George Henry Boker Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.