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Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation USF has begun to digitize, transcribe, and exhibit the prompt books, notebooks, and unpublished play scripts in the Dion Boucicault Theatre Collection in order to present them in a complete online collection--along with critical analysis of each play in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.
As suggested by the title, Marriage is a play that entertains audiences with the escapades of the cast members. While marriage should be a sacred pact between two individuals, the comedy of this play lies in the "trouble" that stems from remaining faithful within a marriage. The five acts of the play follow Mudgeon, John Persimmons, Silas Auldjo, Walter, Rosalie, Fanny and their companions as farces and relations are revealed. The audience is taken through the marriage of Archibald and Fanny, which is soon followed by unraveling of families. This unraveling only comes to a conclusion at the end of the play, with the characters gathering to declare that the most important thing in a man's life is his woman, and that man's first duty in the world is marriage.
Used as the opening play for the 1877 season at Wallack's theater, Marriage opened on a Monday night, October 1st. The cast of Marriage included John Gilbert, E.M Holland, H.J Montague, H. Beckett, Rose Coghlan, Stella Boniface and Effie Germon. Critics from multiple revenues reviewed the play as suffering from its long length - five acts in total. Though the play started in the evening, the "final ring-down was not until after midnight." The play, though well advertised and promising, failed due to scathing reviews and only ran for a month. The last performance of Marriage took place at Wallack's Theatre on November 10th, 1877.
Traditional family relationships are reinvented and explored in Dion Boucicault's 1877 play, A Bridal Tour. The plot reveals long-forgotten infidelities and tales of abandoned children, interrupting the excitement of two marriage celebrations. A Bridal Tour entertained audiences with intercepted secret messages and accusations that cause true identities to be revealed. The play comes to a neat resolution as the characters face the consequences of their previous missteps. Boucicault summarizes this happy ending in the words of the lovable father figure of the play, Silas, who says, "Allow the Californian author to stand against the music-master and it balances the account."
Interestingly, Boucicault was surrounded by a similar flurry of speculation, as his parentage has also been a fact of contention. Legally Boucicault claims, and is claimed by, Samuel Smith Boursiquot, a failed wine merchant. However, there is great speculation that Dr. Dionysius Lardner, a well-known professor, writer, lecturer, popularizer of science, encyclopedist, and godfather to Boucicault, was actually his biological father. The connection between A Bridal Tour to Boucicault's later play, Marriage is of importance to note, as both are of similar construction. Though Boucicault tried to restructure them during his career, neither play was well received by audiences at the time.
Phryne, or The Romance of a Young Wife, Boucicault's 1887 play revolving around a marital quarrel that sets off a chain of unfortunate events, 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 put on plays, he 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 characters, 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."
Suilamor was a remake of an older play written by Boucicault, known as Daddy O'Dowd, which had been put on stage in 1873. The production of Daddy O'Dowd was a commercial failure and, after four weeks on stage, it was pulled. Suilamor was returned to the stage several years later, edited and revised for the audience. Unfortunately, once more the play was unsympathetically lambasted by critics and audience members alike. The London audience found Boucicault's views on Irish politics unacceptable, and Boucicault even went so far as to place an ad in the newspaper stating that the views were required to forward the design and the intent of the work. Nonetheless, the London crowd was unyielding and Boucicault ended his work in England and travelled to New York to begin work anew.
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. Boucicault therefore took the manuscript and rewrote it, and the tale of Robert Emmet, a historic Irish rebel, was born. However, by the time in Boucicault's career, many of his tried and true stylistic choices were becoming old hat.
On the opening night of the play, in Chicago, it was met with a poor house and poor reception. Some consider the fact that the play opened on November 5th (coinciding with the election of President Grover Cleveland) may have had an effect on the opening night. Nonetheless, Boucicault himself writes that the play was a disaster, with actors coming on and off the stage at the wrong times, cues for gunfire coming at the wrong time, props being missing, and pregnant pauses between scene changes and acts. In the end, Robert Emmet was a financial failure. Upon closer inspection, the writing of the play itself does not seem to be the cause for the failure, but rather a culmination of many external factors which ultimately dealt Boucicault a bad hand.
The Shaughraun was one of the most successful plays of Boucicault's career. The play is set during the Fenian insurrection of 1866, and presents a comic drama based around the lives of familiar Irish characters. It opened at Wallack's in New York on November 14, 1874. To appeal to American audiences, Boucicault took the advice of playwright and theatre manager Augustin Daly and presented the play, not with historical seriousness, but for those wishing to "escape the financial depression," and "be made to laugh not think." Despite this delivery type, there are many deep historical events and feelings still touched upon. Both the Anglo-American and Irish-American public were receptive to The Shaughraun, however the Irish-American audience most likely identified with the semblance of alienation apparent amongst the play's main Irish characters. One character, Robert, a well-loved Irishman, is deported falsely by the English, and must dodge the corrupt powers that be to return home. His sister Claire, left in the wake of his deportation, and scrounging to get by, has seen her family estate turned into touristic ruins. Boucicault himself played the lovable vagabond character of Conn, who, throughout various acts of cunning compares himself to a resourceful fox, and, in the end, is the reliable Irish male needed to save the town from the hands of a crooked Irish tyrant. The Irish community of New York presented Boucicault with honors for his services to Irish drama, and later Boucicault was moved to write to the British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, demanding that Irish prisoners in Britain and Australia be released.
First produced on January 9, 1860 at Laura Keene's, New York, Jeanie Deans was an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian. Boucicault himself portrayed the Counsel for the Defence and his wife, Agnes, played the titular role as Jeanie. It was reported that the theatre was crowded in excess in anticipation for the performance, and it was a smashing success. For fifty-four nights, the production of Jeanie Deans drew capacity houses, night in and night out.
The production of Pauline was originally produced in 1851. Boucicault claims that the play was originally produced for Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean, actors in the production. However, it is unknown if this was truly the case. Nonetheless, the play was very well received when it debuted. Reviews poured in at the mastery of the Kean's performances, which lent another level of drama and terror to the already effective script. In 1879, Boucicault would rework Pauline into another work, known as Spell-bound. However, Spell-bound was not well received by critics. Unlike the earlier part of his career, when the themes of Pauline were effective with audiences, the reviews of Spell-bound only reinforced a growing feeling that Boucicault was out of fashion as a dramatist.
Ocean bottom-feeders, earth-dwelling gnomes, a populace of vegetables, and a group of rebellious apes populate Dion Boucicault's sprawling nineteenth-century play, Babil and Bijou. The work, commissioned by a thirty-eight year old Baron named Earl of Londesborough, and financed handsomely at the whims of Boucicault, was intended to be a "mammoth spectacular." Boucicault did not disappoint and, when the eighteen tableaux extravaganza debuted at Covent Garden in 1872, it was filled with dancers, Amazonian warriors, and abundant, costumed sea life.
The plot meanders through a forest, an ocean, a garden, and eventually the moon, as a half-fairy attempts to claim her rightful sprightly throne. At every turn, she encounters rebellion and masses rising against the ruling class. This causes great consternation to the displaced ruling class, but they steady their fears with the idea that this upheaval will eventually run its course. During a particularly inverted visit to the moon, she discovers that females rule and that males have reverted to an ape-like state and serve the women. The play was extremely successful and ran for six months. However, it cost Lord Londesborough an out of pocket fortune of £11,000.
John Leigh, a painter in London, is living a wonderful life. He's married to a loving woman, Mary, and has two precocious children, Willie and Maud. However, as Mrs. Bolton Jones tries to wedge her way into the aristocratic upper circles that the Leigh's enjoy, Mr. Leigh's world takes a turn for the worse. In essence, Mary Leigh is not just haunted, but also hunted by her past, which puts the love of the entire family to the test. As Mrs. Bolton Jones tries to manipulate the unfortunate circumstances to her advantage, the surprises continue up until the last moments of the production!
Hunted Down, also known as The Two Lives of Mary Leigh, opened in London at the St. James's Theater on November 5, 1866. The production was a smashing success not just Boucicault, who proved that he had his finger on the pulse of London and the drama of the time, but also for the actor Henry Irving. Irving, who had languished in obscurity prior to Hunted Down, had the opportunity to portray Rawdon Scudamore, and received great praise and adoration for his portrayal. He would never be obscure again. The opening of Hunted Down 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 friendship forged between Boucicault and Irving would continue until Boucicault's death. Hunted Down ran at St. James's for four months until February, 1867.