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London as Melodrama: 19th-Century Popular Theatre and the Myth of the Metropolis

Rudolf Weiss

1. Introduction: A Digression

Unlike the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, who produced twelve London symphonies, the twentieth-century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams only wrote one London symphony. Here, the similarities between the two composers end. Haydn’s orchestral works have nothing to do with a musical representation of London, they were simply written in or for London in the early 1790s and conducted by him in this city. Although Vaughan Williams himself regards his second, A London Symphony, as absolute music and would have preferred the subtitle Symphony by a Londoner (Decca 4), programme notes for concert performances and recordings indulge in explaining the music in terms of characteristic features of London and scenes of metropolitan life.[1]

In his fascinating study The Country and the City, Raymond Williams argues that the form of Dickens’s novels represents his vision of London: ‘[T]he experience of the city is the fictional method; or the fictional method is the experience of the city.’ (154) Another writer who had a symbiotic relationship to the city in which he lived was Franz Kafka. Prague shaped Kafka and Kafka shaped Prague. In his introduction to the catalogue of the recently opened Kafka museum The City of K: Franz Kafka and Prague Juan Insua claims: ‘Kafka in Prague, Prague in Kafka. The myth of the city … and the writer’s aura … feed each other. They are an indissoluble binomial.’ (11)

Balshaw and Kennedy advise caution with regard to the all too readily attempted equation of language and object, ‘to be wary of models that posit the city as analogous to language as these all too often decontextualise and relativise their object.’ (4) After all, as Balshaw and Kennedy argue, ‘representation also involves material, visual and psychic forms and practices that cannot be reduced to textuality.’ (4) Nevertheless, in this paper several significant homologies and isomorphisms between the most popular genre of nineteenth-century English theatre, the melodrama, and London, the metropolis that was growing into a megalopolis in the Victorian era, will be explored. This is certainly not the first endeavour to analyse the relation between city and text. The renowned philosopher, sociologist and critic Walter Benjamin appears to have gone much further in his attempt to ‘write’ the city. As Gilloch points out, ‘[i]n Benjamin’s work the city is transformed into a text. The counterpart to this metamorphosis is that the text itself becomes ‘urban’. … Its formal properties mimic the very set of urban experiences to which it gives voice.’ (181-2) The aim of this paper is less ambitious, it will relate structural parameters of the popular dramatic genre to those of a big city, more specifically of Victorian London. Essentially, it will be argued that these homologies and isomorphisms can be understood as a cultural phenomenon of the nineteenth century, a period in which the city, in particular the metropolis, rapidly developed as a new lebensraum, a living space for the urban masses, while, simultaneously, melodrama became the most popular theatrical entertainment for these masses. In other words, the popular theatre melodramatized the new living conditions of the masses for the masses.

2. Hybridity

The genre of melodrama developed in the second half of the eighteenth century and became the most popular form of theatre in the course of the nineteenth century. The melodrama is a peculiar mixture of ingredients from various dramatic genres and types of theatrical entertainment. Essentially, melodrama combines four elements, the serious and the comic, the pantomimic and the spectacular. (Rosador 94) In other words, it is a hybrid genre. Hybridity is also a recognizable feature of many cities, also of nineteenth-century London. Raymond Williams regards ‘miscellaneity, … crowded variety … [and] randomness of movement’ (154) as typical of the city. Likewise, Zygmunt Bauman speaks of the cityspace as ‘a meeting –- and battle-ground –- of countervailing forces, and of incompatible yet mutually accomodating tendencies.’ (15) On the other hand, London, particularly nineteenth-century London can be seen as a hybrid city in architectural terms. Until about mid-century London was largely Georgian, while, on the other hand, ‘styles changed every generation or so from post Georgian eclecticism to Italianate and Gothic.’ (

3. Manichean structure

Another crucial generic component of melodrama is the manichean structure of its moral code. There is a clear opposition of moral absolutes, of unadulterated virtue and vice, which is invariably resolved through the administerering of poetic justice at the end of the play. (Schmidt 115) We find analogies to this ethical polarity in the country-city dichotomy and its associated binaries of home and away from home, familiar and unknown, and, ultimately of self and other. One may also see a correlation with Bauman’s antithetical sociological perspectives on the metropolis, which he simultaneously views as the city of fears and the city of hopes. We also discover this oppositional mode in Bauman’s perception of nineteenth-century cities as

… battlegrounds of sharply contradictory tendencies and starkly contradictory value hierarchies. One hierarchy put at the top sober calculations of costs and effects, gains and losses, profits and expenditures. The other assigned topmost priority to the standards of humanity and the incipient human rights to dignified life and decent living conditions that such life required. … The two hierarchies stood in opposition to each other and were genuinely incompatible. (11-12)

However, for some melodramatic heroes, London symbolized the confusion of clear-cut economic and moral categories. One of the protagonists in E. L. Blanchard’s melodrama Faith, Hope and Charity announces: ‘And now to London -– the vortex in which wealth and poverty, vice and virtue, are equally confounded.’ (13) From an entirely different angle, the comic couple in the play associates completely antithetical expectations -– regarding hopes and fears — with the imperial capital; while Fanny looks forward to the pleasures and amenities of the big city, her friend Titus warns her in no uncertain terms of the dangers it harbours:

But only think, now, of your venturing to such an awful place without me. … Why I’ve heard say, that in London there be regular ogres that stand at the corners of streets to swallow up every poor country girl that comes in their way. (21)

4. Neither plot nor plan: the collision of disparate elements

One of the most significant characteristics of melodrama is its episodic structure. This clearly non-Aristotelian situational dramaturgy relies on the effect of scenic units, not on that of an overarching, logically developed and resolved linear plot. As Rosador has put it, ‘the structure of melodrama consists of scenic and emotional climaxes.’ (99) On the website on nineteenth-century cities run by the University of St. Andrews we can read the following about the absence of a plot structure, so to speak, in terms of town-planning:

Unlike other large European cities London was not constructed on a preconceived plan. It grew from the random agglomeration of villages which were gradually absorbed as the population grew and as private enterprise provided housing solutions. The consequence was that, as Percy Hunter said in 1885, ‘[a]rchitecturally, London may be said to represent chaos itself.’ (

John Summerson takes a similar view of ‘the apparent chaos of the stylistic scene.’ (325) He concludes his essay on architecture in Victorian London by underlining the virtually anarchic aesthetics of the metropolis; after a century of growth and expansion, ‘no single architectural image emerged to typify the London of Victoria. To the twentieth century, the London legacy was incomprehensible chaos.’ (328) Walter Benjamin defines a further aspect of metropolitan life, the transformation of coherent, comprehensible Erfahrung into disordered, random, emotional Erlebnis, which can be seen as homologous with the episodic dramaturgy of melodrama. In an urban environment, in the midst of crowds the individual is inundated with a profusion of sense impressions which he/she cannot assimilate, and which, essentially, results in the fragmentation and dislocation of experience, which ceases to be a continuous development (Gilloch 143): ‘There is no single picture, no overarching perspective, that can capture the diversity of this environment.’ (Gilloch, 170) Georg Simmel, one of the founding fathers of urban sociology, argues that the breathtaking speed and infinite variety of life in the city requires more consciousness (Bewusstsein), awareness, alertness than the slower and more regular rhythm of life in the country. The quick crowding together of ever-changing images as well as the unexpectedness of impressions forced upon city dwellers make heavy demands on their psychic stamina. (9) Contrast, the surprise of the unexpected, the violent collision of disparate elements –- genuine features of urban life –- are also generic features of melodrama, where we find, for example, a quick succession of pathetic and farcical scenes and/or scenes of aristocratic and of low life. On the other hand, this side by side positioning of entirely different situations in melodrama also creates the impression of motley life, from which the claim to the representation of the totality of life is derived. The use of a great variety of settings also contributes significantly to the engendering of this impression. (Schmidt, 272)

5. Accidentality

Another of the above-mentioned features of urban existence –- that of the haphazard, the accidental, the random –- can also be related to a generic characteristic of melodrama, that of the paramount interference of chance and fate (Schmidt, 273), which determines the encounters between characters and the abrupt and often inexplicable ups and downs in the careers of individual figures. What, in aesthetic terms -– in terms of dramatic construction -– appear to be implausible contrivances, may be read as an element of mystification, necessary for holding the interest of the spectator and a peculiarity not unlike the image, or, perhaps to be more precise, the stereotypical image of the metropolis as a labyrinth, in which human relationships and the vicissitudes of urban life can hardly be deciphered. In melodrama, gambling and speculation frequently serve as paradigms of such sudden reversals of furtune. While in the first act of The Ticket-of-Leave Man, Green and Emily are carriage-people, we meet them as a penniless couple at the beginning of the second. In Faith, Hope and Charity, gambling plays a more essential role. A scene is set in a gambling house, several characters connected with the business are arrested, and two main figures lose everything at the gambling table. The abrupt and accidental reversals of fortune are a key element in the play. In several instances these sudden and repeated turnarounds are rendered scenically, sometimes they are simply reported. A typical example of the latter variety is the following:

Titus: … It was lucky for [Mr. and Mrs. Mordaunt], the two real culprits chanced to be at the Old Bailey when they were brought up for trial, as they were proved to be the housebreakers, and so established their innocence. (56)

6. Isolation among a crowd of strangers

As Raymond Williams observes, an idiosyncracy of Dickens’s novels –- ‘a hurrying seemingly random passing of men and women’ -– hightlighting the novelist’s urban aesthetics, typifies urban experience. ‘There is at first an absence of ordinary connection and development. These men and women do not so much relate as pass each other and then sometimes collide.’ (155) We find a similar emphasis on the apparently erratic, even the positively unanticipated, in melodrama, exemplified and underscored by the alternation of pathetic and comic scenes. Gilloch presents one of Walter Benjamin’s theorems of urban existence as follows:

For him, the hallmark of modern metropolitan experience was the encounter with the crowd. … In the great metropolitan centres of Europe, the individual was for the first time confronted by the unknown, unknowable multitude. (Gilloch 139-140)

Georg Simmel refers to a similar phenomenon, when he defines the attitude of city dwellers to one another, their social behaviour, as, essentially, one of reserve, aloofness, even coldness. As it would be impossible, as it would be beyond human capacity to react to, to respond to the countless people every individual encounters in a big city, they develop this reserve as a defence mechanism, as a strategy of self-preservation, in order not be totally atomized, mentally and emotionally. According to Simmel, it is this psychological factor as well as the (human) right to distrust the elements of the metropolis which are flying past that forces the urban population to develop this reserve, this reticence, this detachment. (23) Moreover, this reserve, this indifference engenders and enhances the feeling of independence of the indivual, especially among the milling crowd of a large city. Conversely, this liberty and indepedence may cause a feeling of utter loneliness and desolation. (31) In melodrama, particularly the characters who have moved from the country to the city are overwhelmed by this feeling of forlornness among the multitude. On the other hand, the crowd is also a perfect public hiding place for the innumerous criminals which people such plays. For example, Rivet, an escaped convict in Faith, Hope and Charity, gives the following answer to the question why he remains in town:

Vy, bless you, it’s the safest place as ever vos. Looking for a chap in London is like hunting the needle in the stack of hay -– there’s a precious deal of trouble to find ’em … (61)

7. A space to be read

‘The city is a space to be read. … The metropolis is a multi-faceted entity, a picture puzzle that eludes any unequivocal decipherment’, as Gilloch explains Walter Benjamin’s notion of the modern metropolis in metaphorical terms. (169-70) Steven Marcus employs the text-metaphor in the title and the introductory paragraph of his essay on the Victorian city: ‘Reading the Illegible’:

One of the chief components of the distress commonly felt by many people in modern cities is their sense that the city is unintelligible and illegible. The city is experienced as estrangement because it is not perceived as a coherent system of signs, as an environment communicating to us in a language that we know. (257)

The city dweller appears to perceive ‘the structure of a chaos, a landscape whose human, social, and natural parts may be related simply by accidents, a random agglomeration of mere appearances.’ (257) A host of melodramatic characters complain about their bewilderment and disorientation in the British capital. In Lost in London the Lancashire miner Job Armroyd, who is looking for his seduced and abducted wife, moans about his wanderings in the gloomy metropolis: ‘It be a dreadful and a dreary place, this Lunnon, for them as are weak an’ wi’ no hand to guide ’em.’ (245) He now experiences himself what his father had told him and he had passed on as a warning to his young wife Nelly, who yearned for a more exciting life. Armroyd senior, who had spent two weeks in the capital, was unable to read the metropolis, ‘he could’na mek head nor tail o’t’ and offered the following advice to his son: ‘better lose thy’sen down here among th’ workin’s wi’out a lamp, then be adrift in that theer Lunnon, an’ no one to gi’e thee a helpin’ hand.’ (210)

8. Preurban past and the search for identity

Certainly one of the strongest analogies between urban life and melodrama is the problematic search for identity. City dwellers and melodramatic figures alike embark on this difficult quest. In particular, newcomers from the country are initially faced with a loss of identity. They have left a small community in which they had been integrated and assigned their role in a, mostly agrarian, society. Family and other ties, traditions, modes of behaviour were given up and new social structures had to be established, a new rhythm of life had to be adapted to, new professions had to be found, when people moved into the big city. These migrants had a hard time to overcome the disorientation, to develop a sense of direction, to position themselves in an entirely new, alien, and often hostile world, in short they had to redefine their identity or find a new identity. A further facet of the quest of such uprooted people was adopted and adapted by melodramatists. Characters who have moved from the country to the city, either to find work, adventure, or entertainment and pleasure, have great difficulties in finding their bearings. More often than not these uprooted figures cannot cope with their present existence in an alien and hostile new urban environment and begin, in retrospect, to construct an idealised version of the rural world they have left. This myth of the idyllic country, of a near-paradisal past, is generated as the quasi-therapeutical antithesis to the hardly bearable present life in the metropolis. (Schmidt 265-6) Carl Schorske establishes yet another link between past and present in the context of metropolitan architecture. In his seminal essay ‘The Idea of the City in European Thought: Voltaire to Spengler’, Schorske relates the absence of an individual architectural form and the preference for historical styles to the ideas of the archaistic school of thinking: ‘Their vision of the future involved, to a greater or lesser degree, the recapture of a preurban past.’ (45) In line with this argument, Schorske understands the ‘Victorian historicism’ in architecture -– referring to the newly built railway stations of Euston, St. Pancras, and Paddington -– as

the incapacity of city dwellers either to accept the present or to conceive the future except as a resurrection of the past. Mammon sought to redeem himself by donning the mask of a preindustrial past that was not his own. (45)

9. Identities lost and found

Melodramatic plots typically focus on the hero’s or the heroine’s loss of identity — usually as a consequence of the evil machinations of the villain or villains -– which is regained at the end of the play, where poetic justice is administered. The protagonists are either deprived of their identity because they are falsely accused of a crime, because false documents are produced or sometimes because hero or heroine, in a moment of weakness, yield to temptation. In Lost in London, Nelly Armroyd, wife of the elderly miner Job, is lured to London by young and rich Gilbert Featherstone’s promises of a life of luxury and pleasure. Even before she actually runs away she is not quite herself, she does not trust her moral strength; in a soliloquy she implores the absent Job to save her from herself. The moment she leaves her home she begins to regret her decision, once in London she cannot enjoy what she has been dreaming of. Nelly’s heart is literally breaking, she is dying from sin. Nelly has given up her identity, most particularly her moral identity, which she cannot regain in this world. Only at the end of the play, when she passes away in the arms of her forgiving husband, is she allowed to rejoin her self, in a scene of pseudo-transfiguration. Here we also find the typical nostalgic construction of an idyllic past in the country, where she was surrounded by people she knew, by honest people who respected her, and whose moral self is still intact. When she meets her Lancashire friend Tiddy she fondly recalls the ‘old bright days, that never, never can return’ (239), while during her illness the view of London reminds her of her sin and her disillusionment. It also serves as a foreboding of her death: ‘London! … The shining city of my dreams -– my dreams! Its spires are bathed in light. … But the darkness is creeping down, and a shadow rises between me and the fading light.’ (259-60) Bob Brierly, the protagonist of Tom Taylor’s The Ticket-of-Leave Man, is another Lancashire character who is lost in London; two weeks of revelling in the metropolis have left him sleepless, shaky, and feverish. He is haunted by dreams of a blissful past at home, here also associated with the innocence of childhood:

I never close my eyes but I’m back at Glossop wi’ the old folks at home -– ‘t mother fettlin’ about me, as she used to when I was a brat, and father stroking my head, and callin’ me his bonny boy …(171)

Bob Brierly is altogether a prototypical character in terms of urban experiences in melodrama. He is unable to read the big city and he cannot interpret the behaviour of people correctly. This confusion and bewilderment also brings about the loss of his identity. He is deceived by criminals, falsely accused of a crime, convicted and imprisoned. After his release he is, literally, in search of his character, i.e. his true identity, that of an honest man. Only at the very end, when he manages to capture the real perpetrator, Bob Brierly regains his character. In Faith, Hope and Charity various characters use false identities for purposes of deception, most importantly the protagonist Arthur Mordaunt, a ruined gambler, who pretends to be a gentleman of means in order to be able to marry Emma Mapleson, a rich heiress. As a contrivance to bring about the denouement the disclosure of new identities is employed. Edward Wyndham, former suitor of Emma and later benefactor of the Mordaunts, turns out to be Emma’s long lost brother.

10. Theatricalization

There are striking analogies between Williams’s view of Dickens’s characters, as well as the mode of interaction between them, and the melodramatic characters, their patterns of behaviour and their interrelations. Dickensian figures invariably attempt to establish their individuality, their identity, their reality, in contradistinction to other similar voices ‘in fixed self-descriptions’ (155) , illustrating the author’s ‘genius for typification’ (154). The melodramatic personnel is made up of easily recognizable types, stock characters, the hero, the heroine, the villain, the comic man, the comic woman, the old father etc. In the popular theatre the dramatis personae are not only typified figures, who keep characterizing, advertising and commenting on themselves, they can also be immediately identified by standardized acting techniques and costumes as well as by musical leitmotifs. While auto-characterisation is paramount in melodrama, most figures also indulge in self-nomination; figures address themselves and each other as ‘the miserable Joe’, ‘the luckless Mary’, ‘vile seducer’ or ‘virtuous maiden’. (Schmidt 283) Johann N. Schmidt establishes a convincing connection between Jonathan Raban’s specification of the importance of synecdoche in a metropolitan environment and the typification of figures in melodrama. Raban argues that

in a world of crowds and strangers, where things happen at speed, are glimpsed and cannot be recalled –- a world, in short which is simply too big to be held at one time in one’s imagination –- synecdoche is much more than a rhetorical figure, it is a means of survival. (Quoted in Schmidt 275)

In this context, Schmidt maintains that city dwellers tend, or probably tended, to model their conduct on eccentrically exaggerated stereotypes or a character mask (documented in Pierce Egan and the early Dickens), thus contributing to a theatricalization of urban life. (275)[2] It appears that the staging, the modes of representation of cities and city dwellers as well as of melodramas and melodramatic characters reveal various analogies in their attempt to draw attention to themselves in hyperbolic dimensions: the overpowering profile of metropolitan architecture and the overt sensationalism of melodrama as well as the histrionic conduct of the inhabitants of the metropolis and the emotionally overcharged stock characters of melodrama and the notorious overplaying of melodramatic actors.

11. Conclusion

Following the melodramatic dramaturgy, we will abruptly come to a conclusion. Can we actually relate London and the melodrama of the Victorian period along the lines of ‘Dickens is London, London is Dickens’, or ‘Prague is Kafka, Kafka is Prague’, suggesting that: ‘London is melodrama and melodrama is London’? Certainly not in such absolute terms. However, as has been established, various significant urban phenomena correlate with essential generic features of melodrama. There are also striking correspondences between the findings of urban sociologists and the myth of the metropolis, e.g. in terms of labyrinthine structures, a chaos of illegible signs, an environment peopled with crowds of strangers. If we go by Barbara Maria Stafford’s definition of myth as ‘an irreducible representation of experience, the pure and primitive unit of perception’ ( hfst1.b.htm) we may argue that melodrama is a manifestation of the myth of the metropolis.


[1] A case in point is the 1991 Decca CD booklet of the LPO recording conducted by Sir Adrian Boult: ‘London is, in fact, dramatized for us symphonically.’ (4) According to the anonymous author of these notes we are meant to hear ‘the cockney and his special brand of laughter … London’s size and variety … the city’s noises and vibrations.’ (4) The most telling example of this type of reading the music in programmatic terms is the explication of the opening of the symphony: ‘The first movement of the symphony opens mysteriously in a London fog, or at least in the mists of an autumn morning rising off the River Thames at Westminster Bridge. … After some treatment the Westminster Chimes from ‘Big Ben’ are faintly but emphatically heard on harp and clarinet. The scene is set, and London’s noise clashes on us in a first subject.’ (4)

[2] Compare Jonathan Raban’s interpretation of the interrelations between urban existence, synecdoche, moral dichotomies and theatrical behaviour:

Once we treat people, morally and functionally, in terms of single synecdochal roles, we turn both our lives and theirs into a formal drama. The city itself becomes an allegorical backdrop, painted with symbols of the very good and the very evil. The characters who strut before it similarly take on exaggerated colourings. Isolated from their personal histories, glaringly illuminated by the concentrated light of a single defining concern, under constant interrogation from their fellows, these urban people turn, unwittingly, into actors. (Quoted in Schmidt 271)

Works Cited

Anon. ‘London, As It Strikes a Stranger’, Temple Bar 5 (June 1862). Quoted in Lynda Nead. Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Imgaes in Nineteenth-Century London. New Haven: Yale U.P., 2000.

Bauman, Zygmunt. “City of Fears, City of Hopes”. 1-25. Date accessed: 20 June 2007.

Blanchard, E. L. Faith, Hope, and Charity! or, Chance and Change! A Domestic Drama, in Three Acts. Displaying the Men, Means, and Manners of the Day. 1845. Date accessed: 20 June 2007.

Decca CD booklet for Vaughan Williams. Symphony no.2. Partita. London 1991 (The British Collection ADRM).

Gilloch, Graeme. Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996.

Insua, Juan. Ed. ‘Introduction’. In The City of K: Franz Kafka and Prague. Exhibition catalogue. Barcelona: Copa, 2002.

Marcus, Steven. ‘Reading the Illegible’. In The Victorian City: Images and Realities vol.1. Eds. H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff. London: Routledge and Kegan, 1976. 257-276.

Phillips, Watts. ‘Lost in London: A New and Original Drama in Three Acts’. In Hiss the Villain: Six English and American Melodramas. Ed. Michael Booth. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1964. 203-269.

Rosador, Kurt Tetzeli von.’Victorian Theories of Melodrama.’ Anglia 95 (1977). 86-114.

Schmidt, Johann N. Ästhetik des Melodramas: Studien zu einem Genre des populären Theaters im England des 19. Jahrhunderts. Heidelberg: Winter, 1986.

Schorske, Carl. ‘The Idea of the City in European Thought: Voltaire to Spengler’. 1963. In Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1998. 37-55.

Simmel, Georg. Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben. 1903. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2006.

Stafford, Barbara Maria. Symbol and Myth. 1979. Date accessed: 20 June 2007

Summerson, John. ‘London the Artifact’. In The Victorian City: Images and Realities vol.1. Eds. H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff. London: Routledge and Kegan, 1976. 311-332.

Taylor, Tom. ‘The Ticket-of-Leave Man: A Drama in Four Acts’. In Plays by Tom Taylor. Ed. Martin Banham. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1985. 165-22.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford U.P., 1973

To Cite This Article:

Rudolf Weiss, ‘London as Melodrama: 19th-Century Popular Theatre and the Myth of the Metropolis’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 2 (September 2007). Online at Accessed on [date of access]