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  • Melodramatic Conventions and Atlantic History in Dion Boucicault
  • Marjorie Howes (bio)

Dion Boucicault was arguably the most famous and influential man of the theater in the Anglophone Atlantic world between 1840 and 1880. He was a prolific playwright, a celebrated performer, a skilled theatrical director, an intermittent and largely unsuccessful theater manager, an inventive entrepreneur, and a master showman.1 Although born in Dublin, he mostly lived and toured elsewhere, in England, France, and the United States, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen in 1873. After his 1853 arrival in the U.S., Boucicault developed a successful strategy of writing extremely topical melodramas.2 His most popular plays were circum-Atlantic hits, and he made (and lost) several fortunes. Recent decades have seen a substantial increase in scholarly interest in Boucicault, especially in his best-known dramas: The Octoroon (1859), The Colleen Bawn (1860), and The Shaughraun (1874). This essay examines how these performances engaged with a changing Atlantic world. I argue that Boucicault’s most intense and sustained engagement with Atlantic history appears in the generic conventions of his works, rather than in his topical references to issues such as American slavery or Irish politics that have so interested recent scholars.

I do not wish to deny that there are differences among Boucicault’s best-known works, or that, compared to the plays of some [End Page 84] other melodramatists, Boucicault’s drama was somewhat less formulaic, more realist, and closer to the “well-made play.” But these three works do share significant features, and I suggest that in important respects we can find their historicity in these conventions, not despite them. By “conventions” I mean generic and textual formulas, such as plot structures, linguistic patterns, and themes. I also refer to conventions surrounding sets and staging, technological innovations, and an emerging spatial imagination. Previous scholarship on Boucicault has been largely preoccupied with a different kind of convention in his dramatic work—racial and ethnic stereotyping. This focus has often prevented scholars from engaging with or even identifying many of the other generic formulas that structure Boucicault’s melodramas. Race and ethnicity remain central to his works, but by introducing new kinds of convention I hope to nudge the scholarly discussions of those categories away from their current emphasis on biology and stereotyping.3

Melodrama is a capacious term and has been defined variously as a mode, a genre, and a “cluster concept.”4 Most scholars agree that melodrama is thoroughly modern—that it responds to modernity, makes modernity visible in some way. However, they differ on exactly what modernity means, or with which features of modernity melodrama engages: a partial list includes the decline of religious modes of thought, the rise of machine culture, shifts in social and political relations, and the development of distinctly modern perceptual modes.5 All these aspects of modernity are arguably relevant to [End Page 85] Boucicault. More specifically, however, the modernity to which his dramas respond is both political and perceptual, illustrated by the two sub-categories of melodrama they belong to: mortgage melodrama and sensation drama.6 Mortgage melodrama is, as Joseph Roach observes, “a specialized performance of Euro-bourgeois anxieties concerning entitlement and dispossession,” a response to political and economic modernity.7 Sensation dramas, which dominated the theatrical marketplace in the 1860s, featured at least one spectacular stage effect and offered audiences new and intense emotional and physical sensations.8

As Roach suggests, mortgage melodramas are obsessed with property, and many of the genre’s conventions revolve around themes of ownership. The basic outlines of the plot involve an initial or threatened dispossession and the eventual restoration of an estate to its rightful owner. In such dramas a “mortgage” is not simply an economic arrangement, but rather denotes a state of affairs that is at once economic, sexual, and personal. Something that should remain the exclusive property of a protagonist—ancestral land, a beloved, the integrity of the heart’s affections—has become potentially alienable and no longer belongs entirely to that figure. The restoration of the protagonist’s ownership—of an estate, of a desired marriage partner, of his or her fate—becomes the central quest of...


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pp. 84-101
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