My last post was about the rise of melodrama, but today I want to write about what is arguably the first melodrama written in English, Thomas Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery.
Holcroft was familiar with Guilbert Pixérécourt's play Coelina, or The Child of Mystery and decided to adapt it into English. He changed the name of the title character to Selina and eliminated much of the dialogue, replacing it with extensive stage directions. This hybrid form, containing music and dumb shows as well as spoken text, he called "A Mélo-Drame In Two Acts."
The plot of the play in fact relies upon one character's inability to speak. Francisco, who saw his brother commit a brutal murder, was made mute after that same brother turned him over to the "Algerines" who presumably destroyed his vocal chords. Francisco can "speak" through gesture, and by writing, with his words conveyed to the audience by another character, Stephano.
Stephano is in love with Selina, an orphan taken in by his father, Bonamo. Francisco's brother, the villainous Count Romaldi, also loves Selina, and when Bonamo turns down the count's offer of marriage, the scoundrel supplies "proof" that Selina is the illegitimate child of adultery. Bonamo turns her out of his house, but his servant Fiametta objects. She comically reiterates that she won't say a word, even as she constantly interrupts other characters.
Playing up the muteness theme, Fiametta even says, "Tell all, sir, I am dumb" before allowing the local miller to shed some light on the mystery. As soon as he is finished with his speech, however, Fiametta cuts in yet again, only to pledge that this time she is really done speaking.
Reviewers responded to the play's use of mute dumbshow rather than dialogue. According to the Times: "There is no extravagance of idea--no laborious research after simile and metaphor, no display of pomp and inflated expression: the thought seems to arise from the moment, and the words appear to be suggested by the circumstance which pass under the eye of the spectator."
This sparseness of dialogue quickly became popular on the British stage. Numerous other melodramas followed, including James Baldwin Buckstone's Luke the Labourer, Douglas Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susan, and the many, many plays of Dion Boucicault.