19th Century King of Melodrama

Dion Boucicault (1820-1890)

Let me introduce you to the most successful writer you’ve never heard of. When a friend and theatre director Kurt Beattie recommended I read a few plays by Dion Boucicault (pronounced boo-see-coe), my response was “Who?” Kurt had struck a gap in my reading. I would learn that Boucicault was the most prominent writer for the English-speaking theatre in the 19th century and yet I had never heard of the guy. Kurt said Boucicault’s plots were often carefully structured – if overwrought – and could be profitably studied.

My reading gap cannot be charged to deficient schooling. Boucicault wrote melodramas, an artistically feeble genre that is derided by the academy and for that matter by most theatre artists since his time.

After the period of Restoration comedies, led by dramatists William Congreve and William Wycherley toward the end of the 17th century, followed by the plays of Richard Sheridan (1751-1816) a few decades later, English dramatic writing fell into a Dark Age from which it did not emerge until the 20th century. Melodrama reigned during that dim time and Boucicault sat on the biggest throne.

One thing that characterizes melodrama is the exaggerated gesture, and that was just as true for Boucicault’s life. He was born Dionysius Boursiquot in Dublin in 1820. His true father most likely was Dionysius Lardner, a lodger at his mother’s house when she and her husband, a wine merchant, were separated. Lardner paid for and supervised the education of young Dionysius. Lardner’s vast energy and determination were accompanied by a talent for chicanery, traits passed on to his ward.

Boucicault began his theatrical career acting at age 18. London Assurance, premiering when he was just 21, was his first success as an author. He would go on to write or adapt more than 130 plays during a career of 50-plus years, eventually expanding into producing and theatre management, all while continuing to act. Married three times, there were rumors he hastened his first wife’s death. His last marriage was bigamous for a while as he didn’t bother to divorce wife number two, the well-known actress Agnes Robertson. (She had been raised as the ward of the famous actor Charles Kean.) The dramatic bug got passed on to Boucicault’s descendants; a granddaughter, Rene Boucicault, went on to act in silent films.

In 1853 the Boucicaults moved to New York, where he wrote, acted and produced, and she acted. He kept on the lookout for topical events that he could dramatize. One such resulting play sensationalized Mormons and polygamy but, alas, Brigham Young; or The Revolt of the Harem, opening in 1858, was a bust. He did have hits in New York, including The Octoroon, an anti-slavery potboiler set in Louisiana. That play premiered December, 1859. Sixteen months later cannons fired in South Carolina, igniting the Civil War. In 1860 he and Agnes returned to England. They came back to New York for good in 1875.

His plays are rarely produced today, though The Shaughraun, a story set in Ireland, was revived in London in 1988 (National Theatre) and 2005. His Octoroon play gained renewed currency a few years ago when it was adapted by the African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. (An octoroon was someone having one-eighth Negro heritage.) Jacobs-Jenkins retained much of Boucicault’s plot. When An Octoroon premiered in 2014 at Soho Rep, Ben Brantley gave it high praise in the New York Times: “Strange as it seems, a work based on a terminally dated play from more than 150 years ago may turn out to be this decade’s most eloquent theatrical statement on race in America today.”

Boucicault’s pragmatic view of theatre could veer into cynicism. He once wrote in a letter: “I am making a hundred pounds a week on the damned thing [his play The Poor of Liverpool]. I localize it for each town, and hit the public between the eyes; so they see nothing but fire. Eh voila! I can spin out these rough-and-tumble dramas as a hen lays eggs. It’s a degrading occupation, but more money has been made out of guano than poetry.”

His C.V. included several bankruptcies. Whenever he had a hit to line his pockets, he went out and spent the lucre. He bought mansions and entertained lavishly. When The Shaughraun made a fortune in New York, he bought a steam yacht, planning to sail it from New York to England with the rebel Irish flag hoisted. That adventure came to naught.

Boucicault’s eventful life puts me in mind of another European dramatist with a colorful journey that ended in America. Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) was a librettist of 28 operas, including three of Mozart’s finest, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte. Fleeing debt and bankruptcy in England in 1805, Da Ponte moved to New York where he variously lectured on Italian literature at Columbia University, ran a grocery story, gave private Italian lessons, and opened a bookstore.

Boucicault paid as much attention to the mise-en-scène (stage picture) for his plays as he did to the dialogue. His productions were renowned for their spectacle. The last scene of The Octoroon, with a steamship on fire, is typical. (I’d like to know how they managed that on stage in 1859.) He may have been born a generation too early for what would have been an even more fitting medium. The moving pictures would have welcomed his spectacles and other visual effects. Furthermore, the plots of silent films and early talkies relished melodrama – Black Bart and all those damsels in distress.

Just as motion pictures were embracing melodrama, a new aesthetic for the stage was emerging that would push Boucicault’s plays aside and irrevocably change theatre. Consider that as Boucicault was writing his last scripts in the 1880s, grim, naturalistic plays by Strindberg, Ibsen and Shaw were coming on the scene and Chekhov’s plays waited just around the corner.

In his spare time Boucicault fought to get the first dramatic copyright law passed in 1856, and so he is owed a debt by all playwrights who have come after him. He died in New York in 1890.

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