Dion Boucicault never had literary pretensions, but he was, and knew himself to be, a superb theatrical craftsperson. He prefaced his first publication, London Assurance, with an apology that answers for much of his later work as well: “It will not bear analysis as a literary production. In fact, my sole object was to throw together a few scenes of a dramatic nature, and therefore I studied the stage rather than the moral effect.” He later rationalized this concentration on the individual dramatic scene by arguing the decline of an audience whose chief literary form had become the newspaper. It is also true that he had to make his living from his work, and, as he once said, “More money has been made out of guano than out of poetry.”
Certainly, Boucicault did not concentrate on fine language. Indeed, when he wrote his Aristotelian essay “The Art of Dramatic Composition,” he listed only action, character, and decoration as the components of a drama. Diction and thought were never an issue for him, except as they were directly applicable to the presentation of plot and character. Nevertheless, a very serviceable acting drama can be written by concentrating on plot, characters, and spectacle.
Boucicault’s drama was always based on his impression, invariably correct, of what would work in the theater. At the outset of his career, this impression was founded on his reading of the masters of English comedy. Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, George Farquhar, Sir John Vanbrugh, and William Congreve were his sources, and he wrote well in the comic style that they had established. His best work was always in the comic vein, but as his theatrical experience grew, he perfected his skills in melodrama. His great Irish plays represent the successful synthesis of these two strains.
What Boucicault learned above all from the earlier comic dramatists was the presentation of character types. “By character,” Boucicault wrote, “we mean that individuality in a person made by the consistency of feelings, speech, and physiognomy.” The intricacies of character development were not for him, but in the creation of consistent comic caricature, he excelled. From the gentleman freeloader Dazzle and the befuddled pastor Rural, through the thoughtlessly alcoholic Rip Van Winkle, to the rogue heroes of the Irish plays, Boucicault forged a gallery of memorable acting parts. The essential ingredient in each is individuality. Every major role has a certain dimension of stereotype, but the successful ones are not mere stereotypes.
As in his creation of spectacle, Boucicault exploits local color to the fullest. Thus, the clever servant is given a distinctively Irish flavor; the soldiers defending the empire are also clannish Scots; and the inventory of national types in The Octoroon includes an American Indian, good and bad Yankees, Southern gentry, a heroine of mixed blood, and a cosmopolitan hero who cannot understand why he should not marry her. A character such as Lady Gay Spanker, a typical domineering wife, is given an extra dose of realism by being the complete English horsewoman.
Character is subordinated to plot in Boucicault’s theoretical article, and plot shows the characters “suffering their fate.” As in all melodrama, calamity dogs the sympathetic characters until poetic justice raises them to some form of final triumph. Financial ruin is the omnipresent threat, but there are also physical dangers to be faced by the innocent. A typical Boucicault play involves a number of threats and rescues, with a continuing major danger increasing in intensity until the final resolution. Some of his melodramas are historical, but most are set in the present. Although none of them could be called serious social drama, many do deal with real social problems: the plight of the poor, the evils of gambling and drink, even race relations. Boucicault’s position is never controversial, and he is careful to balance good and evil characters in every social or national class.
The final element in the construction of a drama is decoration, which Boucicault recognized as at once the least essential and the most impressive. The realistic portrayal of locality, whether it was London, Lucknow, Louisiana, or Wicklow, was the first aim in his set design. This interest in decoration began early, and London Assurance, Boucicault’s first success, was also the first play in London to be staged with a box set simulating a real room. For this, he had Madame Vestris, manager of Covent Garden, to thank, but scenery was to remain of vital importance to him. He often sought out the exotic, but the representation had to be believable. His realism, however, was designed to impress rather than to probe social issues. Each play offers at least one truly sensational scene: a steamboat explosion, a near-drowning, a boat race, or a burning building. These thrilling moments of spectacle join with the dangers presented by the plot to involve the audience in a world of vicarious peril.
Boucicault’s best drama discards none of the sensationalism of his more commercial melodrama. Rather, it adds a true sense of comedy and a skill in the creation of characters, particularly of Irish characters. He kept a rich brogue all his life and frequently acted parts calling for a stage Irishman. By setting plays in Ireland, he was able to exploit some traditional attributes of this stereotype without condescension. The audience laughs more with Myles-na-Coppaleen, for example, than at him. The witty dialogue of Boucicault’s early comedies returns in full force in these Irish plays in such a way as to make the sentimentality of their main actions palatable even to an age unused to melodrama....
(The entire section is 2361 words.)