, the performance and storytelling aspects of theatre are arguably more important than at any other time over the past two centuries in the history of theatre. 

In light of this, I suggest that more playwrights ought to consider being just a little more melodramatic than usual.

Based on my own personal experiences – both as a theatergoer and as someone who has worked in theatre – here’s what I’ve noticed: If there is anything that audiences tend to respond to – especially when things such as high-tech lighting, sound, costumes and set designs are absent from a production – it is big and bold – if not over-the-top – performances by actors, who are bringing to life big-scale stories that aren’t necessarily held back by the sort of dry realism that you might find in many other American plays.

The main critique I hear of this approach – especially from those who are fans of classical American realism – is this: melodrama is too cheesy. 

However, people tend to forget that American musical theatre – which I don’t hear many theatergoers complain about being “too cheesy” – was largely inspired by 19th-century American melodramas, which some people once referred to as “music drama”.

I can’t help but wonder if it’s simply the fact that people like singing-along to shows all the time, or if it’s the whole spectacle that explains why people respond so well to musicals today. 

For me, I know it’s the latter. If that’s the case for others, as well, then I see no reason why a similar type of spectacle that did not include as much singing could also be successful.

Indeed, if you look at many successful film franchises in modern times – whether we are talking about Star Wars, Harry Potter, the majority of superhero films or just about any Disney film you can think of – they all seem to fit this basic definition of melodrama. If such a style of melodrama can be so successful in film, why not in theatre?

These are just a few basic points that are worth thinking about, and I intend to write in greater detail on this subject in the future. However, I’ll leave you with this for now: Given the points that I’ve made, I believe there is little excuse for why playwrights and producers shouldn’t consider reviving and revamping melodrama for new times and new generations. The theatricality and emotion-driven performances associated with this style could just be what is needed to increase the amount of diversity of content in shows today, and thus help ensure that theatre remains an engaging and popular form of art for years to come…