Date of Completion


Embargo Period



Victorian literature; Neo-Victorian literature; drama; melodrama

Major Advisor

Professor Thomas Recchio

Associate Advisor

Professor Sarah Winter

Associate Advisor

Professor Mary Burke

Field of Study



Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Campus Access


This dissertation examines the ways in which melodramatic communication functions as a frequently-undervalued form of emotional literacy. This project brings together uses of stage melodrama across the Victorian era as well as contemporary efforts to reimagine the genre. For example, Charles Dickens’s mid-century efforts to reorient Victorian readers toward a more productive understanding of melodramatic rhetoric and characterization reflect his concerns about the dangers of underestimating affective response. I look to Nicholas Nickleby, Hard Times, and Great Expectations for especially resonant examples of Dickens’s efforts to intervene in the lessons that his Victorian readers have learned about melodramatic forms of communication. Oscar Wilde, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, stages tragedies and farces containing fragments of the melodramatic theatricality that has begun to fall out of favor. In works like Salome, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde treats melodrama as a sort of stowaway within plays designed with fin de siècle aesthetics in mind. Contemporary dramas that adapt the works and life stories of these two authors contend with the need to balance the Victorian theatricality of their source material with the standards of more recent theater; within this struggle, these productions engage in numerous reinventions of melodramatic performance in their efforts to bring Victorian social concerns in line with more recent issues, from Thatcherite politics to current visions of sexuality and class mobility. Through efforts to recapture the “spirit” of Dickens and to transform Wilde’s personal life into a melodramatic narrative, these productions offer audiences the opportunity to read complicated new forms of melodramatic theatricality. I conclude with an examination of the recent Broadway musical and this genre’s continued efforts to transform the emotional vocabulary that melodrama provides. Throughout this project, I approach melodrama as a property with an unsuspected array of depths and dangers that poses considerable challenges to all melodramatic readers.

Available for download on Sunday, April 30, 2028