Last reviewed: June 2018
Irish actor and playwright.
December 27, 1820(?)
September 18, 1890
New York, New York
Dion Boucicault was a popular dramatist, director, and actor who originated “sensation dramas,” melodramas featuring abundant comic relief and complex mechanical effects designed to surprise their audiences. He is also remembered for depicting the Irish people and their customs favorably in such plays as The Colleen Bawn (1860), The Shaughraun (1874), Arrah-na-Pogue (1864), and The O’Dowd (1880).
Boucicault was born Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot to Anne Maria Darley and her husband, Samuel Smith Boursiquot, probably in 1820, although some sources say 1822. Many biographers cite evidence that Boursiquot was not his father by birth, naming instead science writer Dionysius Lardner, who rented a room at Darley's house while she and Boursiquot were separated. Lardner financially supported young Boucicault (then still Boursiquot), paying for his schooling and later, after his relationship with Darley ended, briefly taking the boy on as an apprentice in civil engineering. Boucicault soon left his apprenticeship to pursue a career as an actor instead, and in 1838 he joined a touring theatrical company in Cheltenham under the name Lee Moreton. He also began experimenting with different spellings of his name, eventually settling on Boucicault.
Boucicault began writing professionally under his stage name. After selling at least two plays, his first critical acclaim came in 1841 with London Assurance, a comedy of manners set in contemporary England, and the success of the play convinced Boucicault to write and act under his own name. In 1845 he married Anne Guiot, a French widow, and he lived in France until her death soon after, probably in 1848. While in France, Boucicault became familiar with French playwriting and production techniques.
In the early 1850s, Boucicault acted with tragedian Charles Kean. He wrote two popular plays, The Corsican Brothers (1852) and The Vampire (1852), for Kean’s troupe. During this time, Boucicault met and began a relationship with actor Agnes Robertson, Kean’s ward. The couple traveled to the United States in 1853 to escape Kean’s disapproval.
Boucicault established himself in the United States by both managing theaters and touring extensively. He also joined a small group of writers who persuaded the United States Congress to adopt a copyright law in 1856, even though he was often accused of plagiarism, as many of his plots were obviously inspired by other authors’ works.
However he derived his ideas, Boucicault usually pleased the public with his emotional stories and exciting scenes. For instance, shortly before the Civil War, his play The Octoroon (1859), which dealt with slavery, had the potential to be controversial. However, it provided memorable special effects (including an exploding steamboat) and a tragic love story, and therefore played well across the United States. Similarly, most of Boucicault’s Irish dramas offended no one. For instance, in The Shaughraun, the plot tension results from the actions of criminals, while both English soldiers and Irish citizens are depicted favorably. The English are shown to be honorable, while the Irish are portrayed as romantic and courageous, rather than as the insulting stereotypes common in theater at the time. However, in Daddy O’Dowd (1873), Boucicault rewrote the lyrics to “The Wearin’ of the Green” in a way that so angered his first English audience a riot nearly broke out. As a result, Boucicault was ordered by the government to either omit the song or sing only its traditional lyrics.
Boucicault’s final break with the British public came in 1872 over his adaptation of a French extravaganza, Babil and Bijou. In partnership with the earl of Londsborough, Boucicault created a five-hour spectacle featuring intricate stage effects. He hired popular performers, composers, and lyricists, as well as hundreds of extras and dancers. The show drew large crowds every night but could never recover the funds spent on the production. Critics accused Boucicault of wasting Londsborough’s money, so the writer left Britain in disgrace, never to return, except briefly while on tour. Robertson began living in England without him.
Boucicault also toured New Zealand and Australia. In the latter country, on tour without Robertson in 1885, he outraged the public again by marrying a twenty-one-year-old actor named Louise Thorndyke and claiming that he and Robertson were never truly married (thereby disowning their five surviving children). Whether or not this was so, the British government granted Robertson an official divorce from him in 1889.
Boucicault’s sense of drama and reliance on expensive special effects helped create an appetite for such entertainment as would live on into early British and American cinema as well as stage. The influence of his Irish plays also helped shape the plays of younger Irish playwrights, many of whom were inspired not only by his nationalism but also by his combination of comedy and drama.