The most characteristic thing about a melodrama is that it always begins at 7.30. The idea, no doubt, is that one is more in the mood for this sort of entertainment after a high tea than after a late dinner. Plain living leads to plain thinking, and a solid foundation of eggs and potted meat leaves no room for appreciation of the finer shades of conduct; Right is obviously Right, and Wrong is Wrong. Or it may be also that the management wishes to allow us time for recovery afterwards from the emotions of the evening; the play ends at 10.30, so that we can build up the ravaged tissues again with a hearty supper. But whatever the reason for the early start, the result is the same. We arrive at 7.45 to find that we alone of the whole audience have been left out of the secret as to why Lord Algernon is to be pushed off the pier.
For melodrama, unlike the more fashionable comedy, gets to grips at once. It is well understood by every dramatist that a late-dining audience needs several minutes of dialogue before it recovers from its bewilderment at finding itself in a theatre at all. Even the expedient of printing the names of the characters on the programme in the order in which they appear, and of letting them address each other frankly by name as soon as they come on the stage, fails to dispel the mists. The stalls still wear that vague, flustered look, as if they had expected a concert or a prize-fight and have just remembered that the concert, of course, is to-morrow. For this reason a wise dramatist keeps back his story until the brain of the more expensive seats begins to clear, and he is careful not to waste his jokes on the first five pages of his dialogue.
But melodrama plays to cheap seats, and the purchaser of the cheap seat has come there to have his money’s worth. Directly the curtain goes up he is ready to collaborate. It is perfectly safe for the Villain to come on at once and reveal his dastardly plans; the audience is alert for his confidences.
“Curse that young cub, Dick Vereker, what ill-fortune has sent him across my path? Already he has established himself in the affections of Lady Alicia, and if she consents to wed him my plans are foiled. Fortunately she does not know as yet that, by the will of her late Uncle Gregory, the ironmaster, two million pounds are settled upon the man who wins her hand. With two million pounds I could pay back my betting losses and prevent myself from being turned out of the Constitutional Club. And now to put the marked ace of spades in young Vereker’s coat-tail pocket. Ha!”
No doubt the audience is the more ready to assimilate this because it knew it was coming. As soon as the Villain steps on to the stage he is obviously the Villain; one does not need to peer at one’s programme and murmur, “Who is this, dear?” It is known beforehand that the Hero will be falsely accused, and that not until the last act will he and his true love come together again. All that we are waiting to be told is whether it is to be a marked card, a forged cheque, or a bloodstain this time; and (if, as is probable, the Heroine is forced into a marriage with the Villain) whether the Villain’s first wife, whom he had deserted, will turn up during the ceremony or immediately afterwards. For the whole charm of a melodrama is that it is in essentials just like every other melodrama that has gone before. The author may indulge his own fancies to the extent of calling the Villain Jasper or Eustace, of letting the Hero be ruined on the battle-field or the Stock Exchange, but we are keeping an eye on him to see that he plays no tricks with our national drama. It is our play as well as his, and we have laid down the rules for it. Let the author stick to them.
It is strange how unconvincing the Hero is to his fellows on the stage, and how very convincing to us. That ringing voice, those gleaming eyes–how is it that none of his companions seems able to recognize Innocence when it is shining forth so obviously? “I feel that I never want to see your face again,” says the Heroine, when the diamond necklace is found in his hat-box, and we feel that she has never really seen it at all yet. “Good Heavens, madam,” we long to cry, “have you never been to a melodrama that you can be so deceived? Look again! Is it not the face of the Falsely Accused?” But probably she has not been to a melodrama. She moves in the best society, and the thought of a high tea at 6.30 would appal her.
But let me confess that we in the audience are carried away sometimes by that ringing voice, those gleaming eyes. He has us, this Hero, in the hollow of his hand (to borrow a phrase from the Villain). When the limelight is playing round his brow, and he stands in the centre of the stage with clenched fists, oh! then he has us. “What! Betray my aged mother for filthy gold!” he cries, looking at us scornfully as if it was our suggestion. “Never, while yet breath remains in my body!” What a cheer we give him then; a cheer which seems to imply that, having often betrayed our own mothers for half a crown or so, we are able to realize the heroic nature of his abstention on this occasion. For in the presence of the Hero we lose our sense of values. If he were to scorn an offer to sell his father for vivisectional purposes, we should applaud enthusiastically his altruism.
But it is only the Hero who wins our cheers, only the Villain who wins our hisses. The minor characters are necessary, but we are not greatly interested in them. The Villain must have a confederate to whom he can reveal his wicked thoughts when he is tired of soliloquizing; the Hero must have friends who can tell each other all those things which a modest man cannot say for himself; there must be characters of lower birth, competent to relieve the tension by sitting down on their hats or pulling chairs from beneath their acquaintances. We could not do without them, but we do not give them our hearts. Even the Heroine leaves us calm. However beautiful she be, she is not more than the Hero deserves. It is the Hero whom we have come out to see, and it is painful to reflect that in a little while he will he struggling to get on the ‘bus for Walham Green, and be pushed off again just like the rest of us.