The Nineteenth Century to the Present: Romanticism and Melodrama, 1800–1880


The Age of Revolution

  • The American Revolution separated the American colonies from England and led to democracy in the New World.
  • The French Revolution revolted against the king’s absolute power and the corrupt aristocracy with increasing violence.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) conquered Europe; after his defeat Europe’s political map was changed in the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

Romanticism and the Theater

  • Artists of the Romantic era did not fully reject the Enlightenment interest in reason and social change, but they did place more emphasis on personal experience and irrational/emotional desires and beliefs.
  • Romantics did, on the other hand, reject Classicism, which emphasized restraint and Classical rules of harmony and form. Romantics preferred medieval architecture and folk tales rather than Roman and Greek ruins and myths.
  • Victor Hugo’s (1802–1885) Preface to the play Cromwell (1827) is Romanticism’s manifesto and rejects the three unities required in Classical drama, instead asking for historically accurate stages and sublime and grotesque themes.
  • Georg Büchner’s (1813–1837) drama Danton’s Death brings the French Revolution to Germany.
  • Romantics valued Shakespeare because he mixed high with low characters, comedy with tragedy, and fantastic events.

Closet Drama

  • Many Romantic dramas were not performed, being written for reading only, and form the most important dramatic genre of the period, known as closet dramas, e.g., Wordsworth’s The Borderers (1796) and Goethe’s Faust (part 1, 1808).

Theaters and Actors

  • Poets wrote for the reading public due to distrust of theater managers and actors.
  • Theaters expanded by putting on lavish spectacles for the public.
  • Increasingly lavish spectacles led to technical advances, including gas lights (1825) and limelight (an early form of spotlight also used for better illusory effects).
  • Desire for equestrian and nautical plays improved traps, elevators, revolving stages, and panoramas.
  • The public desired historically accurate costumes and sets.


  • Melodrama writers were willing to write for the stage.
  • The term melodrama refers to the Greek word  for music (melos) as plays with musical interludes.
  • Melodramas use stock characters (e.g., the villain, the damsel in distress), and plots use extraordinary coincidences and unanticipated encounters.
  • Novels were often adapted for stage, particularly those of Charles Dickens and the Dumas family (e.g., The Three Musketeers).

The Well-Made Play

  • “Well-made plays,” the name taken from the French pièce bien-fait, were based on complicated plots including overheard conversations, mistaken identities, and confrontations.
  • The climactic scene is called scène à faire—the scene that “had to be done.”
  • Victorien Sardou (1831–1908) composed well-made plays for the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923).
  • Sardou’s drama led to the term “sardoodledom.”

Europe at Mid-Century

  • The Europe-wide revolution of 1848 led to industrialization, protests, strikes, and government coups.
  • The bourgeois class triumphed, and many people moved to urban centers, leading to a focus on economic gains.
  • England and France expand their empires.
  • Railroads led to immense fortunes in the 1870s and 1880s.

Nationalism and Theater

  • Nationalism grew within each country to establish its own traditions and values, based on the French Comédie Française.
  • In Germany, Richard Wagner (1813–1883) proposed a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”) that incorporates poetry, music, acting, and stage settings; this culminated in his music-dramas (a form of opera) in the Opera House at Bayreuth.
  • Wagner initiated now-common practices of diminishing lights in the auditorium and hiding the orchestra pit so the audience focused exclusively on the stage.

Theater in the United States, 1800–1900

  • Prior to the American Revolution and independence from England, the first theater was built in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1716.
  • Theater still remained tied to England, with most professional companies being English-based or dependent on actors trained in England.
  • By the late 1800s theaters were still restricted to large cities.
  • Mary Otis Warren (1728–1814) and Royall Tyler (1757–1826) were American playwrights, yet most dramatic performances were of English plays.
  • During the nineteenth century, American theater emerged with the famous American actor Edwin Forrest (1806–1872), who established an American acting school to teach grand gestures and speech appealing to popular audiences.
  • The Astor Place Riot in 1849 was the culmination of a rivalry between American actor Forrest and English actor William Charles Macready (1793–1873), visiting New York to play Macbeth; there were 22 deaths.

Staging Race

  • Minstrel Shows were first performed by white actors with painted black faces and later by African Americans as well; in both cases minstrels traded on racial stereotypes expected by white audiences.
  • Minstrels typically formed a semicircle and performed songs, dances, and dialogues between Tambo and Bones—two characters.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe’s (1811–1896) novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851–52) led to many adaptations, particularly George L. Aiken’s—the longest running production in nineteenth-century America.
  • Tom Shows were adaptations of Stowe’s novel depicting the character Uncle Tom who made peace with slavery rather than rebel; “Uncle Tom” became a derogatory label for African Americans who don’t resist racism.
  • William Wells Brown (1814–1884) wrote The Escape for the reading public, as many plays dealing with slavery were not performed.