an essay by James Leverett

“There is melodrama in every tragedy, just as there is a child in every adult.”
–Eric Bentley, Life of the Drama


I hope by this point you’ve already purchased your ticket for An Octoroon. I also hope that it is a nice evening when you attend, and that you will want to discuss and extend your experience of the production afterwards… Or you may also just want to sweep it out of you mind…In either case, when the show is over, take a left when you leave Soho Rep., go along Walker Street a half block to the corner, take another left onto Broadway and walk north across Canal, through Soho, across Houston into Noho (cartography gets murky here), and across Bleeker. Slow your pace and go over to the east side of Broadway if you haven’t already. Your aim is to get a better view of what’s on the west side of the street (or used to be). I hope you will look up at the spectacular 19th-century cast-iron architecture all along your tour.

Google Maps says it takes 16 minutes:

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 1.03.58 PM

If you stand where Bond Street comes in from the east and look across Broadway toward the west, you will be facing the site of New York’s first Winter Garden Theatre. Don’t confuse it with the fourth incarnation by that name, also on Broadway but between West 50th and 51st. (It now houses Rocky the Musical.) The first Winter Garden opened in 1850 and its place in American cultural history is significant.

Among many important events involving many major performers, it was here on November 25, 1864 that the Booth Brothers played in Julius Caesar – Edwin (as Brutus), Junius (Cassius) and John Wilkes (Marc Antony).  This was the only time the brothers ever played together.

John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth and Junius Booth, Jr. (from left to right) in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1864.
John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth and Junius Booth, Jr. (from left to right) in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1864.

That very night a fire broke out in the adjacent Lafarge House Hotel. Confederate sympathizers set it to protest the reelection of Abraham Lincoln earlier that month.  Edwin stepped forward to calm the full house and the play continued. He went on the next night to begin what became known as the “100 Nights Hamlet” – a performance record not broken for more than a half century. Some five months later, on April 9th, Lee surrendered at Appomatax. Five days later, on April 14th, John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C. That night, the theater’s playbill announced Boucicault’s The Octoroon to be presented for 12 performances, beginning April 15th. Those performances never happened.

In 1867, a fire ignited under the stage of The Winter Garden and it burned down, Hamlet’s tights and all. Booth moved to the up-and-coming Chelsea neighborhood and opened the new Edwin Booth Theatre on Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street.   

Large advertisement for Ford’s April 15th, 1865 performance of The Octoroon, which never took place due to Lincoln's assassination.
advertisement for Ford’s April 15th, 1865 performance of The Octoroon, which never took place due to Lincoln’s assassination


I started my account with an odd, seemingly off-topic finale in order to give background—and foreground—to my actual subject, Dion Boucicault’s melodrama, The Octoroon. If my beginning may be regarded as a closing historical parenthesis, here’s the opening one:  Boucicault’s Octoroon premiered at The Winter Garden Theatre on December 5, 1859. Two days before, on December 2nd, John Brown was hanged at Harpers Ferry, Virginia – one of the beginnings of the beginning of the Civil War. History has many ways to measure time, and art certainly does.

Between the death in 1816 of Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (best known for the comedy of manners, The School for Scandal) and the birth in 1854 of another Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (best known for, well, Oscar Wilde) comes a period frequently considered a dead zone for English drama. That’s wrong. There were many worthwhile, effectively still playable works during that time, though probably none equal to School for Scandal or certainly The Importance for Being Earnest. What anthologists often miss in their search for drama is theater.  What’s defined above was a grand age of acting (Kean, Macready and Booth; Siddons, Cushman and Keene) and scenery (eye-boggling spectacle, the kind that ultimately begged for the birth of cinema).

Oscar Wilde, best known for, well, Oscar Wilde

At the center of this vital period stood another Irishman, the Dubliner, Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot (circa 1820 to 1890), professionally, though not always consistently, known as Dion Boucicault. His New York Times obituary called him “the most conspicuous English dramatist of the 19th century.” His 1841 comedy London Assurance is a worthy bridge between Sheridan and Wilde and still revived, most recently in 2010 at The National Theatre in London. In addition he wrote other plays, 140 with his name on them in some form and others that show his unnamed influence. His works were seldom original and often coauthored – adaptations from English and foreign sources, plays, novels, operas, ballets, and sometimes re-workings of himself but under different titles. He wrote farces, comedies, serious dramas, character studies, regional plays (Irish, of course), and melodramas.

He was also a starring actor and a show-business pioneering manager and producer.


Everything performed can contain elements of the melodramatic. Certainly theater can, since its beginnings. Limiting ourselves just to western written drama, we find nightmares, ghosts, and monsters among the living that provide the fundamental emotional energy for profound tragic content. The stormy weather in the works of the Roman Seneca blows down through Shakespeare and the other Elizabethans and Jacobeans all the way to our latest teenage vampire. So goes the abiding power of the melodramatic.

Melodrama the genre is a much more recent phenomenon.  The first play designated by its author as a melodrama is Pygmalion by Rousseau. Yes, that Rousseau.  He wrote it in 1762, the same year as The Social Contract. It is a monologue with musical interludes. Although, also a composer, he did not write the music. Several others contributed scores over the years. His innovation stayed in repertory at the Comedie-Française until 1775. There were some imitations (after all, he was Rousseau), but its historical importance is as a new dramatic genre, combining text and music, but not in the form of an opera.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

That is the first chapter of what is known as melodrama. The second doesn’t arrive until the 19th century when it becomes what we usually laugh at as MELODRAMA! But there is an important intervening step: the French Revolution and its aftermath. The upheaval, terror, and royal executions resulted throughout Europe in political, moral panic and retreat. In England it manifested itself artistically as the Gothic – Gothic novels and Gothic plays.  That dramatic movement, for all its lingering, delicious thrills, was a reactionary, repressive one – no more Égalité, Fraternité, Liberté.

What was demanded in the theater was a sure, stable, aristocratic moral order, clearly legible to the most distant balcony: a virtuous, innocent but utterly helpless heroine, a satanically powerful, lascivious villain (often really the central character), and a hero of varying complexity and interest. The locale, and this is an enduring legacy from the Gothic, is the castle with impregnable towers and labyrinthine, imprisoning cellars – an embodiment of the ancient but enduring feudal order.

a steel engraving from the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, 1831
a steel engraving from the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, 1831

The best of the Gothic works still survive today in spite of, or perhaps because of, their clichés. They have gone from page to stage to film, and continue into the newest technological beyond. On stage, before copyright laws, they were adapted quickly after publication, often by numerous greedy authors. So I’ll stick to the original print sources: The Vampyre is a novella begun in 1816 by John Polidori, George Lord Byron’s physician and traveling companion. The mad, bad, and dangerous to know Lord was said to be the model for the title character, and even credited as the story’s author when it was published in 1819. Byron angrily denied it.

The impetus that led to Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, came on the same June night beside Lake Geneva that Polidori began to think about his work. The event has become legendary.  Byron suggested to his house guests, Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin, her husband-to-be Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Polidori to enter with him into a writing contest: ghost stories. Inspired by two dreams – one hers, one Percy’s – Mary embarked upon a novel, first published anonymously in 1818. Seen through a very dark glass, if The Vampyre can be regarded as a Gothic Don Juan, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, as it is known in one stage version, becomes a Gothic Faust. It shows science, the drive to know, gone awry and turned into an anti-Enlightenment cautionary tale.

Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein
Mary Shelley, a writer of the Gothic period, and author of Frankenstein

Although there were credible examples written earlier, the golden age of 19th century British melodrama went into high gear with the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837.  The basic character types, unambiguously moralistic acting semiotics, and standardized, sensationalist plots, all continued from Gothic drama. What changed came from the optimism of growing global empire, a moral code of still strict but originating from a much more stable society, and a new range of spectacular stage possibilities developing from ever advancing technology.

Possibly the most important change of all is melodrama’s representational shift into the here-and-now. Even when the genre depicts history, at its best it connects the past to the present with contemporary directness. The Vampyre and Frankenstein presumably happen in the present, but it is a time haunted by fear and longing for stability in an imagined feudalistic past – before the Revolution. In contrast, Victorian melodrama often feels like the day’s news filled with inventive changes, most particularly those of urban modernity. To an audience of the 19th century, seeing those changes represented on stage was both entertaining and immediately relevant, even – perhaps especially – when they showed problems, anxieties, and suffering. Everything almost always turns out for the best in this reliably optimistic form. Good is rewarded, evil punished, although life outside the theater shows otherwise. Here is the clear relationship and shared function of melodrama and the fairy tale. Here we are children, not adults. 


After Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel of 1852, together with an immediate procession of stage versions), The Octoroon is the most prominent contemporary fiction about American slavery. In many ways, Boucicault’s play fits the pattern of Victorian melodrama. Zoë, the Octoroon, is the suffering heroine, although much more strongly drawn than her Gothic predecessors. Originally played by Agnes Robertson, at the time Boucicault’s wife, she chooses her own destiny, even though hers is the fate of a victim. The unmistakable villain is Jacob M’Closky, undoubtedly modeled after Stowe’s lustful, murderous Simon Legree. Both characters are from the North, both end up in Louisiana, both are in the market for slaves. George Peyton, the romantic lead, is brave and central to the plot but recedes somewhat in the presence of the others.

Agnes Robertson, second wife of Dion Boucicault and the first actress to play Zoe in The Octoroon
Agnes Robertson, second wife of Dion Boucicault and the first actress to play Zoe the octoroon in The Octoroon

As with most Victorian melodramas, The Octoroon, has a large supporting cast. Most of them are there, not only to help along the plot, but also to add variety to a popular entertainment. They are part of the newspaper aspect of the genre and create a world containing a range of social classes, ages, occupations, localities and nationalities.

Most pertinent to this play are races, particularly those of African descent, and they are represented with unprecedented specificity. In addition to the octoroon (one eighth black), there are in the cast list a quadroon (one fourth), a yellow (mixed race), and Whanotee, an Indian chief of the “Lepan” tribe (probably a misspelling of the Lipan Apache). Boucicault himself played the chief. His well known mimetic ability surely helped him to negotiate the character who, when not altogether silent, speaks a fictional “mashup” of French, Mexican and what is supposedly his native dialect, which includes “ugh.” Most of the supporting characters also have some comic function, which is fundamental in most melodrama. Scholars consider the genre to exist between tragedy and comedy, but leaning toward the latter, especially because of the almost inevitable happy endings.

Another factor that firmly links The Octoroon to Victorian melodrama is its spectacles, orchestrated scenic effects of which Boucicault was an acclaimed master. They appeared in his “sensation scenes,” as he called them. In Arrahna-Pogue (London, 1865) a character escapes from prison by climbing a tower, which sinks into the stage as he seems to ascend ever higher and higher. In The Flying Scud (London, 1866) the Epsom Derby gallops on stage with cardboard horses, except for a real one paraded as winner; the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race – rowed on stage – during the climax of Formosa; or, The Railroad to Ruin (London, 1869); and in The Poor of New York (New York, 1867) a house burns down. In Pauvrette (New York, 1858) there is an avalanche in which, according to the stage directions,

Large blocks of hardened snow and masses of rock fall…. [a] bridge is broken and falls into the abyss….[snow] in an immense sheet, rushes down from the Right [and] entirely buries the whole scene to the height of twelve or fifteen feet, swallowing up the cabin….silence and peace return – the figure of the Virgin is unharmed – the light before it still bums.

Queen Victoria herself saw The Corsican Brothers in 1852.  She wrote:

The effect of the ghost…with its wonderful management and entire noiselessness was quite alarming, the tableau of the Duel…almost immediately after the vanishing of the Ghost, was beautifully grouped and quite touching. The whole lit by blue light and dimmed by gauze, had an unearthly effect and was most impressive and creepy [sic]… We both and indeed everybody was in admiration at the whole performance.

Queen Victoria in 1882

These scenes are at the very least equaled in The Octoroon, first by a slave auction in the Louisiana plantation Terrebonne, then Wahnotee swimming in pursuit of the villain M’Closky as the burning steamboat Magnolia floats by on the alligator-infested bayou.

The Octoroon is likely to be the first play in which a camera has a decisive role in the plot. As in so many subsequent dramas from all media, it solves a murder mystery and allows the good to go free and the evil to be punished. This is not a spectacular piece of technology in comparison, for example, with the train locomotive in After Dark (London, 1868), but it is a novelty object at that very moment sinking deeply into the public imagination.

So, this famous, in fact notorious play is a Victorian melodrama. Yes but also decidedly no. An Irishman conceived it, but it is through and through American. It lacks the sturdy moral certainty of contemporary British culture.  Instead, not at all concealed under the surface, are the tensions of a divided society. The Irishman Boucicault traveled to Louisiana and visited plantations in its deepest southern regions. There, his sharp ears heard and recorded with some accuracy the intermixing dialects and the actual place names. He also observed there both nature and the architecture of human habitation, and he lived among slaves and owners. Here is an excerpt of his own account of the latter from a piece he wrote after the less than successful opening of the play in London in 1861:

A long residence in the Southern States of America  [by the time he wrote the piece, the Confederate States of America] had convinced me that the delineations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the condition of the slaves, their lives, and feelings were not faithful. I found the slaves, as a race, a happy, gentle, kindly treated population, and the restraints upon their liberty so slight as to be rarely perceptible. A visitor to Louisiana who might expect to find his vulgar sympathies aroused by the exhibition of corporal punishment and physical torture, would be much disappointed. For my part, with every facility for observation, I never witnessed any ill-treatment whatever of the servile class; on the contrary, the slaves are in general warmly attached to their masters and to their homes, and this condition of things I have faithfully depicted. But behind this there are features in slavery that are far more objectionable than any hitherto held up to human execration, by the side of which physical suffering appears as a vulgar detail.

A group of slaves gathered outside their quarters on a plantation on Cockspur Island, Georgia in the mid-19th century.
A group of slaves gathered outside their quarters on a plantation on Cockspur Island, Georgia in the mid-19th century.

This statement, so disturbing in our times, may be an honest account of what he saw or was allowed to see, and he depicted that idyllic existence in the opening of his play.  However, then comes the ambiguously harrowing, final sentence, which downgrades murderous torture below some other unnamed “feature.” Perhaps, almost certainly, he is referring to Zoë’s sexual harassment and general hopelessness as a mixed-race woman. But the entirety of The Octoroon, certainly its dialogue, vibrates with the anxiety of cross-purposes. With his statement together with his melodrama, Boucicault seems to be playing many sides of many issues. He has opened in New York, a city in a country both divided over slavery, divided over race, and moving towards war. It’s the racial issue, even more than slavery, that traumatizes the play: miscegenation, with all of its evocations of forbidden eroticism and lurking violence.  It’s amazing, to me at least, that in 1859 a play like this, so directly harrowing and sensual, could exist at all, much less on a major stage. I’ll rest my case with this piece of dialogue from Act II:

Zoë (to George Peyton):  … you must learn what I thought you already knew, George, you cannot marry me, the laws forbid it!

George:  Forbid it?

Zoë:  There is a gulf between us, as wide as your love – as deep as my despair; but, oh, tell me, say you will pity me! that you will pity me! that you will not throw me from you like some poisoned thing!

George: Zoë, explain yourself – your language fills me with shapeless fears.

Zoë:  And what shall I say?  I – my mother was – no, no, not her! Why should I refer the blame to her? George, do you see that hand you hold; look at these fingers, do you see the nails are of a blueish tinge?

George:  Yes, near the quick there is a faint blue mark.

Zoë:  Look into my eyes; is the same color in the white?

George:  It is their beauty.

Zoë:  Could you see the roots of my hair you would see the same dark fatal mark. Do you know what that is?

George:  No.

Zoë:  That is – that is the ineffaceable curse of Cain. Of the blood that feeds my heart, one drop in eight is black – bright red as the rest may be, that one drop poisons all the flood. Those seven bright drops give me love like yours, hope like yours – ambition like yours – life hung with passions like dew-drops on the morning flowers; but the one black drop gives me despair, for I’m an unclean thing – forbidden by the laws – I am an Octoroon!

George: Zoë, I love you nonetheless; this knowledge brings no revolt to my heart, and I can overcome the obstacle.

Zoë:  But I cannot.

the auction scene from Dion Bouicault's The Octorooon, 1859
the auction scene from Dion Bouicault’s The Octorooon, 1859

The following is the final issue that trumped all of the others that are mixed into Boucicault’s confusing statement on slavery: The Octoroon was a hit. In spite of an initial bumpy reception in London, it played and played in Great Britain, the Continent, and the Union side in this country. For all the moral minefields that seemed to be buried in his sensational melodrama, the author’s canny eye was on the box office.

The London audience objected when Zoë, as played again by the adored Agnes Robertson, poisoned herself, just as she had done in New York, in order to free George from what she knew the world had in store. The Londoners demanded another ending and it is said that the ever-mercantile author gave them one. It hasn’t survived but a possible account of it has:  “… the piece concludes with a declaration that in another land Zoë and [George] Peyton will solemnize a lawful union, and live for the happiness of each other.” Intermarriage became legal throughout the United States in 1967.

James Leverett is a writer, dramaturg and professor of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama.

© James Leverett 2014

One thought on “AN OCTOROON:
an essay by James Leverett

  1. Allen trousdale |

    Bravo, mi amici,

    A fascinating and erudite read. Indeed, a tour de force! Why do we not have the opportunity to enjoy more of you in print? ( interesting that in the country of Shakespeare, the Victorians couldn’t cope w/ a tragic ending. )

    William and I are coming to see it in the flesh.


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