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Dion Boucicault’s only fictional work was a collaboration with Charles Reade, Foul Play (1868). A short, dramatized history, The Story of Ireland (1881), was also published in his lifetime. The Art of Acting: A Discussion by Constant Coquelin, Henry Irving, and Dion Boucicault (1926) was a posthumous collection. Boucicault was...

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Dion Boucicault’s only fictional work was a collaboration with Charles Reade, Foul Play (1868). A short, dramatized history, The Story of Ireland (1881), was also published in his lifetime. The Art of Acting: A Discussion by Constant Coquelin, Henry Irving, and Dion Boucicault (1926) was a posthumous collection. Boucicault was a regular contributor to North American Review from 1887 to 1889 and had written two essays for that periodical: “The Decline of the Drama” (1877) and “The Art of Dramatic Composition” (1878). Several of his articles appeared elsewhere.

Achievements

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Dion Boucicault was responsible for more than one hundred plays during his lengthy career. Some have been anthologized, and the three Irish plays were published together as The Dolmen Boucicault (1964). The others are most accessible in the microprint series English and American Drama of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Allardyce Nicoll and George Freedley (1965-1971), which also includes promptbook reproductions for many of the plays.

Boucicault was the mid-nineteenth century’s complete man of the theater. For almost fifty years, on both sides of the Atlantic, he labored as playwright, dramaturge, actor, director, and manager. Many of his enduring contributions were in the realm of practical theater. He was, with playwright Thomas William Robertson, one of the early proponents of directed rehearsals and ensemble playing. This interest led later to his formation of touring casts to replace the traditional system in which traveling stars played virtually unrehearsed stock dramas with local companies. He improved theatrical conditions by shortening the lengthy triple bills frequently offered and by abolishing half-price admission for latecomers. As an author, he fought for changes in American copyright law and for the principle of the playwright receiving a percentage of the receipts from his play’s performance. Late in his life, he invented a method of fireproofing scenery.

As a dramatist, Boucicault was both prolific and popular. His sense of what would work on stage raised him above his contemporaries. While many of his productions were translations or adaptations of others’ works, any piece was more stageworthy once he had left his mark on it. Notable examples of his talents in this area are The Corsican Brothers, which he adapted from a French adaptation of a story by Alexandre Dumas, père, and Rip Van Winkle, which Boucicault adapted for the actor Joseph Jefferson. The former Boucicault merely made more spectacular, but for the latter, he completely remodeled the title character. The early Rip became a young and thoughtless scamp, lovable but destructive to himself and his family. The contrast between the young and old Rip adds dramatic interest, as does the very real dilemma his early behavior creates for his wife.

Boucicault’s earliest successes were original comedies of manners. With this form, he provides virtually the only link between the great comic dramatists of previous centuries and Oscar Wilde. Indeed, several of Boucicault’s early plays have scenes and characters that are suggestive of The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (pr. 1895). London Assurance, his first major comedy, was revived successfully in the twentieth century.

Moving next to sentimental melodrama, the dominant form of his day, Boucicault quickly mastered the formulas that would please audiences. The plays themselves have been largely forgotten, but the spectacular scenes with which he enlivened all of them have had a more lasting effect. It was his After Dark, for example, that popularized the image of the hero rescued from railway tracks as a train thundered toward him. Here again, Boucicault had taken his hint from another playwright, Augustin Daly, but had doubled the atmosphere of suspense and integrated the scene into a well-made plot. His presentation of sensational scenes has been seen to have parallels with later cinematographic techniques.

Boucicault’s American career had a strong effect on the development of American theater, and playwright-producer David Belasco can certainly be considered his follower. In England, George Bernard Shaw included him on a brief list of dramatists worth reading. It is on the Irish dramas, however, that Boucicault has had his most lasting influence. The transformation of the stage Irishman that he effected in his three best Irish plays was a clear forerunner to John Millington Synge’s and Sean O’Casey’s greatest characters, and both acknowledged their debt to him. Aside from grand theatricality and memorable characters, these plays were full of a gentle patriotism that only once went too far for his English audience. It was Boucicault’s new version of the old ballad “The Wearing of the Green,” which is sung in Arrah-na-Pogue, that caused that song to be banned in Britain and hence popularized it in Dublin and New York.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 282

Biliography

Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler. “National Identities in Performance: The Stage Englishman of Boucicault’s Irish Drama.” Theatre Journal 49, no. 3 (October, 1997): 287-300. This study focuses on Boucicault’s presentation of the stage Englishman and stereotypes.

Fawkes, Richard. Dion Boucicault: A Biography. London: Quartet Books, 1979. A comprehensive life and times of Boucicault. The detailed narrative draws, in part, on a number of unpublished sources. The emphasis is on theatrical history and Boucicault’s place in it, rather than on the playwright’s character or the wider context of his work. Bibliography.

Fischler, Alan. “Guano and Poetry: Payment for Playwriting in Victorian England.” Modern Language Quarterly 62, no. 1 (March, 2001): 43-52. Boucicault’s remark regarding payment for his works forms the basis of this essay examining compensation issues in Victorian England. Boucicault’s prodigious production of plays and some of his business dealings are discussed.

Grene, Nicholas. The Politics of Irish Drama: Plays in Context from Boucicault to Friel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. An examination of the political and social views of Boucicault and Brian Friel, among other Irish dramatists.

Molin, Sven Eric, and Robin Goodfellow, eds. Dion Boucicault: A Documentary Life. 5 vols. Newark, Del.: Proscenium Press, 1979-1991. An ambitious attempt to characterize Boucicault’s life and times in terms of the contemporary documentary record. Each part deals with a particular phase of Boucicault’s prolific and protean career and has for its centerpiece a reprint of one or more of the playwright’s texts. Supplemented by memoirs, theatrical histories, and similar documentary sources.

Richtarik, Marilynn. “Stewart Parker’s Heavenly Bodies: Dion Boucicault, Show Business, and Ireland.” Modern Drama 43, no. 3 (Fall, 2000): 404-420. An analysis of Parker’s play Heavenly Bodies, which is a biography of Boucicault.

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