The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Octoroon is a drama of plantation life and miscegenation in antebellum America, written by an Irishman who visited the South. As act 1 begins, the selling of Terrebonne Plantation, the Peyton estate, is imminent. Various liens have been placed on the property, and the most substantial is the one held by Jacob M’Closky, Terrebonne’s former overseer. He tricked the late Judge Peyton into mortgaging one thousand acres, the plantation’s richest half, to him. After the judge’s death, Salem Scudder, who replaced M’Closky as overseer, plummeted Terrebonne into further debt as a result of bad “inventions and improvements” on the estate. Two years have elapsed since the judge’s death, and George Peyton, the judge’s nephew and heir of Terrebonne, has recently arrived from Paris. Although Dora Sunnyside falls in love with George, he loves Zoe, the beautiful daughter of Judge Peyton and one of his slaves. The judge’s widow also loves Zoe; the widow treats her as if she were her daughter and worries what will happen to Zoe, who has not been raised as a slave, after her death. M’Closky intends to own the plantation and make Zoe his concubine. When he reveals his intentions to Zoe, she wants nothing to do with him. M’Closky stops her from leaving his presence until Scudder, who is also in love with Zoe and regrets his role in Terrebonne’s demise, intervenes, draws his knife, and warns M’Closky to let her walk away. M’Closky acquiesces.

As act 1 ends, M’Closky steals the paper signed by the judge proclaiming Zoe’s freedom. M’Closky knows that the paper is now invalid, since liens have been placed on the Peyton estate. Paul and Wahnotee go to the landing to get the mail from the steamboat: Mrs. Peyton...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Boucicault’s dramatic adaptation of Mayne Reid’s novel, The Quadroon, was not the first to bring the issue of slavery to the stage; various adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) preceded it, and like the dramatic versions of Stowe’s novel, The Octoroon relies heavily on melodramatic devices. There is the required conflict between good and evil; in this case, freedom and slavery clash. Thus the conflict exists between Zoe, the virtuous victim, and the villain M’Closky, who purchases her. Zoe is an ideal heroine according to the standards of melodrama; she is morally upright, and she is terrorized by the despicable M’Closky and slavery. Melodrama manipulates the emotions of the audience, who pity and have sympathy for the oppressed Zoe as she is not free to marry the man she loves and is sold to the man she detests. Zoe tells George that although she loves him and has hopes as well as ambitions, she can only know despair and suffering.

Melodrama also depends upon plot twists by the villain, and M’Closky does this on at least two occasions: He gains ownership in Terrebonne and intercepts the letter that would halt the auction. Once he possesses the letter, he knows that the auction will be held and that he can purchase Zoe. Melodrama may also employ sensational physical acts, and in The Octoroon, Boucicault creates a spectacle with a fire on board the steamer in the American version, and the steamboat’s explosion in the British version.

Another dramatic device of interest is Boucicault’s inclusion of the camera. At first, it appears to be merely another of Scudder’s “improvements.” Ironically it convicts M’Closky of Paul’s murder. Boucicault, who apparently read of the inadvertent photographing of a murder in Albany Fonblanque’s novel The Filibuster: A Story of American Life (1862), is credited as the first dramatist to use the camera to reveal the villain on the stage.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Fawkes, Richard. Dion Boucicault: A Biography. New York: Quartet Books, 1979.

Hogan, Robert. Dion Boucicault. New York: Twayne, 1969.

Parkin, Andrew. Introduction to Selected Plays of Dion Boucicault. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1987.

Richardson, Gary A. “Boucicault’s The Octoroon and American Law.” Theatre Journal 34 (1982): 155-164.

Roach, Joseph R. “Slave Spectacles and Tragic Octoroons: A Cultural Genealogy of Antebellum Performance.” Theatre Survey 33 (1992): 167-187.

Thomson, Peter, ed. Introduction to Plays by Dion Boucicault. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Watt, Stephen, and Gary A. Richardson, eds. American Drama: Colonial to Contemporary. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995.