- Replaying and Rediscovering The Octoroon
"[W]hen one is considering the crimes of slavery, the popular theater is as central as the courthouse."—Saidiya Hartman1
For over 150 years, productions and adaptations of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's explosive 1859 melodrama The Octoroon have reflected differing and sometimes contentious meanings and messages about race and enslavement in a range of geographic locations and historical moments. In this melodrama, set on a plantation in Louisiana, audiences witness the drama of Zoe Peyton, a mixed-race, white-appearing heroine who learns after the sudden death of her owner/father that she has been relegated to the condition of "chattel property" belonging to the estate, since she was born of a mother who had herself been enslaved.2 Rather than submit to a new master after having been sold at auction, Zoe poisons herself and dies, graphically, onstage. [End Page 127]
The play is famous in the annals of theatre and performance history for reactions to its depiction of slavery in antebellum America, and for the various rewrites to which the script was subjected in a Britain that had already abolished the slave trade. In London, in 1861 Boucicault famously rewrote the ending, allowing the heroine to survive and be united with her white lover in another (presumably more just) country, ostensibly England. Critical accounts of this adaptation have relied upon newspaper reports, as the playscript itself was never published. Within a short time Boucicault changed the ending again, this time leaving Zoe silent in the arms of her lover as both witnessed the burning of the steamboat Magnolia. This four-act edition was published widely, and it and the original US version have formed the basis for most critical assessments of The Octoroon. A key assumption so far has been that this four-act version became an authoritative text for UK productions and thus Zoe died no more on British stages. But we have found this not to be the case.
Here, we discuss our archival discoveries of Octoroon promptbooks and playbills that reveal previously unknown aspects of the play's stage history and critically illuminate the ways that the transatlantic theatre of the mid-nineteenth century portrayed enslaved mixed-race figures and interracial relationships. Although theatre historians have known about Boucicault's original adaptation for over 150 years, no extant script for that original "British" version has heretofore been discovered. Now, however, our recent archival discoveries reveal portions of that long-missing script. At the University of Canterbury Kent we have discovered promptbooks of a later 1871 production of The Octoroon that provide specific textual evidence and blocking details that represent the first amended version as witnessed by London audiences a decade earlier, and described at the time in the London press. In addition, in the same archive we have uncovered evidence, which we discuss below, establishing that multiple versions of The Octoroon were being staged simultaneously, thereby further decentering nineteenth-century perceptions of both mixed-race bodies and contemporaneous binary definitions of race, thus complicating the received narratives of race and reception regarding this play.
Moreover, in other archives we have found evidence that The Octoroon appeared on the colonial stages of Australia a full ten months before it was staged in London and therefore before Boucicault changed the ending. Our exploration of the performance history of The Octoroon in Australia further illustrates the potential shifting meanings of racial categories and representations of enslavement in nations whose colonial histories were built on differing constructions of racist oppression, genocide, and slavery. Thus we discuss the ways that productions of The Octoroon have served as a unique vehicle for depicting the transatlantic and colonial cultural attitudes that surrounded, and tensions that emerged from, antebellum representations of racialization, racial hybridity, interracial desire, and enslavement on both sides of the Atlantic and across British colonies in Australia.
Furthermore, the actors' promptbooks we have located contain several different endings written into the same script. Such promptbooks demonstrate the tensions between archive and repertoire so powerfully articulated by Diana Taylor.3 Although constructed in the form of printed scripts, these objects were used repeatedly by a number of...