In this essay my aim is to outline the life of Dion Boucicault. I will look at his life, what influenced him and his work. I also examine how the experiences gained while travelling helped or hindered his career. Dion Boucicault was born in Dublin in 1820 and he died in New York in 1890. He was a prominent playwright and prolific translator and adaptor of foreign, chiefly French, plays and novels for the Victorian London commercial theatre for more than 40 years. He achieved his first West End success with “London Assurance” in 1841.
His work frankly catered to contemporary taste and soon fell into neglect after his death, however, his lively observation of humanity in its many moods and his unerring sense of “what works” for an audience, on the stage, have saved his plays from oblivion. There have been a number of successful revivals in recent years of his better known works by the Abbey theatre Dublin, Belfast’s Lyric, and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Dion Boucicault lived a long, very active, diverse life as a playwright, actor and theatre manager. This versatile theatrical personality wrote or adapted approximately 130 plays, including those he is most noted for: “London Assurance”(1841) and “The poor of New York”(1857). He was one of the most popular playwrights of his era. Most of his plays are now, largely forgotten, and the contemporary nature of his work can be seen in works like “The Octoroon”(1860) which was notable for its condemnation of slavery was written and performed in an age where slavery was widely accepted as being legitimate. His life’s experiences lend him to travels to London, France, the United States and Australia. He was, by far one of the 19th century’s most dynamic theatre personalities, and a man that was to become known as the Irish Shakespeare.
Dion Boucicault was born Dionysius Larder Boucicault. His mother, Anne, was the sister of the Irish poet and playwright George Darly, although there remains a question in the minds of many scholars as to identity of his real father. The possibility exists that Samuel Smith Boursiquot, whom Anne married in 1813, is his father, but according to Andrew Parkin (in his book “Selected Plays”) it is more likely that Dr. Dion Dionysius Larder, after whom Boucicault was named and later became his guardian, is his real father.
Dion Boucicault’s formal education began in Dublin as a young child and ended with a year of studying civil engineering at the University of London. By this latter time in his life he had begun writing plays. In 1838 he joined the company at the Theatre Royal in Cheltenham, using the stage name Lee Moreton. His first play, “A legend of the Devil’s Dyke” opened at the Theatre Royal in Brighton in 1838. From this point on, his life as an actor and a playwright would be intertwined. His second play, “London Assurance”, opened at the theatre Royal in Convent garden on March 4th, 1841, and ran for 69 performances.
Boucicault’s next attempt at playwriting failed to firmly give him a good reputation as a playwright and was partly due to the fact that London managers found it cheaper and safer to produce English versions of successful French plays, than to open new English plays and there is evidence to suggest that he had difficulty being taken seriously because he was Irish.. Boucicault then decided to travel to France in 1844 in search of plots and stayed there until 1848. Although exact details are sketchy, while in Paris Boucicault married a French woman, Anne Guiot. The couple were vacationing on the French Alps when she fell and died. Although a widower at the age of 27 her death seemed to have little effect on him.
Upon return to England, Boucicault began to earn money from his knowledge of those French plays he adapted, beginning with “The Willow Copse” at the Adelphi in 1849 and produced several” Cape and Sword” melodramas written for Charles Keen, manager of the Princess Theatre. These scripts were an adaptation of the French scripts he had studied while in France. Of them, “The Corsican Brothers”(1852), and “Louis XI”(1855), proved popular with audiences. His relationship with Kean seemed to be beneficial, as it provided an outlet for the performance of his plays. Then in 1853 an argument between them ended when Boucicault set sail for New York with his new wife, (Charles Kean’s ward), Agnes Robertson.
After arriving in the United States, the couple both acted on the New York stage as well as on the road allowing Boucicault to gauge the American audience. The demand he observed was for” the actual, the contemporaneous, the photographic.” After he had a feel for an American audience, the plays he wrote in this period, between 1857 and his return to England in 1860, are wonderful examples of a playwright who has reached a mature style. These plays include: “The poor of New York”(1857), the title was later changed to “The Poor of Liverpool” which illustrates that his plays were easily adapted to different countries again “The Streets of London became The Streets of Dublin”(1864), “Jessie Brown” became “The relief of Luck now” (1858), and was further adapted a year later to “The Octroon (1859). Perhaps the latter is the best example of the contemporaneous nature of these plays. The Octoroon deals with the extremely important political and moral issue of slavery in the Southern US States.