MELODRAMA

Streets of London
by Dion Boucicault
The Victoria and Albert Museum
London, England

Melodrama - literally “plays with music” from the French mélodrame (derived from the Greek melos meaning “melody” and the French drame meaning “drama”) - first appeared in France in the 18th century and immediately became popular throughout Europe.  These early melodramas were essentially spoken-word dramas accompanied by a musical background score like a modern motion picture.  By the early 19th century, the melodrama had become a distinct genre and acquired a rather fixed set of characteristics.  The stories were fundamentally romantic, sensational, often set in exotic locales, and featured a clearly identifiable hero in conflict with an equally identifiable villain.  These were unambiguous tales of the triumph of good over evil and became the most popular and successful form of narrative drama in the 19th century, especially in England and the United States.


Pygmalion
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Music by Horace Coignet and
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Philip J. Pirages Rare Books
The first successful French melodrama was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1770), which included an overture written by Rousseau and incidental music by Horace Coignet.  Pygmalion was a monodrama, a play performed by a single actor, and many of the earliest examples of melodrama in France were either monodramas or duodramas that were performed by two actors.  By the late 18th century, French melodramas had become full-length plays that focused almost entirely on creating emotional responses in the audience through stories of murder, jealousy, crime, human suffering, revenge, infidelity, or the supernatural reinforced by music to create atmosphere and mood.  French melodrama became associated with the Boulevard du Temple, nicknamed the “Boulevard du Crime” because of the crime melodramas shown every night in its many theatres.

In England, most melodramas were initially adaptations of popular melodramas from France.  Melodrama also served as an important alternative to the two patent theatres in London and their monopoly on spoken-word dramas after 1660.  Although the presentation of “serious” plays was limited to the two patent theatres, plays with music could be performed at what were termed “minor theatres” and the melodrama became a convenient subterfuge to present popular spoken-word plays because of their musical accompaniment.  The lack of theatrical employment for musicians in London also made the addition of a small orchestra to play incidental accompaniment to a play a relatively inexpensive means of evading the licensing restrictions.  Scores were rapidly written for existing spoken-word plays and business boomed in the “minor” theatres of London.

The idea of writing a score to an existing play led very quickly to the idea of writing plays specifically designed to take advantage of the possibilities of musical underscoring.  The first English play to be called a melodrama was Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery: A Melo-Drama in Two Acts (1820), a Gothic thriller replete with dramatic stage effects that also included a complete score by Thomas Busby and detailed instructions regarding the tone, timing, and emotional expression of the orchestration as an element of the drama.  It would lead to a spate of Gothic tales of murder, mystery, and the macabre.


Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The Boy’s Standard
March 6, 1885
Tales from the “Penny Dreadfuls,” popular fictions written in installments in periodicals, including The String of Pearls: A Romance (that introduced the character Sweeney Todd, “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”), Varney the Vampire, The Mysteries of London, Spring Heeled Jack: The Terror of London, and dozens of others were adapted to the stage.  Later, serious works of Gothic fiction were adapted as stage melodramas, including John Polidori’s The Vampyre, Robert Lewis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Although the melodrama was typically viewed as a work of questionable literary value that lacked both subtlety and character development, such criticism seems to miss the point of the genre.  While most melodramas may have been lacking in literary sophistication, they more than made up for such deficiencies with thrills, suspense, and spectacular stage effects.  Melodramas were shamelessly intended to appeal to the emotions of the audience more than their intellect and were by design “crowd pleasers” first and foremost.

The Victorian melodrama in England became increasingly formulaic by the late 1830s and typically included a cast of six stock characters: the hero, the villain, the heroine (the damsel-in-distress who must be saved by the hero from the evil machinations of the villain), the hero’s sidekick, an aged parent, and the servant of the aged parent.  Most plays focused on stories of love and murder and used the musical accompaniment to build suspense and guide the audience emotionally through the story.  English melodramas typically ended with a “claptrap,” a moralistic speech delivered by the hero at the end of the play that was written to produce a round of applause from the audience.

By the 1840s, melodrama was the most popular form of theatre in England and drew a much larger proportion of the audience in London than the patent theatres.  In time, the patent theatres also included melodramas on their bills and the melodramatic style of adding musical accompaniment to essentially non-musical plays became an accepted practice in all of London’s theatres.

Felix Mendelssohn wrote an overture for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1826 and later wrote incidental music for key scenes in the play.  Arthur Sullivan, a scholar of Mendelssohn, wrote overtures and incidental music for five of Shakespeare’s plays and, later, for Henry Irving’s stage version of the story of King Arthur.  In part, Sullivan’s experience writing incidental music would lead to his partnership with W.S. Gilbert and the creation of their successful operettas in the 1850s and ’60s.

Many of the popular melodramas from England came to the United States early in the 19th century and became as, if not more, popular than in England.  These simple stories of virtue triumphing over evil and vice were immediately accessible and the easy manipulation of an audience’s emotions proved to be a tremendous enticement to entertainment hungry Americans.  The melodrama also fit neatly into Americans’ sense of their unique identity as a nation and people.  They saw themselves as heroic in their establishment of a new democratic nation and in their destiny to tame the vast lands and resources of the United States and its territories.  Consequently, the unambiguous stories of melodrama - where heroic characters faced an assortment of threats and challenges but always prevailed - seemed particularly appropriate to the American sensibility.

Most actors on both sides of the Atlantic embraced melodrama as a significant part of their repertoire, although American actors in the early 19th century found particular success with melodramatic characters.  Edwin Forrest was as famous for his portrayal of melodramatic heroes as his Shakespearean roles.  His physical presence, muscular build, and passionate energy made him particularly well-suited to melodramatic characters like the noble American Indian in Metamora, or The Last of the Wampanoags, Spartacus in The Gladiator, and Jack Cade in Robert Taylor Conrad’s Aylmere, or, The Bondman of Kent, all of which were written for Forrest.

Edwin Booth, America’s second great actor, was, like Forrest, remembered primarily for his Shakespearean roles, but also included melodramatic parts in his repertoire.  He played the title character in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, Bertuccio in Tom Taylor’s The Fool’s Revenge, Menotte in The Lady of Lyons, and the title role in Edward Lytton’s Richelieu; or, The Conspiracy.


Uncle Tom’s Cabin
The Famous Jarret & Palmer London Company
consoluidated with
Slavin’s Original American Troupe
The Library of Congress

The most popular melodrama of the 19th century was George Aiken’s stage adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly.  Stowe’s novel was first published in 1852 and immediately became an international sensation.  In the first year of its publication, it sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States and more than one million in Great Britain.  Aiken saw the ability to capitalize on the success of the novel and quickly adapted it to the stage.  It was a spectacular and epic six-act play that opened barely three months after the initial publication of the novel.  Aiken played the hero, George Harris, and the play ended with an an heroic tableau, written as an addition by Aiken, “representing Eva in heaven, amid clouds and a halo of glory, welcomed by angelic choirs, and accompanied by Uncle Tom and St. Clare.”  Aiken took most of the dialogue directly from the novel and his cousin, George C. Howard, wrote four musical numbers, including the dramatic ending, as part of the narrative.  It was the first play presented in America as a stand-alone drama without interlude performances or an afterpiece.

Stowe actually refused to authorize any dramatization of her novel, but lax copyright laws in America did little to protect her from the novel being brought to the stage.  In addition to Aiken’s 1852 adaptation, dozens and perhaps hundreds of other adaptations and variants on Stowe’s novel appeared on stage in the years that followed its publication.  According to theatre historian John Frick of the University of Virginia, more than 400 individual theatre companies performed “Tom shows,” as they were known, and they became “ubiquitous and part of the common culture at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century.”  Eric Lott, in his book Uncle Tomitudes: Racial Melodrama and Modes of Production, estimates that over three million people saw these shows before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Although Aiken’s adaptation was relatively faithful to Stowe’s novel, many adaptations were patently racist depictions of life on the plantation, more indebted to the minstrel show than the novel.  All productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin produced before and during the Civil War featured white actors performing in blackface, although, after the Civil War, “Tom shows” frequently employed black actors to enhance the “authenticity” of the plays. 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin produced many of the most enduring characters in American literature: Uncle Tom, the long-suffering, noble, elder slave; Eliza, the slave heroine who escapes with her five-year-old son, Harry, and eventually finds freedom; Eva, the daughter of Tom’s owner who believes in Christian love and mercy but dies before the slaves find freedom; Topsy, the ignorant slave girl who is transformed by Eva’s love and affection; and Simon Legree, the cruel slave owner who buys and eventually kills Uncle Tom.


The Octoroon
by Dion Boucicault
Dick’s London Acting Edition
DeWitt House Publishing 1859
The success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin led to other racial melodramas, most notably Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana, which became the second most popular play in 19th century America.  The Octoroon was an adaptation of Thomas Mayne Reid’s 1856 novel The Quadroon that Boucicault first presented at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City in 1859.  Boucicault’s wife, Agnes Robertson, played Zoe, the octoroon heroine of the play, and Boucicault the relatively minor role of Whanotee, an American Indian.  Unlike Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Octoroon was morally ambiguous on the question of race, which played an important part in the play’s success.  As reported in The New York Times on December 15, 1859:

“Everybody talks about The Octoroon, wonders about The Octoroon, goes to see The Octoroon, and The Octoroon thus becomes, in point of fact the work of the public mind…the public having insisted on rewriting the piece according to its own notions, interprets every word and incident in wholly unexpected lights; and, for aught we know, therefore, The Octoroon may prove after all to be a political treatise of great emphasis and significance, very much to the author’s amazement.”

In regards to Dion Boucicault, it unlikely that “very much” about his play would have come “to the author’s amazement” or been a matter of accident rather than design.  Boucicault was a shrewd and cunning writer and equally clever at creating controversy in order to promote his plays.  It is far more likely that the ambiguities in The Octoroon that led to the varying interpretations of the play and its stand on the question of slavery were part of its design as was the controversy that it created when it was first produced.

Dion Boucicault

 
Dion Boucicault
Photo by Napoleon Sarony
Harvard Theatre Collection
Dion Boucicault was an Irish actor, playwright, and theatre manager, who became the most famous and successful writer of melodramas in the 19th century.  Boucicault’s earliest success was in England, where his comedy, London Assurance, became a hit in 1841 when he was only twenty years old.  Between 1841 and 1845, Boucicault had a remarkable twenty-two plays produced in London, most of which were successful, and established him as one of the major playwrights of mid-19th century England.  His first melodrama, The Corsican Brothers, an adaptation of an earlier French melodrama by Eugène Grangé and Xavier de Montépin, opened at the Princess Theatre in London in 1852 and starred Sir Henry Irving.  The Corsican Brothers was an enormous success and firmly established the melodrama as a major genre in the London theatre. 

Like most successful actors and theatre managers of the 19th century London, Boucicault traveled to the United States following his success in London.  In 1854, he and his wife, the actress Agnes Robertson, came to New York and the following year, he and his manager and business partner, William Stuart, leased Wallack’s Theatre in New York City.  They opened with a new melodrama, The Poor of New York, adapted by Boucicault from the French melodrama Les Pauvres de Paris to an American setting with American characters.  The play was an enormous success, in large measure because of a spectacular scene in Act Five that included a building being set on fire, a real fire engine brought on stage to put out the fire, and the building finally collapsing in smoke and flames.  Boucicault revised the play repeatedly throughout his career, adapting it to wherever it played.  In 1864, it played in Liverpool as the Poor of Liverpool, later in 1864 as the Streets of London, and, in later years, as The Poor of Leeds, The Poor of Manchester, and the Streets of Islington.

In 1859, Boucicault and Stuart took over the management of the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City and opened with The Octoroon.  The Octoroon was obviously written to capitalize on the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and proved to be an even greater success than The Poor of New York.  Unfortunately, the partnership between Boucicault and Stuart broke apart over money and Boucicault returned to England in 1860.

For the next 30 years, Boucicault would divide his time between London and America.  He continued to write melodramas with American settings and characters and many of his plays were first produced in the United States.  The American actor Joseph Jefferson, who was in the original cast of The Octoroon, asked Boucicault to rework Jefferson’s adaptation of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle in 1864.   Boucicault’s revised version opened in London in 1865 with Jefferson playing the title role.  Rip Van Winkle ran for 170 performances in London and was a major hit a year later in New York.  Jefferson continued to perform the play for the next 40 years.  Boucicault’s greatest success, The Shaughran, a play set in Ireland, premiered in New York in 1874 with Boucicault playing the title character and became an enormous hit in London the following year.

 
The Shaughran
by Dion Boucicault
Wisconsin Center
for Film and Theatre Research
Dion Boucicault was the most successful and influential writer of melodramas in the 19th century.  His most successful melodrama, The Shaughran, was an original script as was his first success, London Assurance, but many of his more than 150 plays were adaptations of earlier plays and novels reworked for the stage.  Boucicault had an uncanny ability to gauge the ever-shifting interests of the audience and capitalize on the social issues that captured their attention.  From the plight of the poor in the cities to the issue of slavery in America to plays about rebellious Irishmen, he was able to tap into the social concerns of his time and frame them in crowd pleasing plays that were terrible successful at the box office.  Although frequently accused of pandering to the tastes and sensibilities of American and English theatregoers, Boucicault managed to create thought provoking characters and situations that went far beyond the typical melodramatic formula of good triumphing over evil.  In his best work, his characters were substantially more complex, conflicted, and, consequently, interesting than those of his contemporaries.  His plots were often ambiguous in their outcomes, often ending tragically with an unclear resolution on the matter of the moral questions they raised.

Boucicault also established many of the stylistic conventions that would dominate melodrama for more than a century.  He introduced the “sensation scene,” as he called it, to the melodrama.  The sensation scene, which became a fixture in melodrama, brought the action of the story to an emotional climax through spectacular stage effects: the burning building in The Poor of New York, the exploding riverboat in The Octoroon, and a rescue from drowning in a lake in Colleen Bawn.

Boucicault was also a pioneer in the use of realistic details in his staging and sets that brought the melodrama increasingly into the realm of representational realism.  His fast-paced dramas often alternated scenes in different places in what has been described as a “primitive form of cross-cutting,” which would become a staple of melodrama in the motion picture.  He also brought numerous innovations to stage design and engineering in order to create his sensation scenes and maintain a sense of realism in his stories.

Dion Boucicault was, by his own admission, a “commercial professional” whose career was focused on catering to the interests of the audience in order to turn a profit.  Although there was a degree of artistry in his plays and he was an accomplished playwright, Boucicault was more interested in commercial success than critical recognition.  Nonetheless, many of the most important works of melodrama that came after, both in content and style, were heavily influenced by his plays and much of what melodrama became in the late 19th century owes a debt to his innovations as a writer and a producer.


The melodrama was, by its nature, sensational and almost everything about it was exaggerated and hyperbolic.  Theatrical posters and advertisements typically showed the most dramatic scenes from the plays or depictions of the spectacular stage effects to attract the attention of the audience.  The language of melodrama was florid and histrionic and actors employed exaggerated gestures to indicate their emotional state.  Acting in the melodrama was terribly theatrical and often overwrought to the point of parody.  The stories told in melodrama most frequently took the form of the “tear-jerker,” the “pot-boiler,” the “hair-raiser,” and the “whodunit.”   However, for all of its contrivance, the melodrama was a crowd-pleasing night at the theatre that promised an exciting and morally unambiguous view of the world that was reassuring to middle and working class audiences in the United States.


Ben-Hur; or, A Tale of the Christ
Klaw & Erlanger’s Stupendous Production
Illinois Theatre, Chicago commencing Sept. 2nd
The Library of Congress
Literally thousands of melodramas were written between 1850 and 1900 and a remarkable third of those plays managed to not only succeed but continued to be performed over and over again for decades.  Romanticized tales of America’s rural and frontier past including Joseph Jefferson and Dion Boucicault’s Rip Van Winkle and Frank Murdock’s Davy Crockett, or Be Sure You’re Right, Then Go Ahead were popular for more than 40 years.  Frank Mayo, who originated the role of Crockett, performed the play more than a 1000 times and his son continued to perform the play for almost 20 years after his father’s death.  Stage adaptations of Ellen Wood’s 1861 sensationalist novel about infidelity, East Lynne, served as vehicles for many of the most celebrated actresses of the 19th century.  Lucille Western, who played Lady Isabel in East Lynne; or, The Elopement, the first stage adaptation of Wood’s novel in 1862, continued to perform the role of Lady Isabel for fifteen years.  William Young’s stage adaptation of General Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur; or, A Tale of the Christ played to an estimated 20 million people, in large measure because of the spectacular chariot race recreated on stage with live horses and real chariots running on treadmills.  And the George Aiken’s adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was still being staged seventy-five years after its initial production.

Ten Nights in a Barroom
by William W. Pratt
Ohio History Connection
Temperance melodramas that focused on the problems of alcoholism were the most popular melodramas after “Tom shows.”   The Drunkard; or, the Fallen Saved from 1844 by William H. Smith was the first and most successful temperance play until it was eclipsed by William W. Pratt’s stage adaptation of T. S. Arthur’s Ten Nights in a Bar-room and What I Saw There in 1858.  Alcoholism was a major social problem in 19th century America and efforts to prohibit the manufacture and sale of liquor found a willing partner in stage melodramas.  The Drunkard and Ten Nights in a Bar-room were the most successful of more than 100 melodramas in the 19th century that presented stories of the liquor-induced fall of a character and his or her eventual redemption.

For the audience, melodramas were a realistic, although exaggerated, depiction of the world they lived in with the notable exception that in melodramas good always won out over evil.  In that sense, melodrama was romantic in a rather subversive way for the villains shown on stage were drawn from familiar character types the audience encountered in their everyday lives.  There is also a case to be made for melodrama being a harbinger of the realistic plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw that were to come later in the century.   In a sense, Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw stripped away the exaggeration and the moral certainty of the melodrama to create what would be called “Modern Drama” by embracing the irony and ambiguity of “life as we know it to be.”

The movement towards realism also had deep roots in melodrama’s innovations in the techniques of staging, design, and acting.  The idea of representational detail, the depiction of actual places and events, and the idea that acting should be “life-like” were already an established part of melodrama long before the modern dramas of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw were written and staged.

Augustin Daly


Augustin Daly
Photo by Napoleon Sarony
Harvard Theatre Collection
Augustin Daly was a drama critic, theatre manager, playwright, and, likely, the first stage director in the modern sense of the word in the United States.  He insisted on controlling every aspect of his productions from the staging to the acting, the set design to the selection of music used for the underscore.  Although a tyrannical autocrat, Daly was responsible for beginning the careers of many of the most notable actors and performers on the American stage including Maude Adams, Tyrone Power, Sr.; Maurice Barrymore, the patriarch of the Barrymore family of actors; and Isadora Duncan.  Daly was also one of the first theatre managers and producers in America to advocate a less exaggerated acting style with “a more life-like delivery” that “captures the reality of a situation,” rather than “a mere display of physical and verbal dexterity.”

Daly produced plays from many genres.  His company acted plays by Shakespeare, domestic dramas, and plays about the American frontier.  He also adapted novels by Hart Crane and Charles Dickens to the stage and, like Dion Boucicault, adapted many plays by European playwrights to American settings and characters.  However, Daly’s greatest successes, again like Boucicault’s, were melodramas.

  
Under the Gaslight
by Augustin Daly
Theatre Poster c. 1879
The Library of Congress

Daly wrote two of the most successful melodramas of the 19th century: Under the Gaslight (1867) and A Flash of Lightning (1868).  Under the Gaslight is now remembered as the play that introduced the now iconic scene where someone is tied to the railroad tracks by the villain and is rescued from an oncoming train at the last minute.  In Daly’s play, it was the hero who was tied to the tracks and saved by the feisty heroine, although in later versions of the “railroad track” sensation scene, the roles were usually reversed.  A Flash of Lightning, adapted from Victorien Sardou’s Le Perle Noire, had an equally impressive sensation scene where a ship founders at sea in a gale, catches fire, is engulfed in flames, and, finally, sinks in full view of the audience.

Steele MacKaye

Hazel Kirke
by Steele MacKaye
Harvard Theatre Collection
Steele MacKaye acted, wrote, or produced more than 100 melodramas. MacKaye wrote more than 30 plays, including Hazel Kirke, one of the most successful melodramas of the late 19th century.  However, MacKaye is now remembered more for his innovations in theatre and stage design and his influence on realism than for his plays.  He introduced the first electrical stage lighting system, devised by Thomas A. Edison; an elevator stage that held two complete stage sets that could be raised and lowered to make scene changes; the first folding auditorium seats; fireproof scenery; the “Nebulator,” a machine to create clouds on stage; and the first automatic sprinkler system installed in a theatre to prevent fires from spreading.  MacKaye invented more than 100 appliances for the improvement of stage mechanics, lighting, and safety.  He designed the Spectatorium, a theatre to seat 10,000 people, for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 that was never built, but would have been the most technologically sophisticated theatre of its time.

Although American playwrights and producers like Augustin Daly and Steele MacKaye only embraced the ideas of realism in a tangential way in the 19th century, the design elements of the theatre became increasingly realistic, in large measure, because of the efforts of David Belasco.

David Belasco


David Belasco
Photo by The Misses Selby
The Theatre Magazine 1913
David Belasco was a playwright, director, and producer of the most successful and innovative productions of the melodrama in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Between 1884 and 1930, Belasco had a hand in, by his own count, 372 Broadway plays, 95 of which he directed and 34 he wrote or adapted for the stage.  He is remember principally for his stage adaption of the short story “Madame Butterfly” by John Luther Long and his original script, The Girl of the Golden West, both of which were adapted as operas by Giacomo Puccini.  However, Belasco’s greatest contribution to the theatre was in his successful application of realism to the look - and even scent - of stage productions.

Belasco created extraordinarily realistic - and spectacular - settings for the plays he produced.  He had highly detailed box sets constructed in meticulous detail to frame the scenes in his plays and was one of the first producers to employ advanced lighting techniques to enhance the representation of time and place in his shows and create mood appropriate to the action of the drama.  He created spectacular stage effects - star filled skies, arctic blizzards, forest fires, lightning storms, ships sinking, and even a dam break where thousands of gallons of water flooded the stage.  No detail was too small or insignificant to enhance the verisimilitude of his productions.  He once had the scents of a flower garden sprayed into a theatre’s ventilation system to heighten the effect of a garden scene in May Blossom, one of his early hits.

Belasco began his career as a child actor in San Francisco and later worked as a call boy, script copier, scene painter, stage carpenter, assistant stage manager, and any and every conceivable job in the theatre.  He even worked as a secretary to Dion Boucicault.  In 1882, theatre manager Charles Frohman brought him to New York City to work as the stage manager at the Madison Square Theatre and a year later he followed Frohman to the Lyceum Theatre as its stage manager and house playwright.  While at the Lyceum, Belasco wrote several hit plays, including The Charity Ball and Lord Chumley, and took over the Lyceum School of Acting, which later became the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. 


The Heart of Maryland
by David Belasco
Theatrical poster c. 1900
The Library of Congress
In 1895, Belasco scored his first hit as playwright, director, and producer with his Civil War melodrama, The Heart of Maryland.  The Heart of Maryland starred Mrs. Leslie Carter and she and Belasco would form an inseparable theatrical partnership that would last sixteen years and result in a string of successful plays including Zaza and DuBarry.

In 1902, Belasco leased the Republic Theatre from Oscar Hammerstein Sr. and rebuilt, redecorated, and renamed it the Belasco Theatre.  It became the showcase for his increasingly lavish and realistic stage productions until 1906, when he rebuilt the Stuyvesant Theatre on 44th Street.  The theatre on 44th Street, renamed the Belasco Theatre in 1910, was the most technologically advanced theatre in New York City with a sophisticated electrical lighting system installed by the Kleigl Brothers, a hydraulic elevator stage, and a machine shop in the basement to fabricate the special effects called for in his productions.  Belasco also had a lavish 10-room duplex apartment built into the theatre where he worked and lived until his death in 1931. 

Belasco took the idea of realism in stage and lighting design to new heights in his productions.  His production of The Girl of the Golden West (1905) opened with a spectacular sunset, which held the audience’s attention for almost five minutes before the first line of dialogue was spoken.  For The Governor’s Lady in 1912, he recreated the kitchen of Childs Restaurant on stage where actors actually cooked and prepared meals as part of the action of the play.  For a scene that took place in a flop-house in The Easiest Way, Belasco actually bought a building, had a room cut out of it, and reassembled it on stage with the downstage wall removed to insure that the scene would be perfectly accurate and realistic.

More than 40 of Belasco’s stage plays became motion pictures and he was instrumental in launching the careers of many of the most famous figures in early motion pictures.  D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, Helen Hayes, and Mary Pickford began their careers with Belasco.

David Belasco was known as the “Bishop of Broadway” because he usually dressed all in black save for a white high collar that made him look like a cleric.  He was also known as “The Monk,” although he was neither religious nor very monk-like in his personal life.  He had a reputation as a lady’s man and had a private elevator built to his apartment above the theatre where his conquests of chorus girls were legendary.  His theatre on 44th Street has long been rumored to be haunted by the ghost of Belasco and that of a female known as “the Blue Lady,” who is believed to be the ghost of one of his many conquests and now serves as his companion in the afterlife.


In the 20th century, melodrama rapidly moved from the stage to the screen and many of the earliest narrative films were adaptations of stage melodramas or were inspired by them.  Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of the first narrative films made in the United States, was inspired by Scott Marble’s 1896 stage melodrama of the same title.  Porter also directed filmed adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo (1912) with James O'Neill recreating his starring role from the 1883 stage play and The Prisoner of Zenda with James K. Hackett, who had played the title role on stage.  Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man (1914), the first full-length feature film made in Hollywood, was an adaptation of Edwin Milton Royale’s stage melodrama from 1905 and many of D.W. Griffith’s earliest feature films were based on successful stage melodramas, including Birth of a Nation (1915), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921).

Melodrama was a natural fit to the motion pictures because the basic structure of melodrama - unambiguous stock characters, sensational storylines, and clear moral outcomes where good triumphed over evil - carried over to film with little or no major alteration.  In many ways, film was a more desirable medium for the melodrama because it was able to capture the verisimilitude of realism to a far greater extent than the stage and was far better suited to the creation of the spectacular effects essential in most melodramas.  Movies were also more accessible than the legitimate theatre, particularly in smaller cities and towns, and the cost of attending a motion picture was a fraction of the cost of attending a stage play.  Perhaps most important, movie melodramas were simply entertaining and proved to be enormously popular, which justified the often high costs of creating the spectacular effects that typically were an important part of melodramatic stories.

Most successful non-musical “straight” films were and continue to be melodramas.  Many of the most popular motion picture genres - westerns, the detective story, the heroic war story, action films, “weepies,” and “chick flicks” to name but a few - were borrowed from the stage.  However, the motion picture was able to expand upon the possibilities of melodrama in ways that were simply beyond the limitations of the stage and movie melodramas soon replaced those of the stage in popularity.

Despite the challenge presented by motion pictures, the melodrama didn’t disappear from the stage, although it became increasingly realistic, less exaggerated, and, in many ways, borrowed from the motion picture as the motion picture had borrowed from it.  The exaggerated acting styles of the 19th century - that came into being in large measure to communicate to audiences in large theatres - gradually relaxed and became more naturalistic as theatres became smaller, lighting better focused the audience’s attention, and improved acoustics allowed actors to be better heard and understood.  Perhaps more important, the focus of the stage melodrama shifted to intimate stories - domestic dramas, thrillers, Gothic suspense tales, and whodunits - while the more elaborate and expensive sensation melodrama became the province of the motion picture.  20th century melodramas including Deathtrap (1978), Sleuth (1970), Angel Street (1941), and Tobacco Road (1933) are still among the longest-running plays in Broadway history.

 
 
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