A dastardly villain ties a beautiful, helpless girl to some railroad tracks as an oncoming train approaches — and at the last possible moment, though the train should have already arrived, an audacious hero swoops in and saves the damsel-in-distress. Sound familiar? It’s a nice little package that most of us can recognize, mainly thanks to numerous spoofs in shows like Rocky and Bullwinkle and Austin Powers.
Back in the early 19th century, when New York theater was just getting started, established actors from Europe flocked to the new stages, eager to expose themselves (career-wise) on a new continent. American theater managers approved of exotic foreign celebrities, thus launching a new "star system." These big shots were the main draw for ticket sales. What better way to indulge their theatrical egos by giving them the role of the always-triumphant hero?
The growth of cities, thanks to rural transplants and fresh immigrants, encouraged a more democratic and less "intellectual" theater, with an emphasis on appealing to multiple cultures. The archetypes of hero, maiden, and villain represented more than just overly emoted caricatures of existing values — they established new values for an emerging American culture. And while nowadays we’d like our dramatis personae to be a bit more complex, there’s no use in being pretentious about the kitschy nature of the old melodramas. Soap operas, reality television, Schwarzenegger flicks — our "guilty pleasures" that rake in billions of dollars each year — are all modern derivatives of the campy formulaic theater that dominated Broadway in the Victorian era. Trying to make your hero’s triumph realistic and believable? I have a better idea: "place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death." Your sales will soar!