George Henry Boker Essay - Critical Essays

Boker, George Henry


George Henry Boker 1823-1890

American playwright and poet.

George Henry Boker produced a number of poetry collections, two comedies, and several tragedies, all in blank verse. Unlike most of his contemporaries struggling to establish an American national literature using American characters and settings, Boker set his plays in Europe, usually in medieval or early modern times. Although his work met with varying degrees of success in the nineteenth century, his major work, the 1855 drama Francesca da Rimini, remains a source of critical debate.

Biographical Information

Boker was born October 6, 1823, into a prominent Philadelphia family of Quakers. His father, Charles Boker, was a successful banker who gained fame by rescuing the troubled Gerard National Bank after the panic of 1837 and restoring it to solvency. When Charles Boker died in 1857, he left a considerable fortune to his two sons. Boker attended the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, and published several pieces of poetry in The Nassau Literary Magazine while he was still a student. He graduated in 1842 and began studying law in Philadelphia with John Sargeant. In 1844 Boker married Maryland native Julia Mandeville Riggs, whose father was also a banker. The couple had two sons, the second of whom died in infancy. Boker abandoned his plans to become a lawyer, and decided instead on a writing career. In 1848, he published his first book of verses and a year later his first play. Boker continued to publish throughout the 1850s, and was considered one of the leading literary figures of Philadelphia. He became part of a small group that included R. H. Stoddard and Bayard Taylor, with whom he developed a close friendship.

Boker devoted the last half of his life to public service. He was one of the founders, then later secretary and president of Philadelphia's Union League. He was also a staunch supporter of the Union war effort. In 1871 President Grant rewarded Boker's patriotism by appointing him Minister to Turkey, and the family took up residence in Constantinople. Four years later Boker was transferred to the Court of St. Petersburg as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Russia. He became a great favorite of Alexander II who protested Boker's recall to the United States in 1878. Boker returned to Philadelphia where he wrote two more plays, neither of which were staged, and in 1882 he published his last book of poetry. Boker died January 2, 1890.

Major Works

Boker's first major publication was a book of verses, The Lesson of Life, and Other Poems (1848), deemed “conventional” by critics who felt the book lacked individuality. That same year Boker published his first verse tragedy, Calaynos an unauthorized version of which was staged in 1849 at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London prior to its American debut in Philadelphia in 1851. The work, set in medieval Spain, is lauded for its narrative and achievement of both comic and tragic effects. Boker turned to comedy with The Betrothal, and then back to tragedy with Anne Boleyn, both published in 1850. His next major effort, Leonor de Guzman (1853), was produced in both Philadelphia and New York, but was not successful. Two years later, Boker produced his most famous work Francesca da Rimini, initially staged briefly in New York. The play disappeared from the stage for nearly thirty years, when it was very successfully revived by the actor Lawrence Barrett in 1882. Boker's treatment of the Rimini story draws on both Dante and Boccaccio, sources the playwright acknowledged, as well as such other influences as Byron and Leigh Hunt, according to some critics. Boker's version highlights the character of the wronged husband rather than the lovers Francesca and Paolo as most earlier versions had done. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Boker became more involved with public service, although he did produce two works inspired by the war: a collection entitled Poems of the War (1864) and a satire on George McClellan originally printed in a newspaper and published anonymously in 1865, entitled “Tardy George.” In 1869 Königsmark, the Legend of the Hounds, and Other Poems appeared, and in 1882, Boker published The Book of the Dead, as an answer to his father's detractors who were trying, unsuccessfully, to deprive the family of its inheritance.

Critical Reception

Although some of Boker's plays were never produced, and those that were enjoyed only brief runs, his work was often well received by contemporary critics, many of whom attributed the failure of his plays to the poor quality of acting at the time. R. T. Conrad laments the general state of stage productions in the mid-nineteenth century, contending that Boker was a genius who attempted to improve American theatre. Conrad praises the play Leonor de Guzman in particular, claiming that it “cannot fail to rank with the purest dramatic compositions in our language, and must win, for its accomplished author, an elevated and enduring fame.” Arthur Hobson Quinn similarly praises Boker's Francesca da Rimini, declaring it the best English-language version of the many renditions of the Paolo and Francesca story. Joseph Wood Krutch suggests that Boker's plays represent the high point in the history of romantic tragedy in the nineteenth century and asserts that Boker deserves a more prominent position in the history of American drama than has been accorded him. The critic acknowledges, however, that Boker's talents as a poet were less well developed. “Perhaps one reason for his lack of success in this field,” speculates Krutch, “is to be found in his characteristic reserve; he was not the kind of man to open his heart to all who cared to read its secrets, but preferred to express his feelings through the mask of the dramatist.” Nonetheless, Boker's collected Plays and Poems (1856) went through five editions from its initial publication through 1891, suggesting that nineteenth-century readers maintained an interest in Boker's work.

Boker's best-known play, considered his masterpiece, was Francesca da Rimini, his only work to remain in print into the twentieth century. Paul D. Voelker maintains that Boker was able to transform the story of Paolo and Francesca into a thoughtful criticism of the corrupt aristocracy of Europe, a theme that was completely consistent with his own loyalty to the principles of democracy. Jules Zanger suggests that the more important change involves Boker's focus on the relationship of the brothers Paolo and Lanciotto, rather than the usual focus on the lovers' story. “Remaining within the terms of the traditional narrative line, Boker was to transform the major characters, Lanciotto, Paolo, and Francesca, so completely as to make the play almost a new one,” according to Zanger. He is especially impressed with the transformation of Francesca into “one of the nineteenth century's most vivid and original heroines as she violates both canons of taste and popular concepts of feminine sexuality.” Oliver H. Evans is less enthusiastic about Boker's version of the story, particularly the characterization of Lanciotto. In that character, Evans claims, “Boker does not move beyond merely echoing Shakespeare, and he is unable either to sustain the numerous Shakespearean prototypes and echoes found in Lanciotto's character or to reconcile those elements into a unified character.” For Evans, the failure of Lanciotto as a character is the basis of the ultimate failure of the play as a whole. Evans also examines Boker's later plays and poems in a book-length study of the playwright's entire career. In the later plays, according to Evans, “the characters have little to recommend them dramatically. And thematically the plays themselves have no depth.” Referring to Boker's practice of setting his plays outside his own country, Evans notes that even in “The Legend of the Hounds,” based on a Pennsylvania folktale, the locale is changed to England. Only in his later sonnets does Boker create characters who are situated in nineteenth-century America.

Principal Works

The Lesson of Life, and Other Poems (poetry) 1848

Calaynos (play) 1849

*Anne Boleyn (play) 1850

The Bethrothal (play) 1850

The World a Mask (play) 1851

The Podesta's Daughter and Other Miscellaneous Verse (poetry) 1852

The Widow's Marriage (play) 1852

Don Pedro of Castile (unfinished play) 1853

Leonor de Guzman (play) 1853

The Bankrupt (play) 1855

Francesca da Rimini (play) 1855

Plays and Poems (plays and poetry) 1856

Poems of the War (poetry) 1864

“Tardy George” (satire) [anonymous] 1865

Königsmark, the Legend of the Hounds, and Other Poems (play and poetry) 1869

The Book of the Dead (poetry) 1882

*Nydia, a Tragic Play (play) 1929

Sonnets: A Sequence on Profane Love (poetry) 1929

*Glaucus and Other Plays (plays) 1940

*There is no record of these works having been performed, the year provided corresponds to the original publication date.


R. T. Conrad (essay date March 1854)

SOURCE: Conrad, R. T. “The Drama: Boker's Leonor de Guzman.Graham's Magazine 44, no. 3 (March 1854): 273-85.

[In the following essay, Conrad laments the poor state of the dramatic arts in the mid-nineteenth century and praises Boker's contributions towards its improvement, focusing on Boker's play Leonor de Guzman.]

The genius of man is influenced, in every field of its exertions, by the circumstances under which it is developed; and the nature of its triumph is determined by the means and manner of its achievement: thus the science of war is modified by the nature of the country in which it is waged, and by the weapons of the combatants, and thus also...

(The entire section is 11912 words.)

Arthur Hobson Quinn (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: Quinn, Arthur Hobson. “The Dramas of George Henry Boker.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association 32, no. 2 (1917): 233-66.

[In the following essay, Quinn provides an overview of Boker's career as a playwright.]

Notwithstanding the pre-eminence of George Henry Boker in our dramatic literature before the Civil War, an eminence not seriously threatened in America except by Robert Montgomery Bird, no accurate account of his life has been published and nowhere is available even a trustworthy statement of the productions of his plays.1 Several of his dramas remain unpublished in manuscript and even their existence is known apparently to...

(The entire section is 9837 words.)

Joseph Wood Krutch (essay date October 1917)

SOURCE: Krutch, Joseph Wood. “George Henry Boker.” Sewanee Review 25, no. 4 (October 1917): 457-68.

[In the following essay, Krutch maintains that Boker deserves a far more prominent place in the history of American drama than is generally accorded him.]

When the history of the American drama comes to be written, there will emerge from obscurity no man of more interest to the general reader than the Philadephian, George Henry Boker; for although he exerted little influence on his contemporaries his plays especially possess a real intrinsic merit. In the first half of the nineteenth century, romantic tragedy was the type to which the best native American drama...

(The entire section is 4723 words.)

Arthur Hobson Quinn (essay date June 1923)

SOURCE: Quinn, Arthur Hobson. “George Henry Boker—Playwright and Patriot.” Scribner's Magazine 71, no. 6 (June 1923): 701-15.

[In the following essay, Quinn discusses Boker's accomplishments as a playwright, as a founding member of the Union League, and as a diplomat.]

It is just a century since one of our greatest dramatists, one of the most uncompromising of our patriots, one of the most successful of our diplomats, was born. That his country has shown so little sense of its debt to him on any of these counts may be due to the fact that he was born on October 6, 1823, in Philadelphia. For it is the characteristic of his native city and mine that it combines a...

(The entire section is 7733 words.)

Paul D. Voelker (essay date December 1972)

SOURCE: Voelker, Paul D. “George Henry Boker's Francesca da Rimini: An Interpretation and Evaluation.” Educational Theatre Journal 24, no. 4 (December 1972): 383-95.

[In the following essay, Voelker examines Boker's most famous play, attempting to account for twentieth-century critical neglect of both the play and its author.]

George Henry Boker's Francesca da Rimini (1853) has generally been regarded as one of the great dramas of the last century. Arthur Hobson Quinn referred to it in 1923 as “the greatest play that was written in English during the first three quarters of the nineteenth century,” and in 1927 as “the supreme creation of the...

(The entire section is 6657 words.)

Jules Zanger (essay date December 1973)

SOURCE: Zanger, Jules. “Boker's Francesca da Rimini: The Brothers' Tragedy.” Educational Theatre Journal 25, no 4 (December 1973): 410-19.

[In the following essay, Zanger discusses Boker's transformation of the traditional story, which focused on Francesca and Paolo as tragic lovers, to a narrative centered around the relationship between the two brothers Paolo and Lanciotto.]

The playwright, if he is adapting a religious or nationalistic myth, is relatively bound by both the narrative or historic plot and the traditional characterizations as they appear in that myth. Confined as he is, the play's characterizations, confrontations, and resolutions are...

(The entire section is 4188 words.)

Kent G. Gallagher (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Gallagher, Kent G. “The Tragedies of George Henry Boker: The Measure of American Romantic Drama.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 20, no. 3 (1974): 187-215.

[In the following essay, Gallagher discusses Boker's development as a playwright and describes his plays as departures from a specifically American brand of romantic tragedy that celebrated the democratic principles of the new nation.]

Despite the efforts of Arthur Hobson Quinn, Joseph Wood Krutch, and E. Sculley Bradley early in this century,1 George Henry Boker (1823-1890) has not attained a high place in the history of American letters. His many articles, lengthy sonnet...

(The entire section is 14141 words.)

Oliver H. Evans (essay date May 1978)

SOURCE: Evans, Oliver H. “Shakespearean Prototypes and the Failure of Boker's Francesca da Rimini.Educational Theatre Journal 30, no. 2 (May 1978): 211-19.

[In the following essay, Evans examines Francesca da Rimini, praising the treatment of Francesca and Paolo as well as the emphasis on the relationship between the brothers; however, he maintains that Boker's failure to develop the character of Lanciotto results in the failure of the play as a whole.]

In “Boker's Francesca da Rimini: The Brothers' Tragedy,” Jules Zanger argues that while at the start of the play the three principal characters “conform to the traditional...

(The entire section is 4321 words.)

Oliver H. Evans (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Evans, Oliver H. “The Late Plays and Poems.” In George Henry Boker, pp. 89-125. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Evans discusses Boker's writing career in the years following the production of Francesca da Rimini.]


Written in 1853, Francesca da Rimini was not produced until 1855, a year before the publication of the Plays and Poems. Following the production of Francesca da Rimini and the publication of Plays and Poems, Boker's career changed direction as he gave up trying to achieve literary fame. The causes of that change—the relative...

(The entire section is 13868 words.)

Further Reading


Barnes, James. “George H. Boker.” Nassau Literary Magazine 46, no. 2 (June 1890): 90-93.

Brief overview of Boker's life and works.

Beatty, Richmond Croom. “Bayard Taylor and George H. Boker.” American Literature 6, no. 3 (November 1934): 316-27.

Discussion of the celebrated friendship between Taylor and Boker and an examination of the influence they had on each other's writing.

Bradley, Sculley. “George Henry Boker and Angie Hicks.” American Literature 8, no. 3 (November 1936): 258-65.

Discussion of Angie King Hicks as the source of inspiration...

(The entire section is 287 words.)