Laure Keene’s Variety Theatre at The Winter Garden Theatre, etching, 1856.

1859: A famous Irishman named Dion Boucicault writes a play about America. It premiers at the newly-minted Winter Garden Theatre in New York City, which was managed by Boucicault himself.

The first incarnation of The Winter Garden was one of the city’s premier showcases for a wide range of theatrical fare, from variety acts to the works of Shakespeare. It burned down in 1854 and then was rebuilt in 1856 as The New York Theatre. In the summer of 1859 Dion Boucicault became its manager and re-dubbed it The Winter Garden Theatre – so-named because Boucicault completely redesigned the auditorium to include a profusion of exotic plants, creating a tropical garden in the midst of a frigid, New York winter.

Bouicault opened the new Winter Garden in October of 1859 with his original burlesque Chamouni III. His melodrama The Octoroon: Life in Louisiana followed a few months later, and quickly became the most talked-about performances of its time.

a scene from Bouicault’s The Octoroon in his newly-designed Winter Garden Theatre, 1859

On December 15th, 1859, shortly after the play’s premiere, The New York Times called The Octoroon “the great dramatic sensation of the season”:

“Everybody talks about the Octoroon, [sic] wonders about the Octoroon, goes to see the Octoroon; and the ‘Octoroon’ thus becomes, in point of fact, the work of the public mind…the public having insisted on rewriting the piece according to its own notions, interprets every word and incident in wholly unexpected lights; and, for aught we know, therefore, the “Octoroon” may prove after all to be a political treatise of great emphasis and significance, very much to the author’s amazement.”

In the winter of 1863, the famous actor Edwin Booth took on management of The Winter Garden Theatre. His aim was to shift the focus of the theatre from burlesque and melodrama to classical theatre, and went on to produce and star in a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with his brother John Wilkes Booth (who would cement his fame two years later as the assassinator of President Abraham Lincoln). The Winter Garden burned down again in 1867 and was not reconstructed.

[ NOTE: Soho Rep. will be hosting a walking tour of Tribeca and Soho – which will include a visit to the original site of The Winter Garden Theatre – on Saturday, May 17th, in tandem with the world premier of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins AN OCTOROON. Click here for details! ]


an advertisement for an 1861 production of The Octoroon

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