Critical Context

Writing plays was not Dion Boucicault’s only contribution to theater. He was an actor, director, and manager. Yet he is best known as a dramatist. Boucicault created at least 141 extant plays that span a period of fifty-four years. His comedy of manners London Assurance (pr., pb. 1841) was Boucicault’s first highly successful play and revealed his potential to create quality drama. Boucicault’s first successful American play was the melodramatic The Poor of New York (pr., pb. 1857). This play was followed two years later by a better-written melodrama, his controversial The Octoroon; the play was extremely popular during its time and remains a noteworthy example of earlier American drama. Boucicault, a nineteenth century dramatist, is primarily remembered in the twenty-first century for three Irish plays: The Colleen Bawn (pr., pb. 1860), Arrah-na-Pogue: Or, The Wicklow Wedding (pr. 1864, pb. 1865), and The Shaughraun (pr. 1874, pb. 1880), which was his greatest artistic and commercial success. Arrah-na-Pogue was the only one of this trio of Irish plays that did not premiere in New York.

Like the various dramatic adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Octoroon is classified as a slavery play. Unlike its predecessors, Boucicault’s play is a more unified and polished work. During the nineteenth century, autobiographies by former slaves such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs were potent tools in the antislavery crusade. Many readers of these narratives were awakened to the evils of slavery. In a similar manner, The Octoroon, with its ability to evoke various antislavery sentiments, served as an important tool for abolitionists. More than a century later, The Octoroon remains a valuable resource that reveals the insight and courage of a nineteenth century playwright who dared to bring the inflammatory issue of slavery to the stage.