Biography

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707

Dionysius Lardner Boucicault (bew-see-koh), whose original name was Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot, was a popular dramatist, director, and actor who originated “sensation dramas,” melodramas featuring abundant comic relief and complex mechanical effects designed to surprise their audiences. He is also remembered for depicting the Irish and their customs favorably in such plays as The Colleen Bawn, The Shaughraun, Arrah-na-Pogue, and The O’Dowd. Boucicault was probably born in 1820, to Anne Darley and Samuel Smith Boursiquot, although some biographers suggest his father was Dionysius Lardner. Lardner later became young Boursiquot’s guardian and sent him to school in England, where he joined a touring theatrical company in 1837 or 1838 as “Lee Moreton.” Boursiquot also began experimenting with different spellings of his name, eventually settling on Boucicault.{$S[A]Boursiquot, Dionysius Lardner;Boucicault, Dion}{$S[A]Moreton, Lee;Boucicault, Dion}

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Boucicault also began writing professionally under his acting name. After selling at least two plays, his first critical acclaim came in 1841 with London Assurance, a comedy of manners set in contemporary England, whose acclaim convinced Boucicault to write and act under his own name. In 1845 he married Anne Guiot, a French widow, and he lived in France until her death in 1848. In the meantime, Boucicault became familiar with French playwriting and production techniques.

In the early 1850’s, Boucicault acted with tragedian Charles Kean. He wrote two popular plays, The Corsican Brothers and The Vampire, for Kean’s troupe. During this time, Boucicault met (and perhaps married) actress Agnes Robertson, Kean’s ward. They traveled to the United States in 1853 to escape Kean’s disapproval.

Boucicault established himself in the United States, both managing theaters and touring extensively. He also joined a small group of writers who persuaded Congress to adopt a copyright law in 1856, even though he was often accused of plagiarism, as many of his plots were obviously inspired by other authors’ works.

However he derived his ideas, Boucicault usually pleased the public with his emotional stories and exciting scenes. For instance, shortly before the Civil War, The Octoroon (which dealt with slavery) was potentially controversial. However, it provided memorable special effects (including an exploding steamboat) and a tragic love story, and therefore played well across the United States. Similarly, most of Boucicault’s Irish dramas offended no one. For instance, in The Shaughraun, the plot tension results from the actions of criminals, while both English soldiers and Irish citizens soldiers are depicted favorably. The English are shown to be honorable, while the Irish were portrayed as romantic and courageous, rather than as the insulting stereotypes common in theater at the time. However, in Daddy O’Dowd, Boucicault rewrote the lyrics to “The Wearin’ of the Green” in a way that so angered his first English audience a riot nearly broke out. As a result, Boucicault was ordered by the government either to omit the song or to sing only its traditional lyrics.

Boucicault’s final break with the British public came in 1872 over his adaptation of a French extravaganza, Babil and Bijou. In partnership with the earl of Londsborough, Boucicault created a five-hour spectacle featuring intricate stage effects. He hired popular performers, composers, and lyricists as well as hundreds of extras and dancers. The show drew large crowds every night but could never recover the funds spent on the production. Critics accused Boucicault of wasting Londsborough’s money, so the writer left Britain in disgrace, never to return, except briefly while on tour, while Robertson began living in England without him.

Boucicault also toured New Zealand and Australia. In the latter country, on tour without Robertson in 1885, he outraged the public again by marrying a twenty-one-year-old actress named Louise Thorndyke and claiming that he and Robertson were never truly married (thereby disowning their five surviving children). Whether or not this was so, the British government granted Robertson an official divorce from him in 1889.

Boucicault’s sense of drama and reliance on expensive special effects helped create an appetite for such entertainment as would live on into early British and American cinema as well as stage. His influence via his “Irish plays” also helped shape the plays of younger Irish playwrights, many of whom were inspired not only by his nationalism but also by his combination of comedy and drama.

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