- “Dear Harp of My Country”; or, Shaw and Boucicault
Shaw’s ambitions never included celebrity as an Irish playwright. Like Larry Doyle of Broadbent and Doyle, he had his eye on the wider scene—the contemporary world where international capitalism and aspiring international socialism eclipsed any sentimental backyard parochialism. As a London critic he campaigned for a theater that embraced the new Continental repertory; and his own rise to theatrical eminence began effectively in places like Germany and America. His Nobel Prize money went to promoting Strindberg and Anglo-Swedish literary exchange. Accordingly, when acknowledging predecessors, he was more likely to invoke Mozart and Verdi, Goethe and Ibsen, than Sheridan and Boucicault. Nevertheless, he had no compunctions about proclaiming his Irishness when it suited him—usually to underline his outsider’s credentials as a critic of English institutions and habits of mind. And he had no compunctions about coopting and exploiting elements characteristic of such predecessors as Boucicault, dramaturgical, representational, and attitudinal, especially when their very familiarity eased the way to challenging an audience to think about things it took for granted.
Shaw, as I have argued elsewhere, made extensive use of the materials and conventions of the nineteenth-century theater in his dual assault on the conventional theater and the established pieties and institutional arrangements of his day—each, as he saw it, supporting the other.1 His habit was implicitly and sometimes overtly dialectical. But since it was convention and conventionalities that furnished (in several senses) his quarry, his depredations generally had a generic cast, rather than a self-evident specific source. So it was in his relations with Boucicault.
Boucicault, in his long career, was quite as eclectic as Shaw, in the range and variety of his genre experiments; but his great midcentury success—at a moment when he might even be said to have been the leading playwright in the English-speaking world—was as a sensational melodramatist [End Page 43] who knew how to fuse that register with sentiment, pathos, and a lively comic descant that cushioned violence and disarmed criticism.2 Consequently it is especially—though not exclusively—when Shaw’s genre references were to melodrama that Boucicault’s practice comes into view, and one encounters plausible echoes. But it was when Shaw finally turned to an Irish subject, ostensibly at the invitation of the Irish National Theatre Society (whose origins included the wish to neutralize the imprint of Boucicault on what passed for Irish character in the theater), that a deeper engagement could emerge.3 It could hardly be otherwise, given the fact that the cluster of Boucicault’s sensational domestic melodramas set in Ireland, designed to showcase himself in the principal role, had defined the genre that Shaw now found it necessary and expedient to play against. Produced in 1860s and 70s, these were the plays that carried Boucicault’s most lasting impact, remaining alive in the turn-of-the-century theater, especially in Ireland, when much that had been fresh and innovative about them was now obscured by familiarity, imitation, and overripe form and style.4 Unlike the leading spirits of the Irish Literary and then National Theatre, however, Shaw’s gambit was not to offer alternatives to Boucicault and his imitators, but to enter into a transforming dialogue.
This essay will elicit aspects of that dialectical engagement, set among the frequent echoes in Shaw’s playwriting that register his considerable exposure to Boucicault’s handiwork, chiefly in his Dublin youth. Shaw refers familiarly to a fair number of Boucicault plays in his theater criticism. The most substantial and illuminating account is in his review of a revival of The Colleen Bawn with a title out of Tom Moore: “Dear Harp of My Country,” where Shaw makes it clear that he has seen and relished the play—gauze water and all—in its primal Boucicaultian stagings.5 In other pieces he shows an easy familiarity with the garrison melodrama Jessie Brown; or, The Relief of Lucknow; the farcical comedy of marital hijinks Forbidden Fruit; the historically grounded actor’s vehicle Louis XI; the brilliantly spectacular revenge melodrama The Corsican Brothers; the Joseph Jefferson perennial Rip Van Winkle. He...