Boucicault, Dion, 1820-1890

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1820-12-26
Death 1890-09-18
Irish (Republic of Ireland)
English

Biographical notes:

English actor and dramatist.

From the description of Autograph letters signed (2) : Brighton, 26 November [n.y.], and Brighton or London [n.d.], to Mr. [Lewis Strange] Wingfield, Nov. 26 [no year] and n.d. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270673105

From the description of Autograph letter signed : [London, n.d.], to an unidentified recipient, n.d. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270577868

Composer of The wearin' o' the green.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : [London] 2 Strand, 1865 , Nov. 25. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270903902

Irish actor and dramatist.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : 103 West 55th Street, New York, to Arthur Sullivan, 1890 May 16. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270125285

Dion Boucicault was an American author.

From the description of Letter and portraits, 1851-1852. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 81113367

Irish actor and playwright.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : "Theater Royal Westminster" [London], to Catherine Dickens, 1863 Feb. 12. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270528194

From the description of Autograph letter signed : [London], to Catherine Dickens, 1876 Feb. 1. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270528207

Epithet: formerly Boursiquot, called 'Dion Boucicault' and 'Lee Moreton', actor and dramatist

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000765.0x000213

Actor, playwright.

Dion Boucicault, a popular Irish-American 19th century playwright and actor, reached the zenith of his career during the period 1850-1870.

From the description of Dion Boucicault theatre collection, 1843-1887. (University of South Florida). WorldCat record id: 50647113

Noted as one of the most prolific, innovative and influential dramatists of the 19th century stage, Dion Boucicault (1820-1890) transformed American theatre by writing, directing, acting in, and/or producing – by his own account – more than 200 plays. A native of Dublin, Ireland, Boucicault’s career was launched on the London stage when he was barely out of his teens. In 1850, he immigrated to the United States, where he delighted audiences with elaborate stage sets, original musical scores, and such exciting stage theatrics as real burning buildings and horse races. In addition, his works raised a number of important social and cultural issues of historical significance – such as race, slavery and political issue – bringing them to the forefront of the American stage.

Boucicault’s farces and melodramas were wildly popular in the United States, Ireland, England, and Australia. In the U.S., he was known for adapting French popular stories and novels thereby helping to solidify theatre as the main form of entertainment for all classes on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 1800s. Boucicault also founded the first American school of acting, established one of the first touring companies in the United States, successfully lobbied for passage of copyright legislation for dramatists, and counted – among his many inventions – fire-proof scenery. A tireless and true entertainer, Boucicault’s three, scandal-ridden marriages, numerous affairs, lavish spending sprees, family tragedies only added to his own life’s drama and mystique.

From the guide to the Dion Boucicault theatre collection, 1843-1887, (USF Tampa Library - Special & Digital Collections)

Dionysius Lardner Boucicault was born in Dublin on 26th December 1820. His Irish mother Anna, nee Darley, was married to Samuel Boursiquot, but it is likely that Dion was the son of Dr. Dionysius Lardner, who was closer in age to Anna than her husband. In 1828, Anna and her children followed Lardner to London when he became Professor of Philosophy and Astronomy at the new University College. Dion attended several schools in London, but it was a production of Pizarro in 1835 which inspired his interest in the theatre; he wrote a sketch, Napoleon’s Old Guard, to follow the main play. When Anna returned to her family in Dublin, it was made clear that the theatre was not a respectable occupation, so Dion was apprenticed to Lardner as a Civil Engineer. During this time, Lardner had given up his chair at the university to write his Cabinet Cyclopedia and to carry out experiments involving the railway. Dion detested both the work and his ‘guardian’ and set off to the provinces to find work in the theatre.

With a quarterly allowance from Lardner, Boucicault acted under the name Lee Moreton in amateur productions in Cheltenham and in Gloucester, swiftly gaining title roles. Charles Hill took Boucicault to the Brighton Theatre Royal as part of his professional company, during which time Boucicault wrote A Lover by Proxy and A Legend of the Devil's Dyke . Frustrated by Hill’s reaction to his plays, Boucicault returned to Cheltenham, then to Bristol's Theatre Royal (under the management of Mrs. McCready) where acted 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. The transfer of Lodgings (and Boucicault) to the Haymarket proved disastrous with a more sophisticated audience and Boucicault soon retreated to the Hull Theatre Royal, where his first full length play, Jack Sheppard, was performed. Although the play was successful, personal disagreements and reaching the end of his allowance from Lardner sent Boucicault back to Dublin in 1840, to work briefly as a clerk in the brewery belonging to the Guinness family.

Boucicault began training at Fanny Kelly's Theatre and Dramatic School in Dean Street but had to return to acting at the Queen's Theatre when his funds dried up. There he met up with a fellow Irishman, Charles Brougham, a member of Charles Mathews and Madame Vestris's Covent Garden company. Brougham’s support persuaded Matthews to take a chance on Bouciault as a dramatist: a play written by Boucicault in a month, with extensive alterations and additions by Mathews, Vestris and the rest of the cast, opened on 4th March 1841 to great acclaim. This play was eventually known as London Assurance .

In the next 4 years Boucicault had 22 plays produced on the London stage including an operetta, The Fox and the Goose (1844), in collaboration 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. At the end of 1844 Webster sent him to Paris to see what new material there might succeed in England; there, Boucicault altered his name to the current spelling and researched his French ancestry. He sent back adapted plays, which often did not bear his name. In 1845 he married Anne Guiot, a wealthy French widow several years older than him. Little is known about her, but when she died after a long illness there were rumours Boucicault had hastened her end.

Boucicault swiftly became bankrupt when he returned to London in 1847 after Anne's death. He eventually worked for Charles Kean at the Princess Theatre: as dramatist in residence he adapted The Corsican Brothers from Dumas’ original French. The play was a sensational success, and was seen by Queen Victoria five times. However, Kean's discovery of the liaison between Agnes Robertson, his ward, and Boucicault led to the end of their professional relationship. In 1853 Agnes arrived in New York two weeks ahead of Boucicault to appear in The Young Actress, which he had adapted, at the Theatre Royal, Montreal on 19th September. She was an instant success, and went on to triumph in New York, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago. Boucicault acted as her manager and wrote many, less successful adaptations. He also lectured and, more successfully, went back to acting 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, Dion William, was born in May 1855. In New Orleans, they leased the Varieties Theatre, renaming it the Gaiety. Here Boucicault managed, produced and directed his actors, a new concept at the time, but 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. When Eve, their second child, was born, Boucicault had even greater need of a "hit" to support his family. The Poor of New York was Boucicault’s adaptation of a French play, in collaboration with two journalists, Goodrich and Warren. It was produced at Wallack's Theatre in 1857 and became a huge hit, with its dramatic staging. This success was followed, over the next two years, by Jessie Brown and The Octoroon, both of which used contemporary events as inspiration. Agnes appeared in both plays.

In 1859 a second son was born. Boucicault then leased the Washington Theatre and the former Metropolitan Theatre in New York (renamed the 'Winter Garden'). Subsequent arguments with his partner William Stuart over money and the ownership of The Octoroon led to Boucicault and Agnes decamping to the theatre of Laura Keene, the first woman manager in the U.S.A. Here, they produced Jeanie Deans, Vanity Fair and The Colleen Bawn, which was based on Gerald Griffin's novel The Collegians, itself based on a true story. It ran to packed houses in New York from March 29th to May 1860 and provided Agnes and Dion with roles for many years, and with financial security which allowed them to buy two houses in New York. After a short run in Philadelphia, they returned to London under contract to Benjamin Webster at the Adelphi, where The Colleen Bawn was performed 230 times and was seen by Queen Victoria 3 times. However, disagreements with Webster led to litigation, which eventually led to the Boucicaults abandoning props at the Adelphi and taking the lease at Drury Lane to put the play on there. Many of Boucicault’s popular plays, including The Colleen Bawn spawned pirated versions which led to court cases. Although Boucicault sued other dramatists for infringement of copyright, he was also taken to court for the same crime.

In December 1862, Boucicault acquired the lease of Astley's Theatre, at Lambeth, renaming it the ‘New Theatre Royal’, Westminster. Despite the expense and the presence of the Boucicaults, the area was unpopular with fashionable society and Dion’s attempts at theatre reform were unprofitable. The commitment of investors in Boucicault’s New Theatre Company and the bad publicity created by Dion's involvement with an actress, Mrs. Emily Jordan, led to his bankruptcy in July 1863. Although he had to sell assets and the copyright of eight of his plays, after withdrawing to Brighton Boucicault discharged all his debts in six weeks. He still had income from his own touring companies in the provinces, and he and Agnes were soon repeating their popular roles in the Colleen in Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh. In Liverpool, Boucicault reworked the Poor of New York, substituting Liverpool, and playing to packed houses there; the production toured towns under local titles. Dion and Agnes also performed in Dublin, Glasgow, and Birmingham, earning ‘easy money’ from spectacle rather than drama, as Boucicault admitted. A year after his bankruptcy, he returned to London with the London version of the play, The Streets of London, at the Princess's Theatre, in a deal which gave him half the profits.

In 1864, the Boucicaults’ success enabled them to buy a home in London, where Dion concentrated on writing, including a new and original Irish play, Arrah-na-Pogue . This was first staged in Dublin in November with Dion and Agnes in the cast and became hugely popular. The play was substantially revised before opening in London in March 1865 at the Princess's Theatre, where it ran for 164 nights. Visitors to the Boucicault's new apartment in Regent Street included the Davenport brothers, American illusionists and spiritualists and the American actor Joseph Jefferson. Jefferson persuaded, and bribed, Boucicault to revise an adaptation of Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle for him to star in at Benjamin Webster's Adelphi Theatre. This brought the two men into conflict again, but the play ran for 170 nights, made Jefferson's name, and restored the Adelphi's fortunes.

Boucicault produced three pieces in 1865 as the result of a bet: a society drama, Hunted Down, a domestic drama, The Long Strike, and a sensation drama, The Flying Scud, about a race horse. The first of these plays opened at St. James's Theatre on 5th November, starring Henry Irving, in his first important role in London, but the latter was the most popular among the public. Litigation followed when the closing scene of After Dark, first put on at the Princess's Theatre in August 1868, was held to be too close to a similar scene in Under the Gaslight by Augustus Daly. Despite losing the case, the publicity was profitable.

Dion and Agnes announced their retirement from acting in 1868, but Boucicault continued writing, with varying success. Anything but a hit decimated their income, as Boucicault always lived beyond his means: the expense of producing a new play, Babil and Bijou, incurred losses despite a successful six month run. Having returned to America to play in New York and Boston, the Boucicaults received American citizenship in 1873. However, Agnes returned to London to the children, whilst Dion completed and starred in Daddy O'Dowd, with poor houses. He wrote Mimi, a version of La Bohème, for Katharine Rogers, an actress with whom he was having an affair. They both appeared in it at Wallack's Theatre in August and visited California, playing in San Francisco and Sacramento, and Nevada.

On 14th November 1874, The Shaughraun opened at Wallack's Theatre in New York. Boucicault, now fifty-five, played the title role of Conn, a young man of 18. It ran for four months in New York, then Boston and San Francisco, before Boucicault returned to London. At Drury Lane 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 where, on the last night, 22nd January 1876, news arrived that the younger Dion had been killed in a rail accident. Dion subsequently returned to New York to Katherine Rogers; after initial attempts at a reconciliation, Agnes asked for a divorce in 1880, citing Katherine and several other actresses. Dion claimed that they had never been legally married, but after three years Agness dropped the case. As a result, people flocked to see the monster Boucicault who had disowned his wife. 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. A year later 1886 Agnes filed a second divorce petition which was not challenged. Dion and Louise toured together as he and Agnes had done: the publicity surrounding his private life encouraged audiences to attend. Despite Dion's renewed lease of life as an actor and a writer, The Shaughraun was his last 'big hit' as his plays went out of fashion. Offerings like Belle Lamar or Cuishla-ma-Chree opened, played for a short time and 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.

Albert Palmer’s invitation to run a drama school attached to Madison Square Theater provided Boucicault with a regular salary, but 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 place today as one of the great personalities of Victorian theatre. He helped to improve the status of playwrights; 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.

From the guide to the Dion Boucicault Collections, 1813-2002, (Specialist Collections and Academic Archives, University of Kent)

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Subjects:

  • Theater
  • Dramatists
  • Prompt-book
  • Dramatists, Irish
  • English drama--19th century
  • Drama (Irish)
  • Theater--Production and direction
  • Theater 19th century
  • Dramatists, Irish--19th century--Scripts
  • Dramatists, American--19th century--Scripts
  • Women authors, American - 19th century--Correspondence
  • Drama (English)

Occupations:

  • Actors

Places:

  • New York (State)--New York (as recorded)
  • England--London (as recorded)
  • England (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania--Philadelphia (as recorded)