Musée d'Orsay: Fifty Years of Melodrama (1825-1874)

Fifty Years of Melodrama (1825-1874)

Drawings, lithographs, photographs, objects and statuettes were gathered in the Musée d'Orsay to evoke fifty years of melodrama. Born under the Revolution and called "drama" from 1825 onwards, this genre, together with the vaudeville, dominated nineteenth-century theatrical production. Under the Restoration, the classical melodrama, essentially virtuous, went through a sea-change : from then on, in five acts and several tableaux, it borrowed from the romantic drama and the serialised novel their gloomy colours and such themes as adultery and the exposure of social injustice. The genius of the actor Frédérick Lemaître (1800-1876) thus turned a melodrama, L'Auberge des Adrets (1823) into an incisive pamphlet. In spite of its great success with the public, the play was forbidden. The authors were to write a follow up in 1834 : Robert Macaire.

The word "melodrama" covers a variety of genres. Some theatres staged costly reconstitutions of military events, some authors wrote adaptations of their own works, in particular Dumas with his series of the Musketeers (1845 and 1849), so that the public could see on the stage the heroes they knew from the serialised novels. The judiciary melodrama appeared under the Second Empire, of which Le courrier de Lyon (1850) constituted the prototype. The fashion for operette was eventually detrimental to the melodrama though its decline was slowed down by the great success met by Dennery's Two Orphans (1874).

Performances of melodramas took place in theatres located on the Boulevard du Temple. In other words the melodrama had its boom, on the famous "crime boulevard". In 1823, 151,702 fictitious crimes were numbered in a twenty-year span ! The theatre houses of the Boulevard du Temple, inheritors of the Fair theatres, were at the heart of theatrical Paris Haussmann expropriated many of them in 1862. All levels of society congregated nightly in an atmosphere magnificently restituted a hundred years later in the film Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) by Marcel Carné.


Jean-Claude Yon, researcher in the Musée d'Orsay and Claudette Joannis, curator, Département des Arts du spectacle, Bibliothèque Nationale

28 June - 18 September 1994
Musée d'Orsay

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