GLOSSARY: Dion Boucicault

Illustration of Dion Boucicault by cartoonist Frederick Waddy, taken from “Cartoon Portraits and Biographical Sketches of Men of the Day”, 1873

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1859: A famous Irishman writes a play about America. That Irishman was Dion Boucicaultborn Dionysus Lardner Boursiquot on December 26, 1820, in Dublin, Ireland.

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cover of the published version of Boucicault’s “The Octoroon,” 1860

Heralded by the New York Times as “the most conspicuous English dramatist of the 19th century,” Boucicault enjoyed tremendous success as a playwright, actor and theater manager. He opened his first play London Assurance, a six-act comedy, at the age of 21 at Covent Garden in 1841. It was extremely well-received, and in the next four years Boucicault would produce twenty two plays on the London stage. In 1859 he took over management of the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City, where his play The Octoroon premiered to immense success and quickly became one of the most popular melodramas of its time, second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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.”

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promotional photograph of Dion Boucicault, 1860

Boucicault’s work is considered the quintessential example of sensation drama, itself a branch of Victorian melodrama. Sensation drama was characterized by the depiction of some overwhelming (sensational) experience, usually some kind of grand disaster – a fire, an earthquake, an avalanche, a shipwreck – and there was always a murder of some kind. 

About 150 plays are credited to Boucicault, who, as both writer and actor, raised the stage Irishman from caricature to character. To the American drama he brought not only a careful construction that would define popular theater for years to come, but also a keen observation and eye for detail. His willingness to address social themes within meticulously structured drama would be his lasting legacy, and would prefigure the development of drama in both Europe and America.

2014: An American writes his own version of The Octoroon. Are you coming to see it?

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Dion Boucicault, 1878, photographer unknown

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