Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2361
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.
London Assurance and Old Heads and Young Hearts are theatrical curiosities. Boucicault took London by storm with comedies of manners, a dramatic form at least fifty years out of date. The plays are set in a time that might be the Regency (1811-1820) but draw heavily on the comic situations and characters of eighteenth century drama. Although the plots of both plays are intricate, it is their characters that make them memorable.
London Assurance offers two fine female roles: Grace Harkaway is a witty heroine in the tradition of Congreve’s Millamant, while Lady Gay Spanker, “glee made a living thing,” carries the last three acts with her enthusiasm. Dazzle, the man nobody knows, is essentially the clever comic servant in his manipulation of the action. He brazenly attaches himself to the company, and his discovery provides the comic conclusion to the play when he acknowledges that he himself has “not the remotest idea” who he is. The moral tag that succeeds this quip, with its tedious definition of a gentleman, is the only Victorian thing about the play.
The main action, the father-and-son opposition in a love triangle, is the stuff of traditional comedy. An interesting variation is the “disguise” adopted by the son—simply denying his identity to his own father. This barefaced lie is so improbable that it works both in the play and on the stage. In this matter, Boucicault shows a spark of the assurance that characterizes Dazzle and Charles Courtly.
Old Heads and Young Hearts
Old Heads and Young Hearts was Boucicault’s second well-deserved success. In this play, there are now two pairs of lovers and two fathers to be placated. The background of hunting has been replaced by that of politics, and the country retreat is run as a military post by Colonel Rocket. The family relationships of the Colonel and his daughter and of Lord and Lady Pompion are sensitively drawn. The plot is deliberately confusing, and the old heads cannot follow what is going on. Jesse Rural, a well-meaning old minister, compounds the confusion with his efforts to help the young hearts and remains baffled at the final curtain. The wit is defter than that of London Assurance, but Old Heads and Young Hearts was to be Boucicault’s last effort at true comedy of manners. He would argue later that the public only thought it wanted comedy, while what it really demanded was a mixture of genres.
The Poor of New York
The majority of Boucicault’s original plays may be classed under the general heading melodrama, of which The Poor of New York and After Dark may be considered representative. The former was suggested by the commercial panic of 1857 in New York, but with its local allusions changed, it reappeared as The Poor of Liverpool and as The Streets of London. The plot, shamelessly based on coincidence, sentiment, and sensation, was loosely borrowed from a French play. The villainous banker Bloodgood, who has cheated or ruined virtually all the other characters, is finally exposed when two men break into a burning tenement to secure evidence against him that is about to be destroyed.
The plot of After Dark is incredible to an extreme that approaches self-parody. Father and daughter, husband and wife, jailer and convict, and former fellow officers are reunited by a series of coincidences, schemes, and discoveries that is utterly fantastic. The action, which is set in the lurid atmosphere of a gambling den, exploits the possibilities of the newly opened underground railway as well as provides an attempted suicide under Blackfriars Bridge.
The Octoroon is an altogether better play than After Dark, although it depends on the same sort of sentimentality and coincidence. Boucicault walked a fine line between pro-and antislavery elements, and somehow managed to offend no one. Salem Scudder, a crusty Yankee who has a soft heart, is one of Boucicault’s finest sentimental characters. The discovery of the murderer’s identity by a self-developing photograph exploited a topical scientific discovery in a sensational manner. The ending, however, is tragic, as it must be. Zoe, the octoroon forbidden by her own society from marrying the man who loves her, had to die if the play was not to support miscegenation and offend many in the audience of Boucicault’s day. The comic dialogue that was to lighten the sentiment of the Irish plays is also absent.
The Irish Plays
It is probably no coincidence that Boucicault’s best plays were those with the largest roles for himself. He was a comic actor of some versatility, limited mainly by his accent, yet it was not until 1860 that he wrote a really meaty part that took advantage of this handicap. The Colleen Bawn, Arrah-na-Pogue, and The Shaughraun were his greatest successes, and Boucicault saved his best writing for them. Several other Irish plays were baldly commercial and had poor receptions.
The Colleen Bawn
The Colleen Bawn drew its plot loosely from Gerald Griffin’s novel The Collegians, but Boucicault created the characters. Drawing on his reading of Irish playwrights Samuel Lover and Charles Lever, as well as on his own skill at comic dialogue, he quickly sketched a romantic comedy with the framework of melodrama. For spectacle, he added a dramatic dive to save the drowning heroine and an elaborate series of sliding Irish backdrops. For himself, he penned the character of Myles-na-Coppaleen, the heroic vagabond, a type he would re-create as Shaun the Post and Conn the Shaughraun in succeeding plays. Yet much of the wittiest dialogue is given to Anne Chute, a strong heroine in the mold of Grace Harkaway. Danny Mann, the villain, is given unusual depth in that he sincerely believes himself to be the faithful servant of the hero, Hardress Cregan.
As in Boucicault’s two other major Irish plays, the villains are homegrown and the only Englishman is a noble romantic. Arrah-na-Pogue and The Shaughraun, however, both present heroes pursued by the English simply for being patriots. The political overtones are softened in that pardons are granted in both cases, but the atmosphere of oppression has been created. In the Irish plays, the dispossessed nobility are shown as the victims of an English system administered by greedy Irish speculators. The union between Cregan and Eily O’Connor, who belongs to a lower social station, is romantically satisfying but ultimately unrealistic. In the real-life episode fictionalized by Griffin, the young gentleman did find it necessary to have his peasant mistress murdered.
Arrah-na-Pogue brings back many of the character types and sentiments of the earlier play. The trial of Shaun the Post, who has confessed in order to shield others, is a masterful comic scene that may well have influenced Shaw in The Devil’s Disciple (pr. 1897). O’Grady seems symbolic of the Irish way of doing things in these plays when he asks for acquittal on the grounds of the prisoner’s eloquence. Shaun’s spectacular escape up an ivy-covered wall, just in time to rescue his Arrah, provides an appropriately melodramatic climax.
The Shaughraun is certainly Boucicault’s finest play. The dramatist coined the title word from the Irish seachran, a participle that means “wandering.” Conn is at his irrepressible best when he sneaks drinks at his own wake, after a popular Irish motif. The banter between Molineux, whose English birth was not his fault, and the spirited Claire is unforgettable. These two, however, are united in their reaction to Conn’s pretended death. On that occasion, Molineux asks permission to exclaim “You Irish!” and Claire readily grants it. The playwright’s confident introduction of the farcical hogshead barrel sequence into the midst of his melodramatic climax shows his complete control of the medium.
The cast of Irish characters includes the spirited heroine; the romantic heroine and her Fenian lover; the genial priest Father Dolan (once acted by Sean O’Casey); his housekeeper Moya, in love with Conn; the villainous squireen and his informer accomplice; and Conn’s old mother, as well as his dog Tatthers, whose presence seems inseparable from Conn’s yet who never appears onstage. This collection contains the major types from the earlier two plays, and all are handled with a surer touch. As in many comic masterpieces, only the romantic lovers seem faceless.
Boucicault did not write any great drama after The Shaughraun. Some would argue that he had not done so before. Nevertheless, in this fantastic blend of melodrama, genuine comic wit, and facetious Irish blarney, Boucicault concocted truly memorable theater.