The USF Libraries Special Collections is home to the Dion Boucicault Theatre Collection, one of the largest publicly accessible collections of Boucicault materials in the world.
The Dion Boucicault Theatre Collection
Born in Dublin, Boucicault was the most prominent playwright on the world stage during the years 1840-1880 and was also an accomplished director, actor, and theatrical manager. He is best known for his three ‘major’ Irish plays—The Colleen Bawn (1860), Arrah-na-Pogue (1864), and The Shaughraun (1874). Boucicault was a socio-cultural phenomenon in his day, beloved by Queen Victoria, and was responsible for many innovations in stagecraft still common today. Not all of his plays were published, however: Like many dramatists whose work predated copyright protection, Boucicault believed that publication would lead to literary piracy. Thus, despite writing and producing more than 200 plays in his lifetime, only a handful of his play scripts exist in print or online for researchers, scholars, and the general public.
Unfortunately, many of Boucicault’s plays discussed in depth in modern scholarship are not readily available to the average reader. The last published collection of Dion Boucicault’s Irish drama was The Dolmen Boucicault, appearing in 1964, and it included only three plays. Since that time, Plays by Dion Boucicault was released in 1984, featuring five plays, and the Selected Plays of Dion Boucicault, containing six plays—two of them also in the aforementioned volume—was released in 1987. In short, scholars who have examined Boucicault’s plays in depth have only had The Dolmen Boucicault and slim anthologized versions to consult without having to rely on archival copies or microform editions of play scripts. USF’s substantial Boucicault collection is therefore invaluable, not only for filling gaps in the canon, but also for understanding 19th-century English-language theatre; contemporaneous social issues facing Britain, Ireland and the United States; and Victorian popular culture.
With the generous support of The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation USF has begun to digitize, transcribe, and exhibit the prompt books, notebooks, and unpublished play scripts in the Dion Boucicault Theatre Collection in order to present them in a complete online collection–along with critical analysis of each play in its updated and, in many cases, improved form. Researchers will be able to see Boucicault’s handwritten stage directions, corrections, annotations, and set designs while reading transcribed play scripts as they were actually performed. Since the published scripts of Boucicault’s plays are often drastically different from those that were actually staged, researchers will at last be able to study these materials as they were presented to an audience. This project will ensure that Dion Boucicault’s plays are finally made available to scholars, students and the public—complete, easily accessible, and in their appropriate form.
“Pauline” was first staged at the Princess’s Theatre in London on 17 March 1851. Acclaimed stage manager Charles Kean had tasked Boucicault, his new ‘house dramatist,’ with writing a play that would feature Kean and his wife in the lead roles. As he often did at the time, Boucicault looked to the French for source material, and adapted Alexandre Dumas père’s Pauline for the stage. The play initially followed Boucicault’s original comedy ‘Love in a Maze’ and was well received by the public. Queen Victoria went to see the play twice and noted in her journal: “The Keans acted beautifully…literally keeping one in a state of terror and suspense, so that one quite held one’s breath, and was quite trembling when the play came to an end.”
Boucicault later revived the play in New Orleans as a vehicle with his wife Agnes Robertson and himself in the starring roles. The Times Picayune of 23 January 1857 remarked that it was “a play of peculiar construction, and its incidents, situations, and especially its denouement, are all dramatic and striking.” “Pauline” was later staged at the Boston theatre in March 1857 and then at the Washington Theater in Washington, DC, in February 1858, again with Boucicault and Agnes in the leads.
But Boucicault could not let “Pauline” rest. In 1879, after a string of failures at Wallack’s Theatre in New York City, Boucicault reworked the play into a ‘new’ drama entitled “Spell-bound.” The play was panned, however, with the New York Times calling it a product of a “by-gone age,” in which all that “is not absurd is abominable, and all that is not abominable is absurd.” Boucicault admitted that “Spell-bound” was word-for-word “Pauline,” but acknowledged the change in public taste: “I dare say it don’t do now,” he noted to the Spirit of the Times, “but no more would The Miller and his men or Titus Andronicus—both successes in their time.” After the great success of “The Shaughraun” in 1874, Boucicault was realizing that he was hopelessly out of fashion as a dramatist. Ironically, he continued to live in luxury off the royalties from “The Shaughraun,” until both those profits and his relevance as a dramatist dried up.
Jeanie Deans (1860)
“Jeanie Deans” opened at Laura Keene’s Theatre in New York City on 9 January 1860. The play was an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, and starred Boucicault’s wife Agnes Robertson in the title role. Boucicault himself portrayed the Counsel for the Defense of Jeanie Deans’ sister Effie in the pivotal court scene, and was highly praised for his performance. The play was a huge success, drawing capacity houses for fifty-four nights. The New York Herald felt that “Jeanie Deans” was a clever adaptation put into a “clear and compact dramatic form,” and even went so far as to say it met “the conditions of a perfect play.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper was careful not to reveal too much of the plot, as “all the world intends to see the piece,” but praised the entire cast and added additional commendation for the overture of Scottish melodies, which featured highland bagpipes.
In January 1863, Boucicault moved the play to London, where he changed the name to “The Trial of Effie Deans.” The sensational court scene in which Boucicault’s performance as the Counsel for the Defense had earned him rave revies in New York continued to please, and the acting and staging were highly praised. But there was a problem: Boucicault had just assumed management of Astley’s amphitheater, re-christening it The Theatre Royal, Westminster, where “The Trial of Effie Deans” was meant to be a highlight. However, despite the excellent cast and mainly positive reviews, the play failed to achieve the long run Boucicault had anticipated; this was mainly due to the Theatre Royal’s location, which was not actually in Westminster but rather on the south side of the Thames, where a reputation for violence and ruffianism kept theatre-goers away. By the Fall of 1863, Boucicault declared bankruptcy.
Boucicault revived the play as “Jeanie Deans” in January 1868, this time at the Princess’s Theatre in London, where it once again received welcome notices in the press, but did not enjoy a long or successful run. The proof copy of the script for “Jeanie Deans” as it was presented at the Princess’s in 1868 is digitized here, and the Dion Boucicault Theatre Collection also contains two earlier handwritten drafts of the script bearing a watermark of 1862, likely pointing to pre-production notes for the Theatre Royal performance in London. Boucicault’s emendations are found throughout both scripts, offering much to researchers of theatre criticism and history.
The Colleen Bawn (1860)
“The Colleen Bawn,” (from the Irish cailín bán ‘Fair-haired girl’) premiered at Laura Keene’s Theatre in New York City on 29 March 1860. This three-act play was adapted from Gerald Griffin’s The Collegians, and, according to Boucicault, was composed in five days. (Irish-American actor Barney Williams disputed this claim, however, declaring Boucicault was contracted to write the play for him, but ended up stealing it back for himself!) For the first time, Boucicault used his native Ireland as a backdrop and he claimed, “’Twill be found to be I think the best constructed of any of my works.” He was right. The play proved an immediate success, and ran until the end of the theatre season in May 1860. Boucicault’s wife, Agnes Robertson, was praised for her role as Eily, the titular Colleen Bawn, but it was Boucicault’s portrayal of Myles-na-Coppaleen, the dashing scamp with the charming brogue, who stole the show. His spectacular dive into an onstage ‘lake’ to save the drowning Eily delighted capacity audiences for decades, and this type of ‘sensation scene,’ coupled with just the right amount of Hibernian flavor and character, became the template for Boucicault’s success for years to come.
After the success of “The Colleen Bawn” in New York, Boucicault took the play to London, where it was an overwhelming triumph. It premiered at the Adelphi on 10 September 1860, and ran every available night for an unprecedented 230 performances, making it the first long run in British theatre history. Soon, operettas and burlesques were imitating “The Colleen Bawn,” and Boucicault himself helped turn it into a successful opera, The Lily of Killarney. Even Queen Victoria went to see “The Colleen Bawn” on numerous occasions, and was just as thrilled as her subjects with the sensational action scenes, picturesque scenery, and sentimental Irish music. Boucicault was rich, and he knew he had hit upon a successful formula—although even he might have been surprised to learn he’d play Myles-na-Coppaleen on stage well into his sixties.
USF Libraries houses several play scripts for “The Colleen Bawn,” and they are fascinating in their own right: one, dating from 1861, was intended as a gift for the Queen’s daughter Princess Alice, and another appears to be a slightly reworked version that was staged in Melbourne, Australia on Boucicault’s trip there in 1885.
Fresh off the international success of “The Colleen Bawn,” Boucicault hoped to repeat its success with a new Irish drama, premiering in his native city of Dublin on 7 November 1864. Set during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, “Arrah-na-Pogue” (‘Arrah of the Kiss’) proved to be a smash hit, and played to packed houses throughout its run. The play continued to demonstrate that Boucicault’s formula of sensation scenes, melodrama, and Irish character was a winner. Boucicault again took the role of the comic-rogue Irishman, this time appearing as Shaun the Post, whose dramatic prison escape and thrilling and hilarious courtroom scene often stole the show. The trial section was so endearing that George Bernard Shaw virtually lifted it for his Devil’s Disciple in 1897.
“Arrah-na-Pogue” soon moved to London in March 1865, where it continued to enjoy tremendous success, even inspiring some critics to predict a longer run than the record-smashing “The Colleen Bawn.” While this was not to be, the play was certainly a hit, despite some journalists, in this case in the journal Fun, marveling at the “hieroglyphics” appearing on the advertisements—unsure whether “Arrah-na-Pogue” was the language of Timbuctoo or Mandarin Chinese. The play opened in New York in July 1865, although Boucicault remained in London, likely due to the American Civil War. Regardless, “Arrah-na-Pogue” proved a success in America, and remained a staple of Boucicault’s stage repertoire, enjoying numerous revivals through to the late 1880s.
Perhaps the most enduring aspect of “Arrah-na-Pogue” has been Boucicault’s reworking of the old Irish street ballad “The Wearing of the Green,” which features prominently in the play. While the song’s anti-British sentiment played well in the Dublin theatres in 1864, and even became an anthem of sorts for the Fenian movement, it was less celebrated in England, and was banned from British theatres after the Fenian bombings in 1867. To this day, it is Boucicault’s version that you will hear sung, especially on St. Patrick’s Day.
The play script digitized here features minimal prompts in Boucicault’s hand, although a second prompt book in USF Special Collections shows Boucicault’s corrections the lyrics to “The Wearing of the Green,” and, as there are only two stanzas, may represent his attempts to sanitize the song for British audiences.
Hunted Down (1866)
“Hunted Down” (also known as “The Two Lives of Mary Leigh”) premiered in Manchester, England on 30 July 1866, and after enjoying positive reviews moved to London. The opening of “Hunted Down” on 5 November 1866 was a star-studded affair, with the likes of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, George Henry Lewes, and the founder of the National Gallery, Lord Stanhope, in attendance.
The production ran until February 1867, proving to be a great success not just for Boucicault, who verified that he still had his finger on the pulse of London, but also for the actor Henry Irving. Irving, who had languished in obscurity prior to “Hunted Down,” received great praise and adoration for his portrayal of the villain Rawdon Scudamore. He would never be obscure again, and the friendship forged between Boucicault and Irving would continue until Boucicault’s death in 1890.
The prompt book of “Hunted Down” digitized here is unique, for it includes an alternate ending to the play in which the villain Scudamore is shot dead off stage by his estranged wife.
Babil and Bijou (1872)
Ocean bottom-feeders, earth-dwelling gnomes, a populace of vegetables, and a group of rebellious apes populate Dion Boucicault’s sprawling nineteenth-century drama, “Babil and Bijou.” The work, commissioned by the thirty-eight-year-old Earl of Londesborough, was intended to be the greatest spectacle ever seen on stage. Boucicault did not disappoint and, when the eighteen-tableaux extravaganza debuted at Covent Garden in August 1872, it was filled with dancers, Amazonian warriors, and abundant, costumed sea life, and ran a total of five hours.
Although lacking in plot and short on dialogue, “Babil and Bijou” was proclaimed by one critic “the most magnificent display ever seen on the boards of a London Theatre.” The play was extremely successful in terms of its critics and audience, running for six months; however, it cost Lord Londesborough a small fortune of £11,000 and was the largest financial failure of the century to that point. Boucicault, perhaps aware that his massive spectacle was hemorrhaging money for his patron, returned to the United States in September 1872, soon after the drama premiered. He had been away from America for twelve years.
The play script digitized here does not include any marginalia penned by Boucicault, but it does offer an entertaining journey through the eighteen tableaux, highlighting all the marvelous characters, songs, scenery, and dialogue that made “Babil and Bijou” an artistic, if not financial, success.
The Shaughraun (1874)
Perhaps Boucicault’s most enduring play is “The Shaughraun,” first staged in New York in 1874 and played as recently as 2004 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Although it centered on an escaped Fenian prisoner, Boucicault was careful not to show overt sympathy for the cause of Irish rebellion, and instead made his own character, loveable scamp Conn the Shaughraun, the focal point of the play. Boucicault continued to portray the youthful Conn well into his sixties, as audiences still clamored for his signature performance. Although many tried to get Boucicault to change the title of the play (it derives from the Irish seachránaí, meaning a wanderer or vagabond), he held firm and gave an added level of Irish mystique to the drama.
“The Shaughraun” continued to follow the template for Boucicault’s Irish melodramas, but it really made every moment count: the play’s exotic setting on the wild Irish coast accentuated several sensation scenes—a dramatic boat escape, an assault on Rathgarron Head, a bizarre wake, and a jailbreak. And, in the end, Boucicault as Conn addressed the audience in Puckish fashion, adding a personal and endearing touch to the drama.
Irish-Americans were thrilled with Boucicault, and he was presented with a prestigious award by community leaders in March 1875 “in recognition of the services he has rendered to the Irish people in elevating the stage representation of their character.” Interestingly, to promote both his Irish patriotism and his own play, Boucicault wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1876, entreating him to release all remaining Fenian prisoners. Truth be told, Boucicault was more of a parliamentary nationalist and supporter of Home Rule, but he played his cards nicely to bring those favoring a physical-force rebellion to free Ireland into the theatre as well.
Not only is “The Shaughraun” Boucicault’s most celebrated play, but it has a very special place in USF Libraries: digitized here is the prompt book for the very first performance of the play at Wallack’s Theatre in New York, with Boucicault’s handwritten plea for its preservation.
The New York Dispatch felt that the plot was “complicated, improbable, and tedious,” although the critic admitted Boucicault was still a master of epigram and stagecraft; “Marriage,” however, was a “play of mediocre merit, with occasional bright glimpses running through an interminable chaos of confusion.” The Spirit of the Times was equally harsh, calling “Marriage” more of a farce than a comedy, and, as such, was far too long at five acts. “It seems inflated,” said the critic, and “like good brandy, when mixed with too much water, it loses strength and flavor.” Like his counterpart in the Dispatch, however, the author acknowledged that Boucicault was still a virtuoso, maintaining with a firm backhand that no other living playwright could have made so much out of so little material. Although “Marriage” failed in New York, it was more popular in Philadelphia, leading Boucicault to form a “comedy company” which he sent on the road to perform his new play. Despite faint praise from critics in Pittsburg, it was official: “Marriage” was a failure.
The debut of “Marriage” also ushered in a period of bitter contention between Boucicault and theatre critics—a conflict that would rage until his death in 1890. Boucicault had published two articles, “The Decline and Fall of the Press” and “The Decline of the Drama” in the North American Review shortly before “Marriage” appeared at Wallack’s, and journalists took immediate notice. Boucicault contended in the former article that the press had been contaminated by “the corrupting power of advertisement,” and critics no longer offered their own expert opinions, but rather courted scandal and hurled accusations “to the sacrifice of all dignity, conscience, and truth.” For Boucicault, this criminally diminished the role of the audience, who lost their sense of independence and “yielded their privilege of judgement and waited to see ‘what the papers said.’” His follow-up article put the blame for the decline of the drama on the press, going so far as to say, “as the newspaper press has prospered, so in proportion have the poet, novelist, and the dramatist disappeared.”
The critics, especially in New York City, were justifiable upset with this characterization of their profession, especially accusations of their “mischievous incapacity of judgement,” and they remained hostile to Boucicault and his dramatic output from that time forward. Whether their criticism of Boucicault was based on professional and unbiased opinion, or influenced by the mutual disrespect between the playwright and the press, one thing was clear: Boucicault had killed the goose that provided him golden eggs for forty years. While he did his best to hold onto his fame, he was never to know fortune again.
A Bridal Tour (1880)
“A Bridal Tour” is a rewritten version of “Marriage” that Boucicault took overseas to London three years after the latter failed in America. Shortened to three acts, the play opened at Haymarket Theatre on 2 August 1880, and, while the London Times praised the play for the quality of its actors, overall the play was unsuccessful. Critics said that the play failed in both dramatic and comedic qualities, had a puzzling plot, and read better than it acted. It only ran until 3 September 1880.
The play script digitized here is an unmarked copy, and makes for an interesting comparison to the longer and more complex “Marriage.”
“Rescued” opened on 4 September 1879 at the newly renovated Booth’s Theatre in New York City, and Boucicault was confident that he had written one of the best plays in his storied career. To his shock, critics lambasted the work. The New York Times felt that the drama was “constructed on old-time principles” and it was only because of “Mr. Boucicault’s peculiar merit that even he has been able to make so much out of so little; that his treatment of a ridiculous subject is not entirely ridiculous.” These backhanded compliments helped assure the play ended its run at Booth’s within a month. Boucicault continued to blame the press for the failures of his plays, convinced critics were unable or unwilling to recognize true artistic value.
Boucicault was so sure of the success of “Rescued” that he had arranged an opening in London at the same time as it played in New York: it premiered at the Adelphi on 30 September 1879. The critics and audiences were no kinder to the play in England, however, with one critic noting that Boucicault “is so careful not to aim over the heads of his audience, that sometimes, I think, he aims too low, and merely hits the ground.” The failure of “Rescued” on both sides of the Atlantic solidified the notion that audiences were outgrowing Boucicault’s now tired formulation of sensational scenes and hackneyed villains.
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Suilamor, or Life in Galway (1882)
“Suilamor” (often written “Suil-a-mor”) was a rewrite of a rewrite for Boucicault, who continued to struggle to find a new theatrical hit. In 1873, Boucicault premiered a new play “Daddy O’Dowd” in New York City, but it proved a failure. He later rewrote the play as “The O’Dowd,” and premiered it at the Adelphi in London in October 1880. While Boucicault received praise for his performance of the old titular character, his attacks on the landlord system and overt sympathies with the Land League in Ireland caused an uproar in England, and the public demanded he alter the play. Boucicault, however, wrote to the press saying, “the features objected to are essential to the design and intent of the work. It is, therefore, in no captious spirit the author declines to alter it; but rather than lose the favour of any of his audience, he will amend his error by withdrawing the play altogether.” The old dramatist had learned a valuable lesson about staging plays with current political situations—the British did not enjoy Irish propaganda pieces.
Two years later, Boucicault rewrote the play again, this time as “Suilamor,” for an engagement at the Boston Museum in February 1882. The Boston Globe noted that in watching “The O’Dowd” the “cockneys could not tolerate Mr. Boucicault’s plain-spoken allusion to Erin as the Cinderella of the British family,” yet now the play arrived in America as the “first worthy attempt to give upon the stage an idea of the situation in Ireland.” Ironically, Boucicault removed much of the material related to the Land League and boycotting, thinking his American audience would not understand all the allusions. Either way, the play was a rousing success in Boston, and had a solid run throughout Massachusetts before arriving in New York City in March 1882, where it was damned with faint praise and was withdrawn after a week.
The prompt book digitized here offers a fascinating glimpse into Boucicault’s creative process, as portions of “The O’Dowd” script are pasted in the book to show where the text did not change.
Robert Emmet (1884)
Despite several successes through his career, Dion Boucicault found himself in dire financial straits in 1884. While in London that summer, Boucicault was given a manuscript for a play which had been commissioned for another playwright to produce, but ultimately had been abandoned given the political climate in Britain and Ireland. He took the manuscript and “Boucicaulted” it, offering a play that was certainly no original, but had many of his trademark moments of clever dialogue and melodrama.
“Robert Emmet” opened at McVicker’s Theatre in Chicago on 5 November 1884 (coinciding with the election of President Grover Cleveland) and had a disastrous opening. Boucicault himself writes that actors were coming on and off the stage at the wrong times, cues for gunfire came at the wrong time, props were missing, and pregnant pauses were common between scene changes and acts. Needless to say, “Robert Emmet” was a financial failure and was withdrawn after only three days. Upon closer inspection, the writing of the play itself does not seem to be the cause for the failure, but rather a culmination of these many external factors which ultimately doomed the effort. In any case, Boucicault never tried to open the play again.
“Robert Emmet” was new for Boucicault, as he was not used to writing or even adapting straight historical plays. He himself noted that the play was simply composed of the incidents that occurred during the sixty-nine days between Emmet’s planned rebellion and his execution on 20 September 1803, and he attempted to preserve the language and known utterances of Emmet as much as possible. It is a pity that Boucicault never tried his hand at completing a fully original drama centered on one of Ireland’s greatest heroes and martyrs.
The prompt book seen here clearly shows Boucicault’s addition of certain scenes of dialogue that enhance the action, many of them related to the character he played, Michael Dwyer.
“Phryne, or The Romance of a Young Wife,” was first staged on 12 September 1887 in San Francisco, where it failed, and did no better in Boston that October. The play revolved around a marital quarrel that sets off a chain of unfortunate events, and was dedicated to his new wife, Louise Thorndyke Boucicault. The couple had married in September of 1885 under dubious circumstances. Though Boucicault was technically still married to his first wife, Agnes, he proceeded to marry Louise, and was summarily shunned in social circles by both those who did and did not know him.
Though he continued to create and stage plays, Boucicault sought to avoid the public’s voyeuristic fascination toward his new marriage, and employed actors to play parts intended for him and Louise. It seems as if one of the play’s main character, Phryne, whose excessive adoration for her husband is central to the plot, is echoed in his thoughts about Louise. He told his friend, Albert Palmer, that “the only true, disinterested love that has come into my life I have found since I married Louise Thorndyke.”
The prompt book digitized here is a truly unique item, as this play is not found elsewhere.
Cuishla Machree (1888)
“Cushla Machree*” (from the Irish-language term of endearment cuisle mo chroí, ‘Pulse of my Heart’) was the last of Dion Boucicault’s ‘Irish’ dramas. An adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering, the four-act play was originally called “The Spae Wife,” and had a single copyright performance in London, England on 30 March 1886. Two years later, Boucicault reworked the play for an Irish-American audience, moving the action from the Highlands of Scotland to the north of Ireland. “Cushla Machree” was first staged on 20 February 1888 in Boston, MA, where Boucicault and his Irish dramas had long been welcomed with open arms. The play was a failure, however, lasting only two weeks on the boards. Boucicault made some minor adjustments for a Chicago engagement beginning on 30 April 1888, but it proved even less popular in the Midwest, and was withdrawn on 6 May.
Audiences seemed to agree with the critic in the Boston Journal that “Cushla Machree” was “insufferably slow at times” and the dialogue was “commonplace, having little of the flavor of Boucicault’s wit and brightness,” causing the play to go “limping through its four lengthy acts.” Even Boucicault’s performance as the often drunk, but loveable, Andy Dolan provided only “beads strung on a cheap, spun twine.” The failure of “Cushla Machree” demoralized Boucicault, and, by the end of May 1888, the former darling of the Victorian stage knew his touring days were over. The man who once thrived on shaping public opinion had lost touch with modern taste.
Despite the critical failure of “Cushla Machree” on the stage, there is a wealth of valuable material for scholars related to the play. For example, the complete play script for “The Spae Wife” is in the collection, and the prompt book available here contains extensive notes and alterations in Boucicault’s hand, demonstrating his creative process and his willingness to alter a play’s dialogue and structure to better please his audience.
* The play’s title is given variously as “Cushla Machree,” “Cuishla Machree,” “Cuisle-Ma-Chree,” and “Cuishla Ma Chree” in the newspapers and secondary sources.
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