Melodrama in post-revolutionary Europe
The genealogy and diffusion of a ‘popular’ theatrical genre and experience, 1780–1830
in Leisure cultures in urban Europe, c.1700–1870
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Moving away from leisure institutions and building types to the transnational diffusion of specific cultural genres and experiences, this chapter traces the origins of ‘melodrama’ as a modern theatrical genre. It explores its impact in late eighteenth-century French Enlightenment discourse and early nineteenth-century Paris boulevard theatres, and analyses the subsequent diffusion and selective appropriation in England and Italy. As a new mixture of gestures, music and words, which spoke directly to the heart of men and women, the French genre of melodrame changed the theatrical experience of both popular and elite audiences. From 1802 onwards, melodramas of popular authors such as Pixérécourt et Ducange were extensively translated in Great Britain, Holland, Germany, Russia, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Achieving an extraordinary success as the most original product of a new theatrical era, melodramas were, however, appropriated in different ways in different national contexts. In England, the radical playwright Thomas Holcroft, a central figure in Anglo-French cultural exchanges, actively imported the French melodrama and helped to adapt it as a new theatrical genre to the specific English context. In Italy a relative lack of state control stimulated the smooth absorption of melodramatic forms and plots in Italian opera, with the unintended result that melodrama did not develop into a separate genre.

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