BBC Radio Three and Dion Boucicault’s ‘The Octoroon’ (1859)

By Ian Higgins (University of Leicester)

A specially-designed play-bill for Mark Ravenhill's production

A few week’s ago Victorian melodrama was (briefly) revived on the airwaves in a one-off production of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon, which forms part of a series of plays curated by Mark Ravenhill for BBC Radio 3’s Drama on 3. The play was recorded for radio in front of a live audience at the Victorian-era Theatre Royal Stratford East, which hosted a production of the same play in 1885. It was a rare chance to hear such a typically Victorian theatrical genre performed by a talented professional cast (including Toby Jones), and to get to know they play’s fascinating and refreshingly untypical author.

Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot (1820-1890), to give him his full birth name, wan anAnglo-Irish playwright, actor, manager, wit, theatrical innovator, serial bankrupt, and, later in life, bigamist. Such were, for better or worse, the characteristics and accomplishments of this singularly spectacular man of the theatre. In his recorded introduction to the play, Ravenhill describes Boucicault’s technical innovations as making him the ‘Steven Spielberg of his day’, but such a comparison doesn’t begin to do justice to Boucicault’s manic energy, his fiery temper and equally fiery passion. He made and lost several fortunes, quarrelled with almost every theatre he did business with, and as a 64 year-old man bigamously married a 21 year-old American actress. Rather wonderfully he also played the role of Mr Mantalini in an early stage adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. However, Boucicault’s achievements and innovations in the theatre, on- and off-stage were genuinely of major note. He was instrumental in establishing copyright for dramatists in America, was the first writer to obtain a royalty from a play instead of a flat fee, and was credited with introducing the matinee.[1] Queen Victoria was an admirer, going to see plays such as The Corsican Brothers several times and commissioning a watercolour of Boucicault for her collection at Windsor Castle. Her third visit to see The Colleen Bawn at the Adelphi in 1861 was the last time the Queen set foot in a theatre, following Prince Albert’s death the same year.[2]

A signature of Boucicault’s melodrama was the thrilling sequence at the climax of the play which pushed to the limits the resources of Victorian theatre for spectacular effect; an exploding steamboat in The Octoroon, a character rescued from an oncoming train in After Dark, a house burning down in The Poor of New York (fire-proof scenery was another of Boucicault’s innovations). In The Colleen Bawn, the hero saves the heroine by jumping after her into a lake, necessitating ‘part of the stage [being] converted into a reservoir containing over eight thousand gallons of water’ – a feat of theatrical ambition certainly worthy of the director of Jaws.[1]

Ravenhill points to the recent ‘rediscovery’ of Boucicault’s work as influential in his decision to choose The Octoroon, citing Nicholas Hytner’s well-received 2010 National Theatre production of Boucicault’s debut play London Assurance, featuring stars such as Fiona Shaw and Simon Russell Beale. It can perhaps also be seen as part of a broader revival in the fortunes of the Victorian drama in general. In 2011 Radio 3 also broadcast a new adaptation of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s satirical comedy Money, directed by Samuel West and starring Roger Allam, Celia Imrie, and Iain McDiarmid. Arthur Wing Pinero too has been back in fashion, with a major new production (directed by Joe Wright) of Trelawny of the Wells having recently come to a close at the Donmar Warehouse, as well as a revival of The Second Mrs Tanqueray at the Rose Theatre. The National Theatre also chose Pinero’s The Magistrate as its Christmas show starring John Lithgow, though Timothy Sheader’s rather hyperactive production took a bizarre line through screwball comedy and Carry On film to get to Victorian farce. What chance then for the melodrama?

Cannily, Ravenhill has chosen a play that has more than just its generic novelty to interest us; he identifies the ‘prickly issues’ of slavery and race tackled by Boucicault in The Octoroon as a primary reason for selecting it. The play is set on a Louisiana plantation, Terrebonne, during contemporary times (only two years before the beginning of the American Civil War). This also means that the language used in the play is similarly contemporary – the ‘n’ word is employed just as copiously as in Tarantino’s recent Django Unchained. The Octoroon of the title is Zoe, the illegitimate daughter of the plantation’s late owner Judge Peyton and one of his slaves – ‘octoroon’ being a term historically applied to people of mixed-race who were one-eighth black (i.e. had one black great-grandparent). At the start of the play Judge Peyton is dead and the plantation has fallen into financial trouble, with the Judge’s nephew George Peyton returning as heir apparent. George soon falls in love with the beautiful Zoe (much to the chagrin of southern belle Dora), but their relationship and their hopes to save Terrebonne are threatened by the villain of the piece, the evil over-seer Jacob M’Closky, who is determined to get his hands on both Zoe and the land. The plot, such as it is, develops according to a familiar pattern, offering plenty of scope for melodramatic outpourings of thwarted love.

How then does this concoction fare in the hands of today’s actors? Well, the sheer brio with which the cast take on the material ensures that the result is never less than entertaining (the theatre audience’s boos, hisses, and cheers also add to the atmosphere). Instead of being embarrassed by the play’s melodrama, the actors positively wallow in the expressive possibilities of the Victorian declamatory style. The cast are excellent throughout; Amaka Okafor’s Zoe and Toby Jones’s Salem Scudder in particular give star turns, while Steven Hartley’s villain M’Closky is a gravel-voiced wonder. There is a wonderfully vintage effect to the whole performance. The villain enters the stage, all but twirling his moustache, to the ominous refrain of a rusty pianola, and the musical accompaniment throughout creates a unique atmosphere. Some of the one-liners are genuine zingers: ‘I departed [Paris] amid universal and sincere regret. I left my loves and my creditors equally inconsolable’; ‘Let me relate you the worst cases of my feminine adventures’ – ‘I won’t hear a word! Oh, you horrible man! Go on, tell me everything!’ Boucicault’s deep interest in incorporating technology into his theatre is also shown in the manner by which the villain is found out: caught in the act of murder on a photographic plate by a camera which has been set up without his knowing.

As for the play’s take on racial issues, that is perhaps best summed up by much of the hostile criticism received by its earliest performances in America, with Boucicault being accused of taking advantage of ‘anti-southern’ sentiment to write a ‘pernicious’ play which tried ‘by false sympathy, to break down caste, and elevate the negro to the same level with the whites.’ In the words of his most recent biographer, Boucicault tried his best ‘within the accepted dramatic conventions of his time, to portray the lot of the slave as being inhuman.’[1] His treatment of slave characters throughout is sensitive, and bears witness to what Ravenhill calls the playwright’s ‘warm-hearted liberalism’.

Boucicault plays are unlikely to take the west end by storm anytime soon, and it is doubtful whether the unique charms of the melodrama would play quite so well in a fully-staged production. However, Ravenhill’s terrific ‘curation’ of The Octoroon did full justice to the charm and vitality of the genre, and it was a fantastic opportunity to re-engage with nineteenth-century theatre, to savour something of its diversity and sheer sense of fun. For every Bowdler, there was a Boucicault.

Ian Higgins is a final-year research student at the University of Leicester, working on a thesis titled ‘Bored Victorians: A Cultural History of Ennui in the Age of Industry’. He tweets as @VictorianScot. You can find out more here.

[1] Kathleen J. Fraser, ‘Theatre Management in the Nineteenth Century: Eugene A. McDowell in Canada, 1847-1891’, Theatre Research in Canada, 1: 1 (Spring 1980).

[1] Richard Fawkes, Dion Boucicault (London: Quartet Books, 1979), pp. 15-16.

[2] Fawkes, p. 123.

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