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5 The Yankee Hugging the Creole Reading Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon JENNIFER DEVERE BRODY The very name octoroon was an emotion. What word could better hide a plot, a privy conspiracy of seduction and anarchy?1 Zoe, Zoe, witching and beautiful Zoe, Thy charms unto my fancy seem, a radiant impossibledream! —The Creole2 Zoe Peyton, the central character in Dion Boucicault's play, The Octoroon ; or, Life in Louisiana, which opened in New York in 1859, is the supposedly freed "natural" daughter of a Judge Peyton, original owner of Terrebonne, the Louisiana plantation where the story takes place. In this melodrama the heroic lovers, Zoe and the judge's prodigal nephew, George, are thwarted in their quest for romantic love by the evil machinations of a monied overseer named Jacob M'Closky. M'Closky covets Zoe and Terrebonne and contrives a way to buy both; in the last act, 1. Townsend Walsh, The Career of Dion Boucicault (New York: Dunlop Books, 1915), 64. 2. A drama by Reece and Farnie with music by Offenbach. The play was performed in London at the Holbern Theatre in September of 1877. 101 JENNIFER DEVERE BRODY however, the "good" overseer Scudder, a "Yankee and Photographic Operator," provides a snapshot as evidence that M'Closky has murdered a young slave, thus hastening the play's denouement.3 We are told in Act I that Zoe has "the education of a lady"—which in her case means her wild black roots have been trained and thoroughly tamed so that she is virtually a white gentlewoman. The purely passionate Zoe, the tragic heroine of the melodrama, is reared by the judge's white widow but is actually the product of his illicit adulterous affair with a quadroon slave.4 Long-standing American antimiscegenation laws made marriage between blacks and whites impossible, although they did not expressly forbid mere sexual relations between them. The exogamous arrangements represented in Boucicault's play were a normal part of the peculiar institution, and at times were perhaps its very raison d'etre. Such forms of amalgamation were seen as one of "the customs of Louisiana," where in mid-nineteenth-century New Orleans, adultery with octoroon fancy girls was an indicator (if not a requirement) of gentlemanly status. Such illegal couplings undergird the belief that the octoroon's story was inherently dramatic since it was ipso facto concerned with illicit desire, seduction, and anarchy.5 3. Myron Matlaw, ed., NineteenthCentury American Plays (New York: Applause Theater Books, 1985), 97-150; hereafter referred to by page numbers in parentheses . An exception to the more common reading of the play is Harley Erdman's essay, "Caught in the Eye of the Eternal: Justice, Race, and the Camera, from The Octoroon to Rodney King," Theater Journal 45 (1993): 333-48. This interesting article discusses Boucicault's novel use of the camera and photographic evidence. He concludes his discussion of visual technology with a discussion of the 1992 videotaped beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department. 4. Zoe,as a hybrid herself, seems to implicitly understand Wahnotee, the "redskin " who speaks a "mash up of Indian, French, and Mexican." She also wholeheartedly endorses Wahnotee's love for a young slave boy;indeed, it is she who exclaims that the Indian is "a gentle, honest, creature . . . [who] loves the boy with the tenderness of a woman." Here, noble savagesrecognize one another as belonging to a class apart from the unnamed chorus of "little niggers, black trash orvarmin [who] steal bananas . . . dem tings, dem darkies" (135). Indeed, all of the named characters, with the exception of Wahnotee, who are not white are described as "octoroon, quadroon, or yellow." 5. Boucicault's dramaticnarrative of the octoroon contrasts with the lived realities of actual men and women of this description. For example, many poor white men established monogamous "common law"marriages with women of African descent. So too, there were many slave owners who became involved with such IO2 THE YANKEE HUGGING THE CREOLE 103 Boucicault describes the origins and import of the octoroon's story: The word Octoroon signifies "one-eighth blood" or the child of a Quadroon by a white. The Octoroons have no apparent trace of the negro in their appearance but still are subject to the legal disabilities which attach them to the condition of blacks. The plot of this drama was suggested to the author by the following incident, which occurred in Louisiana and came under his notice during his residence...


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