What is melodrama?
Posted by Roy Stafford on 30 October 2008
In response to our regular contributor, Srikanth, who asked us to explain what we mean by melodrama on this blog, I’ve dug out some old notes and dusted them down (See Srikanth’s comment on the posting for The Lady of Musashino). I hope they go some way to explaining why film scholars adopt a rather different view on melodrama compared to film reviewers. The notes were first written in 1998 for a project focusing on three melodramas, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul (West Germany 1974) Jane Campion’s The Piano (France/Australia/NZ 1994) and Udayan Prasad’s My Son the Fanatic (UK/France 1997). The opening sections of these notes follow a brief intro below:
‘Melodrama’ is used on this blog to refer to an ‘open’ category of films that might include a large number of what reviewers refer to as ‘dramas’, ‘romances’, ‘thrillers’ etc. (In the left-hand sidebar on this blog, ‘Melodrama’ is one of the largest categories.) The genre repertoire we envisage is both porous and fluid – accepting elements from other repertoires and itself overflowing into them. This open quality is problematic for reviewers and most audiences. It is also a problem that definitions of melodrama within the film industry have changed over time so that in some ways, melodrama now means the opposite to what it once meant. In the Hollywood of the 1930s, melodrama could be used to describe action films, but now it usually refers to ‘relationship films’.
Why is film studies interested in melodrama?
Besides its fluidity, melodrama has been an important subject for film and media Studies for three main reasons.
1. Melodrama has always been primarily concerned with ‘popular culture’. Although the subject matter may sometimes be the lives of the rich and sophisticated, the appeal has always been to the widest possible audience. The modern offspring of melodrama includes both the disaster film like Titanic and television soap operas like EastEnders and Coronation Street or, in global terms, telenovelas such as Betty la fea (Ugly Betty). This concentration on the popular suited the polemical nature of film and media studies when it was establishing itself against more traditional academic views of ‘high culture’.
2. Partly because of its popular appeal, melodrama has often been despised by critics – ‘melodramatic’ is seen as a term of abuse, whether it describes a dramatic scene in a film or our behaviour in real life. Definitely linked to this is the association of melodrama with feminine rather than masculine concerns.
Twentieth century critics have taught generations of students to equate popularity with debasement, emotionality with ineffectiveness, religiosity with fakery, domesticity with triviality, and all of these, implicitly, with womanly inferiority. (Jane Tompkins (1985), Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, quoted by Christine Gledhill (1987))
Melodramas are often mainly about women, very often written by women, and at certain times have been enjoyed by women to a much greater extent than by men. It is not surprising then that much of the 1970s work on film melodramas was undertaken by feminist writers, interested in reclaiming what they saw to be important works which had been neglected because of the assumption that ‘women’s films’ were less important. Fear Eats the Soul and The Piano are both films which have benefited from greater audience and critical attention because of the work of feminist critics like Laura Mulvey.
2. Melodramas deal in emotional conflict, much of it centred around family and sexual relationships. There are ‘male melodramas’ with men in central roles and, crucially, there are themes of racial and class conflict in a wide range of melodramas. All of the three main films addressed in this project have been chosen because of their potent mixture of race, class and gender conflicts. Because of this emotional powder keg at the centre of so many melodramas, it isn’t surprising that many critics have seized upon specific melodramas as providing examples of ‘sites of ideological struggle’ with the despised melodrama genre enabling filmmakers and audiences to pursue critiques of contemporary society via popular entertainment. This will be explored through work on the famous melodrama director Douglas Sirk in 1950s Hollywood and in some of the quite heated discussion over The Piano.
Melodrama and the modern audience
We will trace the roots of melodrama as a genre and look at examples of ‘pure’ melodramas from earlier periods of cinema. The films we have selected are not necessarily designed for a mass, popular audience –in fact, they have all tended to be screened in ‘art’ cinemas. How then, does this fit with our assertion that melodrama is about the popular? The most popular forms of ‘moving image culture’ in the 1990s, television soap operas and drama series, are certainly derived from melodramas, but they tend to promote narrative content ą the issues and human stories – over and above the performance and presentation of the stories –the formal or stylistic aspects. This is where television differs from cinema. Modern popular cinema on the other hand might be argued to be more about performance and presentation than about story – a return to the sense of spectacle which has always been an important aspect of cinema. Studying film melodrama might help us to make sense of this set of differences. Do we read and enjoy Titanic and EastEnders in the same way?
The Origins of Melodrama
The word ‘melodrama’ comes from the Greek melos = music and drama = action, presented as a performance. So, a melodrama is a drama with music – a definition which would cover most entertainment films that use music to invoke moods and to signal emotional themes or to heighten sensations such as fear or suspense. We clearly need to be much more precise. Let’s consider some of the roots of melodrama in theatre and literature.
Christine Gledhill, in her influential book Home is Where the Heart Is (1987), stresses the importance of the the links between melodrama and the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century. In Britain and France, two or three theatres received royal patents granting them a monopoly over the performance of ‘official’ plays, which largely drew on a classical repertoire. These theatres, in which plays were defined by spoken dialogue, maintained the ‘standards’ and the ideas and values of the aristocratic elite. The growing urban audience, largely outside London and composed of the newly emerging ‘middle classes’ and the industrial working-class, demanded entertainment which was forced to draw on established ‘folk’ art and other popular entertainment traditions: ‘dumb show, pantomime, harlequinade, ballets, spectacles, acrobatics, clowning, busking, the exhibition of animals and freaks, and, above all, musical accompaniment and song’ (Gledhill 1987).
These popular forms fused into a new form of ‘illegitimate theatre’. The three main features of this new form, which will be relevant for our study of film melodramas, were spectacle, performance and music. You might wish to consider the extent to which these three features of popular entertainment are still capable of dividing audiences along class lines or between groups who argue about ‘serious meanings’ as against ‘pleasure’. How often are films criticised for presenting ‘only spectacle without substance’? Similarly, the rise of the star has provided a focus on performance away from ‘content’ or ‘message’. As we will note later, these same arguments can be applied outside Europe, especially where communities have been suppressed and have sought to express themselves through popular entertainment. What is carnival in Brazil and the Caribbean about if it isn’t spectacle, performance and music?
By the end of the eighteenth century, the illegitimate theatre had developed a sophisticated mise en scène – literally meaning the methods used to ‘put things into a scene’, to combine spectacle, performance and music to produce meaning. Later, we will see that the idea of a filmic mise en scène has been central to an understanding of film melodramas. In the nineteenth century, popular entertainment developed rapidly with the spread of the industrial revolution and the growth of urban centres. The illegitimate theatre gradually began to become accepted by the authorities and in the extraordinary turbulent period of change which constituted the nineteenth century, melodrama developed in relation to a range of different influences:
- gothic fiction appeared in the mid eighteenth century and produced sensational stories about ‘good and evil’ which exaggerated the traditional conflicts of popular entertainments. The evil aristocrat who seduced the young servant girl was now in league with the devil. This genre which was revived towards the end of the nineteenth century with novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, can be seen as contributing to the climate of sensation and dramatic conflict which suited melodrama.
- economic and social change were major features of life in the nineteenth century. Families moved from the country into towns. Women ‘went out’ to work in factories (work had nearly always been at home or on the farm before). Time, according to the clock, was a new factor in lives which had been governed by daylight and farm tasks. Most important, people travelled and met a much wider range of potential marriage partners. Travel broadened minds and broke down traditions. The establishment of colonies abroad and the prospect of emigration promised further escape routes and the chance of new experiences.
- new ideas about the family. While working-class women were going to the factory, the married women of the emerging middle-classes were gaining freedom from work and seeking new roles in society. The Victorian period is remembered for its ideas about ‘respectability’ and ‘double standards’ with a consequent public morality which recognised the ‘fall’ from respectability to destitution and degeneracy. Victorian narratives can contain both dramatic rises and falls in social standing. Check out the novels of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins for stories of fortunes won and lost and of bequests and inheritances which could change people’s lives – ‘proving’ family status was important in these circumstances. (Recent UK adaptations of Dickens’ Bleak House and Little Dorrit have translated the novels into a serial melodrama format.)
- the rise of the picture story. Gledhill points out that during the latter part of the nineteenth century, there was an enormous interest in all forms of ‘pictorialising’, not just through the new forms of photography and lantern slides, but also through painting, displayed in new public art galleries, and illustrated books, stained glass etc. Many of the images so created drew on the mise en scène of the previously ‘illegitimate theatre’, so that in a simple tableau of family members, the decor and the gestures of the individual characters could be easily read in such scenes as the the family getting ready to sail to a new land or awaiting the news of a father’s disgrace etc.
Melodrama and early cinema
All of these factors meant that when the cinema began to develop as a narrative form early in the new century, it was able to draw upon a wide range of long-standing popular entertainment forms (e.g. in the fairground, where some early cinema shows were presented), classical theatre and the well-established melodramas of the new urban theatres. The theatrical companies which staged increasingly sophisticated melodramas bequeathed several important features for a cinema of popular genres. They had developed:
- complex systems of lifts and rolling scenery props, allowing spectacular scenes on stage (a locomotive crash, runaway horses etc!) with highly-skilled teams of technicians.
- ‘stock companies’ of actors who appeared in each show, playing a particular ‘type’ of character, who would be recognised by the audience. This idea would be taken up by film producers and directors. You might even see this in contemporary cinema with the use of character actors like Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi etc. Certainly it was true of directors like John Ford or Orson Welles (the Mercury Theatre Group) in the 1940s.
‘Silent Cinema’ drew heavily on the conventions of the theatrical melodrama. It was not of course ‘silent’ – piano or even full orchestral accompaniment allowed music to play a great part in telling the story and emphasising the emotion. Acting in the cinema was developed from similar techniques in theatrical melodramas, adapted only when filmmakers realised the possibilities of the close-up and the power of editing. Melodrama was an important genre in national cinemas across the world from around 1910 onwards and by 1927 had become highly developed in terms of mise en scène and camerawork.
The coming of sound was in some ways a step back for melodrama – Hollywood, in particular began to concentrate on dialogue and the early sound cameras were in any case difficult to move. Hollywood had attracted many European directors, skilled in sophisticated melodrama techniques, during the 1920s and in the 1930s many more made the trip, escaping from Hitler. They were frustrated during the early sound period, but later, especially in the 1950s with the introduction of CinemaScope and the greater use of Technicolor, they were able to draw on their experience of European art and theatre traditions in devising extravagant mise en scène and camera movements. Douglas Sirk, Max Ophuls, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder were all Germans or Austrians with this experience.
Europe and America
Melodrama is a universal form – it is found in virtually every national cinema. Yet the form it takes does vary. You may wish to discuss how familiar melodrama emotional conflicts might be represented in different societies. One major criterion of melodrama is often argued to be ‘the happy ending’ (in order to distinguish melodrama from tragedy). This is certainly the case with most American melodramas, which perhaps for Europeans run the risk of being ‘over sentimental’. By contrast, melodramas in societies with strict codes of honour can often be concerned with the inevitability of defeat and destruction (as in Japanese or Chinese melodramas) or, at best the ‘bittersweet’ taste of the Austrian stories told by Ophuls or Wilder.
In an ‘open’ society where passionate behaviour is unremarkable, a melodrama will be very different from a similar story in Britain where ‘repressed emotion’ can lead to sudden outbursts from characters who are normally restrained. By importing directors, writers and stars with ‘European sensibilities’, Hollywood was able to have the best of both worlds. As we have noted in the introduction, melodramas were often despised by critics of the period, despite (or perhaps, because of?) their popularity with audiences. They were dismissed as trivial, trashy etc. – implying that they were made without skill or care. This was far from the case. Melodramas were arguably the most difficult films to make, requiring extraordinary control by the director over the sets, the camera operations and the performances of the actors. When the French critics of Cahiers du Cinéma began to promote film directors of ‘popular cinema’ as worthy of study, they chose in many cases the directors of melodramas.
Defining and classifying melodramas
There are relatively few ‘pure’ film melodramas, which fit a particular set of criteria, and even then there are several different types of relatively pure melodrama. Our task is to define melodrama in much more general terms. We might begin by taking all films and dividing them into two very broad categories – action and melodrama.
Action films tend to be ‘goal-orientated’ – they progress to a particular resolution such as the war is won, the killer is captured etc. Action narratives have conflicts which are tackled through action – characters go out and do something. It follows from this that the editing of sequences to represent movement by characters is of central importance. By contrast, melodramas are about relationships between characters and the resolution of a melodrama narrative concerns the restoration of one or more relationships, or their replacement by others. In a sense, melodramas are more ‘circular’ than ‘linear’. The conflicts in melodramas can often not be resolved by ‘action’, it is the failure of characters to act or even to speak about ‘the problem’ which creates the conflict. The emotional struggle in a melodrama must be expressed or ‘displaced’ in some way. Instead of the editing of action sequences, melodramas deal in mise en scène, performance and music.
“Almost throughout the picture, I used deep-focus lenses which have the effect of giving a harshness to the objects and a kind of enamelled, hard surface to the colours. I wanted this to bring out the inner violence, the energy of the characters which is all inside them and can’t break through.”
This explanation by Douglas Sirk about the colour in Written on the Wind (US 1956) is quoted by Thomas Elsaesser (1972) as the best possible description of what 1950s melodramas were about. In the film, a wealthy Texas oilman marries a designer, while his sister sets her sights on the oilman’s best friend. The oilman turns to the bottle when it seems there will be no son and heir. When his wife does get pregnant, suspicion falls on the best friend . . . On the face of it, a familiar melodrama narrative, which only gains distinction from the way it is presented. Later, of course, a television series called Dallas picked up on the fascination most audiences find with sex and wealth in a society like that of the Texas oil country and created one of the most popular television programmes worldwide (as critics pointed out, families in Africa and Asia could recognise the tensions within the family circle).
So, although many films will have ‘melodrama moments’ (even action pictures will have moments where emotions are expressed through mise en scène, performance and music – think of the ‘standoff’ before a gunfight in a western), the ‘pure melodrama’ will concentrate solely on relationships, and audiences will seek clues to the emotional state of the characters through expressive use of props, gesture etc. These relationships will often come into conflict because of the disruptive effect of some external agency – social or cultural change or ‘difference’. Whether these effects invoke a discussion of ‘issues’ amongst the audience or are simply accepted as part of the mechanics of the plot is what makes melodrama interesting. Certainly, critics have latched on to the potentially subversive nature of melodrama. What is more certain is that the issues in melodrama relate directly to personal relationships rather than threats to the community or nation which characterise action films. At the most basic level, film melodramas must display these two features:
- expressive style
- concern with personal relationships
This is the fluidity of melodramas, which can be set almost anywhere and cross with many other more tightly defined genres (including ostensibly action genres). One of our problems in defining particular types of melodrama is that the term itself was used very loosely by the Hollywood studios in the 1930s and 1940s to describe most forms of drama, including action films and thrillers (see Maltby 1995). It was almost as if the term applied to genre pictures generally. In contrast, despite the impression given by some current writers, the studios themselves placed high value on the idea of the ‘woman’s picture’ (it was the male critical establishment which despised the genre). The studios recognised the spending power of the female audience. We can define a number of possible melodrama genre types:
crime melodrama – a drama in which crime is the cause of the problems faced by characters, rather than the basis for an action narrative (i.e. the gangster film). Many crime melodramas are better known as films noirs.
film noir – some films in the period 1940-58 are now often categorised under the banner of film noir, because of their stylistic features or general reference to the ‘underside’ of contemporary post-war American society. Classic examples of the genre, such as In A Lonely Place (1950) or Mildred Pierce (1945) are very much more interested in relationships than in crimes. It is also notable that many of the European emigrés who developed mise en scène and camera techniques, were also involved in film noir.
costume melodrama – historical films can focus on action (the epic or swashbuckler) or relationships. The costumes and the different social mores of earlier periods allow for an ‘excessive’ mise en scène. French and British costume films often look back to the eighteenth century (e.g. the Gainsborough Studio films in Britain in the 1940s). Are the current round of Victorian literary adaptations classifiable as melodramas? Some certainly make strong claims.
gothic melodrama – ‘gothic’ implies horror and certain Victorian costume films may have an added element of danger or ‘evil’.
woman’s picture – like youth pictures, these films are defined by their audience address rather than by specific themes or styles. The central characters will be women and the narratives will centre on issues important to women. Some films may be ‘romances’ or comedies. Many of the 1940s melodramas were targeted directly at the disproportionately large female domestic audience during the war years. They were often disparagingly termed ‘weepies’ or ‘tearjerkers’. A more modern variant is the idea of the ‘chick flick’.
family melodrama – maternal melodrama or male melodrama. This is the typically American form of melodrama, focusing on families and often on specific mother/daughter or father/son relationships. The 1950s melodramas were specifically associated with the middle-class American family, but earlier films, such as Stella Dallas (1937) also addressed the issue of working-class origins and ‘marrying out’ into the middle-class.
colonial melodrama – the ‘exotic’ orient provided the location for melodramas which were based on the possibility of corruption of the ‘civilised white settler’ by the native culture in Asia and Africa. These are a feature of British and French cinemas, as well as Hollywood. Much more problematic for contemporary filmmakers, there are still examples of this type in the 1990s. A subset of this type comprises American melodramas dealing with the experience of African-Americans under slavery and its aftermath in the South.
There are other melodramas which are perhaps best described by their relationship to more familiar genres – melodramas set in the American west for example, both during the classic period of the late nineteenth century and more recently. There are also hybrids with horror.
As we have indicated above, the interest in melodrama centres on the relationships between characters, rather than the achievement of specific goals. The story as such in many melodramas is at once both very simple and sometimes highly contrived. After you have seen Fear Eats the Soul, you will probably be able to recall the main points of the story quite easily. We tend not to study melodrama to understand how a complex cinematic narrative is constructed in terms of dealing with ‘time and space’ – it is possibly more productive to choose a thriller with plenty of ‘cause and effect’ chains of action.
Some of the common narrative analysis theories, such as those derived from Propp’s analysis of fairy tales, are not easily applied to melodrama. These theories look at the conflicts set up by the opposition of a hero and villain, with the hero embarking on a quest. Although early theatrical melodramas certainly dealt with crudely drawn ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, film melodramas about relationships do not set up characters in the same way. Certainly audiences will identify with particular characters and will be concerned about how they behave in the circumstances set up by the film, but will they expect them to ‘win out’ – and what will ‘winning’ mean?
More useful, perhaps, is the observation about narrative structure, set out by Tzvetan Todorov. He suggested that most narratives are structured around a ‘disruption’ to the prevailing status quo. This leads in turn to a set of conflicts in which the characters struggle to solve the problems created. Eventually some form of resolution is achieved and a new ‘equilibrium’ is established, which may be the same or different to the previous status quo. This seemingly simple observation provides a good description of what happens in the film which is effectively our starting point – Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (US 1955). In this story the disruption occurs when a respectable middle-class widow meets and falls in love with a younger man. The conflicts arise with her son and daughter and friends at the country club, all of whom disapprove, both of the unstated sexual liaison and the fact that the man is decidedly ‘bohemian’. The pressure from her family and friends nearly makes her end the affair and only after a dramatic accident does she rebuild the relationship. In this case it is a ‘happy ending’ which produces a new equilibrium, although there is a ‘price’ of pain to pay for the promised future.
A similar structure applies to Fear Eats the Soul and My Son the Fanatic, although the extra dimension of racial and religious difference introduces another layer of conflict. You will have to decide whether the resolutions of these films are ‘happy’ or not and what kinds of price has to be paid. The Piano is slightly different in that the disruption is a journey which takes a mother and child away from one family situation and forcibly places them in another. We learn so little about the previous period of ‘stability’ that it is hard to judge what changes are taking place – although audiences can read into the story a great deal about the characters. The conflicts are about how the woman can achieve her desires, although again these are not obvious or clear-cut. The resolution of the film is not convincing in the sense that we can’t be sure if she has achieved what she wants or how she feels about it. This pushes us to reconsider the struggles earlier. Although The Piano is in effect a costume melodrama, set in the nineteenth century, this lack of resolution and our subsequent return to the struggle means that the film has great resonance for contemporary audiences, who have little difficulty thinking through the issues in a more modern context.
The colonial dimension of The Piano (it is set on a ‘plantation’ in New Zealand), points us neatly towards a further set of theoretical ideas suggested by the social anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Genre theorists borrowed Strauss’ idea of a conflict structure based on binary oppositions to explain how many genre films were constructed. The oppositions which we can find in colonial melodramas are striking and provide us with useful insights into how a colonial narrative produces meaning. These narratives are based on ideas and values that the characters are likely to have had at the time. Consider the following oppositions:
White Settler ‘Native’
Sexually restrained Sexually promiscuous
You can probably come up with further oppositions which explain how the Victorian settlers viewed ‘native’ peoples. These are not necessarily presented as straight opposites. Rather, they map out a terrain. The European melodrama is rarely interested in the ‘colonised’ peoples, so the main work of the melodrama narrative is to look at the struggle of white male and female settlers to develop a healthy emotional state in the midst of the overpowering ‘otherness’ of the colonial environment. Usually it is the white woman who ‘succumbs’ – this always been thought more shocking than the white male with the ‘native girl’. In terms of mise en scène, it is worth thinking about the colonial environment, in which the heat, the scents of spices and exotic flowers, the strange animals and spectacular landscapes all appeal to the senses (‘arouse’ emotions) more than the familiar ‘home’ environment.
In The Piano the woman is drawn, not directly to a native (Maori) figure, but instead to a white man who has ‘gone native’ – in some ways an even more despicable figure for respectable society than the native male (who can sometimes be stereotyped as the ‘good native’ or the ‘noble savage’). The white man who adopts native habits has not only betrayed his own culture, but has also degraded what is worthwhile in native culture. When you see The Piano you should find little difficulty identifying sequences in which these binary oppositions are emphasised and which clearly propel the narrative forward. What makes The Piano particularly interesting (and perhaps led to some of the controversy over reactions to the film) is that the central woman character is also trapped in another set of oppositions – as a woman in the strictly patriarchal Victorian society. She has been sent/brought to New Zealand essentially as a piece of male property. Her transgression – the affair with Baines – is doubly marked, she has both broken out of her marital relationship, her enslavement as property, and sullied herself with a ‘degenerate’ man.
It is this double marking or ‘over determination’ which makes The Piano so much a melodrama. We have emphasised so far that melodrama mise en scène is expressive and excessive – everything seems to be exaggerated, almost to the point of hysteria. In this context, over determination can apply to both the events – piled on top of each other – and particular aspects of the mise en scène. To take just one example, much comment has been made about the costumes in The Piano. The woman wears a crinoline – a voluminous skirt supported by a rigid cage. This is both supportive (the woman and her daughter use the crinoline as a tent when they are landed on the beach) and restrictive (as she tries to cross the uneven and boggy ground – the endless rain is also a potential sign of sexual release). This supportive/restrictive clothing also provides great erotic excitement for the man in terms of what it hides and obstructs him from accessing.
The double marking of the woman in The Piano means that the colonial ‘discourse’ or argument is to a certain extent obscured by the feminist discourse – does our positive response to what the woman achieves by breaking out of her unhappy marriage prevent us reading the colonial discourse?
As a preliminary to watching The Piano, try to map out the oppositions you think might be relevant for middle-class men and women in Victorian society. Which qualities would be expected from men rather than women etc.?
Hanif Kureshi (1998) My Son the Fanatic, London: Faber & Faber
Jackie Byars (1991) All That Hollywood Allows, Routledge, London
Thomas Elsaesser (1972) ‘Tales of Sound and Fury – Observations on the Family Melodrama’ in Gledhill (ed) op cit.
Christine Gledhill (ed) (1987) Home Is Where The Heart Is, British Film Institute, London
Richard Maltby (1995) Hollywood Cinema, Blackwell, London
Laura Mulvey (1977) ‘Notes on Sirk and Melodrama’ in Gledhill (ed) op cit