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Dion Boucicault Collections

Brief biography of Dion Boucicault

Bold text indicates topics on which the collection includes material, links lead to play summaries.

Early life

Dionysius Lardner Boucicault was born in Dublin on December 26th, 1820, ostensibly the son of the wine merchant Samuel Boursiquot (from a Huguenot family), and his younger Irish wife Anna (nee Darley). In all probability he was Anna's son by Dr. Dionysius Lardner (1793-1859), the Irish science writer and lecturer. The Lardner and the Darley families had been friends and Anna was just 2 years younger than Dionysius; Samuel, on the other hand was 26 years her senior. After a period as Lardner's landlady Anna and her children followed him to London in 1828 when he became Professor of Philosophy and Astronomy at the new University College. After several moves of school and accommodation in London and the South East Dion was sent by Lardner to University College School at the age of thirteen. However by the end of 1835 he was at the Collegiate School in Brentford where an end of term production of the play Pizarro kindled the young Boucicault's interest in the Theatre. He even wrote a sketch called Napoleon's Old Guard to follow the main play.

Unfortunately the Darley family, under whose influence Dion came when his mother returned to Dublin, did not consider the stage a respectable occupation. Lardner had given up his chair at the University to devote time to writing his Cabinet Cyclopedia, and to scientific experiments particularly connected to the railway. Dion was therefore sent back again to London to be apprenticed to Lardner as a Civil Engineer. Detesting the work, and his so called "guardian", Boucicault went off to the provinces in search of work in the theatre, albeit in receipt of a quarterly allowance from Lardner.

Lee Moreton, the actor

Boucicault began his career as an actor under the name Lee Moreton in Cheltenham and then Gloucester in amateur performances for Charles Hill, earning fulsome reviews in the local paper. Soon promoted to title roles in Rory O'More and Hamlet, Boucicault was taken on by Hill as part of his professional company when the latter moved to the Brighton Theatre Royal. Boucicault also wrote at least 2 plays whilst working for Hill; A Lover by Proxy and A Legend of the Devil's Dyke. Impatient that Hill didn't immediately recognise the genius of these offerings Boucicault took himself back to Cheltenham, and then to Bristol's Theatre Royal under the management of Mrs. McCready. Here he not only played Mantilini in Nicholas Nickleby, but also took part in his own play Lodgings to Let. This was performed anonymously, as an afterpiece to plays starring Benjamin Webster, manager of the Haymarket in London. Despite its success in Bristol, the subsequent transfer of Lodgings, and of Boucicault himself, to the Haymarket proved disastrous with a more sophisticated audience. In May 1839 he appeared in Nicholas Nickleby at the New Strand Theatre in London. However he soon retreated again to the Provinces, this time to the Hull Theatre Royal where he managed to get his first full length play, Jack Sheppard, performed with certain success. Nevertheless, a disagreement with the manager, Hooper, culminated in the police being called and Boucicault's benefit night being curtailed. By this time money was a problem, his allowance from Lardner having dried up, and it appears he returned to Dublin in 1840, to work briefly as a clerk in the brewery belonging to the Guinness family, to which his mother was related.

London Assurance

It is possible that Arthur Guinness paid for Boucicault to undertake training at Fanny Kelly's Theatre and Dramatic School in Dean Street, Soho but funds soon dried up when Boucicault indulged in a lavish lifestyle. Forced to earn money again, he was acting at the Queen's Theatre when he met up with a fellow Irishman, Charles Brougham, a member of Charles Mathews and Madame Vestris's Covent Garden company. Using the support of his friend Brougham, Boucicault eventually persuaded Matthews to take a chance on him as a dramatist. A play -- eventually known as London Assurance -- written by Boucicault in a month, but with extensive alterations and additions by Mathews, Vestris and the rest of the cast, opened on 4th March 1841 to great acclaim.

In the next 4 years Boucicault had 22 plays produced on the London stage including, in 1844 an operetta, The Fox and the Goose, in which he collaborated with the playwright Benjamin Webster for the Adelphi Theatre. However not all his original work was successful and, often short of money and embroiled in litigation, he was forced to spend more time on translations from popular French theatre than new plays. At the end of 1844 Webster eventually sent him to Paris to see what new material there might succeed in England.

France

Boucicault was immediately at home in France, where he altered his name to the current spelling and researched his French ancestry, whilst continuing to send back adapted plays, which generally did not bear his name. In 1845 he married Anne Guiot, a wealthy French widow several years older than he. Not much is known about her, but when she died, reputedly after a long illness, there were rumours Boucicault had hastened her end.

The Corsican Brothers

Aged 27 he returned to London, soon going through his wife's money and ending up bankrupt. He eventually attracted the interest of Charles Kean at the Princess Theatre and as dramatist in residence adapted, from the original French of Dumas, The Corsican Brothers. A sensational success, this was seen by Queen Victoria five times. By now Boucicault had met his second wife, Agnes Robertson, a ward of Charles Kean. Kean's discovery of the liaison between Agnes and Boucicault led to the end of their professional relationship. In 1853 Dion and Agnes went to New York.

In the United States

Boucicault arrived in New York on 18th September, a fortnight after Agnes, who had gone on to open at the Theatre Royal, Montreal on 19th September in The Young Actress, an adaptation by Boucicault. She was an instant success, and went on to triumph in New York, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago etc. Boucicault was less successful, but acted as her manager, and wrote many adaptations. He also undertook a lecture tour, and more successfully went back to acting himself, with Agnes. After a formal declaration (at that time legal in the U.S.A) they lived as man and wife, and their first child, a boy called Dion William was born in May 1855. This led to a short period of stasis in New Orleans, where they leased the Varieties Theatre, renaming it the Gaiety. Here Boucicault managed, produced and even directed his actors -- a new concept at the time. But despite his vision, Boucicault gave up the venture after 3 months, disappointed in his lack of success. Engagements in Philadelphia and New York followed, particularly a production of London Assurance with both Dion and Agnes in the cast. However a week later Agnes gave birth to their second child Eve. As usual short of money, and with two children to support, Boucicault now had even greater need of a "hit". This came with the adaptation of a French play into The Poor of New York, in collaboration with two journalists, Goodrich and Warren. It was produced at Wallack's Theatre in 1857. The final scene when a real fire engine arrived on stage to extinguish a fire from which the hero could emerge triumphant provided the pulling power to ensure large audiences.

The next two years in America saw success with two plays by Dion on the subject of contemporary events. Agnes appeared in both plays, as the Scottish heroine Jessie in Jessie Brown; or, The Relief of Lucknow and as Zoe in The Octoroon, the first play which treated the subject of African American slavery seriously. It was also marked by the birth of their second son at the end of 1859 and Dion's aborted attempts to be his own master at the Washington Theatre, and at the former Metropolitan Theatre in New York (renamed the 'Winter Garden'). Arguments with his partner William Stuart over money and the ownership of the Octoroon led to Dion and Agnes decamping to a rival theatre, that of Laura Keene, the first woman manager in the U.S.A.

The Colleen Bawn

After one success (Jeanie Deans), and one flop (Vanity Fair) the Boucicaults, and Laura Keene, needed a new play in a hurry. Boucicault based The Colleen Bawn on Gerald Griffin's novel The Collegians, itself based on a true story. It opened in New York on March 29, 1860, and ran to packed houses until May. The popularity of this play provided Agnes and Dion with roles that they were to carry on playing for years, and with financial security. They were able to buy not one but two houses in New York, one as an investment. After a short run with the play in Philadelphia they returned to London under contract to Benjamin Webster at the Adelphi, where, in total, The Colleen Bawn was performed 230 times, and was seen by Queen Victoria 3 times. However the run was marred by frequent disagreements with Webster, leading to litigation. Eventually the Boucicaults, leaving furniture, props and costumes behind at the Adelphi, took the lease at Drury Lane and put the play on there. The Colleen Bawn was such a success that it spawned many pirated versions, as did indeed many other of Boucicault's plays, leading frequently to court cases, with Boucicault suing other dramatists for infringement of copyright; occasionally, however, he was himself taken to court for stealing the ideas of other dramatists, for example in relation to Jessie Brown or After Dark.

Grandiose schemes and bankruptcy

Boucicault was intent on reform in the theatre, and with the money to indulge his schemes he acquired the lease of Astley's, on the south side of the Thames at Lambeth in December 1862, refurbishing it under the name "New Theatre Royal", Westminster. Despite the expense of the conversion and the presence of the two stars in the productions -- Tom Taylor's To Parents and Guardians and The Relief of Lucknow (Jessie Brown) -- fashionable society could not be persuaded that the unsavoury neighbourhood was the place to be seen, and the returns on Boucicault's expenditure were few. Nevertheless on the back of the success of the Colleen Boucicault had taken up offers of support from speculators creating the New Theatre Company, which was to build a new theatre on a site in the Haymarket. This commitment, plus the bad publicity created by Dion's involvement with an actress, Mrs. Emily Jordan, led to him being declared bankrupt again in July 1863, having to sell two houses, furniture and the copyright of 8 of his plays. However, withdrawing to Brighton he was able to discharge all his debts in 6 weeks. He still had income from his own touring companies in the provinces, and he and Agnes were soon repeating their roles in the Colleen in Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh where audiences flocked to see them. In Liverpool Boucicault reworked the Poor of New York, substituting Liverpool, and playing to packed houses there; Leeds, Manchester, etc., followed, making money from the touring companies and from his and Agnes's performances in Dublin, Glasgow, and Birmingham. It was easy money from spectacle rather than drama, as Boucicault himself admitted, but a year after his bankruptcy he was again in London with the London version of the play -- titled The Streets of London --, on a very good deal with George Vining at the Princess's Theatre, which gave him half the profits.

Solvent again

In 1864, thanks to the funds provided by The Streets and from touring companies, the Boucicaults were able to again buy a home in London, where Dion could concentrate on his writing. A new and original Irish play, Arrah-na-Pogue, was first staged in Dublin in November with Dion and Agnes in the cast. It was very popular, but was revised quite substantially before opening in London in March 1865 at the Princess's Theatre, where it ran for 164 nights. Among the visitors to the Boucicault's new apartment in Regent Street were the American illusionists and spiritualists, the Davenport brothers, who held a séance there, and the American actor Joseph Jefferson. Jefferson persuaded, and bribed, Boucicault to revise an adaptation of Washington Irving's story "Rip van Winkle" for him so he could act in it at Benjamin Webster's Adelphi Theatre, bringing the two men back into conflict with each other. In the end, Webster and Jefferson had reasons to be pleased with the agreement. The play ran for 170 nights, made Jefferson's name, and restored the Adelphi's fortunes.

In the following year Boucicault produced three pieces, a society drama, Hunted Down, a domestic drama, The Long Strike, and a sensation drama, The Flying Scud, about a race horse. The three had been undertaken for a bet to show that the last would be the most popular with the public. The first of the plays opened at St. James's Theatre on 5th November and starred Henry Irving, in his first important role in London.

Never far from controversy, Boucicault's next sensational drama led again to litigation. After Dark, first put on at the Princess's Theatre in August 1868, includes a scene in which a man tied to a railway line is rescued just in time by another character; this was held to be too close to a similar scene in Under the Gaslight by the American playwright Augustus Daly. However, despite losing the case, the publicity caused by it was well worth the royalties the management of Niblo's Garden Theatre in New York had to pay to produce it there.

The Shaughraun

Despite announcing his and Agnes' retirement from acting in 1868, Dion carried on writing with varying success. Always living beyond his means, anything less than an out and out hit tended to dent his bank balance, especially without the income from actually treading the boards. A grandiose production of a new play Babil and Bijou proved so expensive to stage that despite it running successfully for 6 months its backers were still out of pocket. It was a good time to visit the USA, and the Boucicaults returned there to play in New York and Boston. However, despite the fact that they both applied for and received American citizenship in 1873, Agnes returned to London to the children, whilst Dion completed and starred in Daddy O'Dowd, with poor houses. One reason for staying in America was Katharine Rogers, an actress with whom he was having an affair. He wrote Mimi, a version of La Bohème, for her and they both appeared in it at Wallack's Theatre at the end of August. They also visited California, playing in San Francisco and Sacramento, and Nevada.

On 14th November that year, Boucicault's most successful Irish play, The Shaughraun, opened at Wallack's Theatre in New York, with Boucicault at fifty-five playing the title role of Conn, a young man of 18. It ran for four months in New York, then went to Boston and San Francisco. After touring successfully in America, Boucicault returned to London, to Drury Lane, where The Shaughraun played with Agnes as the heroine for three and half months, only being taken off for the annual pantomime. The play then moved to the Adelphi, but on the last night, 22nd January 1876, the news came that the younger Dion, or Willie, as he was known, had been killed in a rail accident.

End of a marriage

The death of their eldest son did nothing to help his parents' marriage. By July Dion had gone back to New York to Katherine Rogers, and, after initial attempts at a reconciliation, Agnes eventually asked for a divorce in 1880, citing Katherine and several other actresses. The case dragged on for 3 years -- during which time Dion claimed that they had never been legally married -- but was eventually dropped by Agnes. It was also in 1880, during a rerun of The Shaughraun at the Adelphi (to which people flocked due to see the monster Boucicault who had disowned his wife) that a hoax was played on the Scottish poet William McGonagall by a man pretending to be Boucicault. In 1885, during a tour of Australia with a cast including two of his children, Dot and Nina, Boucicault "married" Louise Thorndyke, a 21-year-old member of the company. In 1886 Agnes filed a second divorce petition. This time it was not challenged by her husband, who was extremely happy with his young wife. They toured together as he and Agnes had done, the publicity surrounding his private life encouraging audiences to attend out of curiosity. However, despite Dion's renewed lease of life as an actor and a writer, The Shaughraun had been his last "big hit". His plays were going out of fashion, and one by one offerings like Belle Lamar or Cuishla-ma-Chree opened, played for a short time and then closed without great success. He carried on touring in the U.S.A. until May 1888, when he was sixty-seven, in dubious health and again short of money.

Death and legacy

At this point Albert Palmer, who ran Madison Square Theater, helped the aging dramatist by forming a drama school attached to the theatre and asking Boucicault to run it. This brought in a regular salary and enabled him to remain in the theatrical milieu he loved. However the failure of a final play, A Tale of a Coat, depressed him utterly. An attack of pneumonia followed and he died on 18th September, 1890.

Boucicault was most famous during his lifetime for his skill in characterization and his timing as an actor, but his inventiveness as a director and his innovations as a  theatre manager led to his position today as one of the great personalities of Victorian theatre. He helped to improve the status of playwrights, both in the USA, by helping to get the first dramatic copyright law passed in 1856, and in England, where his demands got the royalty system established.

Compiled by Sue Crabtree, Special Collections Librarian, 2006.

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Last Updated: 08/03/2018