How a 162-year-old play by an Irishman came to speak to black trauma
An Octoroon, adapted from Dion Boucicalt's play, is a bombshell.
This story began as a pitch to interview Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins for the Irish Times but he wasn’t available. Other angles were chased but ultimately they came up short. My editor liked what I came up with - an attempt to question the play’s silent problematic co-author Dion Boucicault, from beyond the grave - but by the time we figured it out, the story didn’t make the newspaper’s print schedule in time, so I’m posting it here. If you enjoy it, buy me a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/chrismccormack.
If Dion Boucicault, the prickly 19th century impresario from Dublin, were alive today, what would he say? One amusing hypothesis comes from the Abbey Theatre’s upcoming play An Octoroon, in a scene when Boucicault arrives into an empty theatre, drunk and mostly naked. “I’m apparently not famous anymore. There was a time when I ran this town! I was like – the King of the Theatre,” he says.
Now he’s having something of a comeback. In 2018, theatre critics at the New York Times published a list ranking the best American plays since Angels in America. An Octoroon, the 2014 play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, came in second.
The resentment in this depiction of Boucicault is understandable – he has been pushed to the margins as of late. His once-beloved melodramas were last seen in Dublin in the early years of the last decade. A revival of Arrah-na-Pogue, a comedy set in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion, came along at Christmas, with enough flash to be occasionally mistaken for a pantomime. At the Gaiety Theatre, The Colleen Bawn tried to present the real tragedy that inspired it – the murder of a teenage girl in 1819 – as gloomy and stark, but Boucicault’s barnstorming script had a knack of nudging back. (If that venue was looking to transform an entertainment into a darker comedy, the same slot has since been reserved for Martin McDonagh’s plays).
To see Boucicault call himself the “King of the Theatre” is not too high a claim. It is difficult to imagine now, but he was one of the medium’s most powerful men during the Victorian era. Richard Fawkes’s 1979 biography outlines the dizzying career: after making his name with a breakout success, the Restoration-style comedy London Assurance, Boucicault was eventually recruited by Charles Kean, an influential actor-manager, to write play adaptations of novels and rewrite melodramas from France. That helped shape an independent career writing over 150 plays, with an aggressive focus on adapting existing creative works.
Unsurprisingly, he had an obsession with copyright and preventing other writers from pirating the same ideas. In 1856, while producing plays in the U.S, he helped lobby and push over the line an amendment to copyright law, granting authors sole right over their work and when it is performed. (Almost immediately, he shut down a play in Boston that resembled his own drama Violet). Sure, he plummeted into bankruptcy time and again, but he also secured some of the most lucrative contracts in the industry, while nearly always overseeing the development of topical new plays. Boucicault was a super producer, the likes of which might be comparable nowadays with an all-powerful American TV showrunner like Ryan Murphy.
The legacy left behind feels different on either side of the Atlantic. The London run of The Colleen Bawn in 1860 was formative to how the industry is understood today. Adapted from a thriller novel, this upbeat comedy about a landlord’s secret marriage to a peasant woman was a blockbuster hit, running for an astonishing 230 performances, setting a precedent for the contemporary “long run” of a play. At one point, after threatening to pull out as an actor in a role, Boucicault negotiated a royalty payment paid to him as playwright, a rare deal in London those days. The play was also a flash point for 19th century melodrama, a genre that shaped how contemporary comedy is read. (The popularised fun of intercepted love letters, mistaken identities, desperate plots to obtain fortunes, and people drinking alcohol on duty had a significant moment here).
Over in the U.S, meanwhile, Boucicault might be sooner remembered for his 1859 play The Octoroon. Adapted from a popular romance novel, this melodrama, centring on a mixed-race woman in Louisiana whose life and plantation are fought over by different admirers, premiered a few years before the Civil War. He probably had in mind the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a hit play that depicted black slaves and their suffering, but Boucicault seemed less interested in such hardship, which has led to confusion about the play’s attitudes to abolition. According to his biographer Richard Fawkes: “Boucicault knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote the play, and he managed to keep a fine balance between antagonising the South and alienating the North”. Box office receipts were more important.
Some clarity about The Octoroon’s ambivalence can be found in the autobiography of Joseph Jefferson, an actor in the original production. (Albeit, in lines that would be unpublishable here). Jefferson recalled how certain moments in the play felt like calls for abolition: the stirring revelation of a black man’s long, sad life as a slave; the discovery that a mixed-race woman was suddenly barterable as property. On the other hand, scenes that feature privileged white people being kind to black slaves, and not utter a word about liberating them, felt like a fist-bump to a kind of white decency that made their slave-ownership seem acceptable. It goes without saying that whiteness is the default identity in The Octoroon, and that the play has a history of casting white actors in blackface.
Fast forward over 150 years, and the play’s unlikely return, in Jacobs-Jenkin’s arch contemporary version titled An Octoroon, will be remembered as a key artefact from American theatre in the 2010s. In an overview of the decade, Helen Shaw, theatre critic for Vulture, recalled how An Octoroon had been a defining achievement, but it also had been, strangely, one of the period’s first controversies. An earlier version scheduled to premiere in 2010 fell apart before dismissive comments from creatives involved (including our own Gavin Quinn, the director of Pan Pan) were published in the press. For a while, the project looked seriously derailed.
By the time An Octoroon opened in 2014, Jacobs-Jenkins was taking serious risks. A previous play by him, Neighbours, saw a loathing black man move into a comfortable suburb, and lash out at the family next-door who, played by black actors in blackface, were walking caricatures straight out of a minstrel show. There was a sense that by tinkering with the explosive connotations of theatrical make-up, a black playwright could reckon with the demands of representativeness while navigating a history of racist stereotypes.
An Octoroon may follow the same old-school plot as the original melodrama, but don’t be fooled: it is a bombshell in the modern age. The script, which blends Boucicault’s contemptuous dialogue with contemporary slang, instructs a black actor in whiteface to play both the hero and the villain, a Native American or South Asian actor in blackface to play slave characters, and a white actor in redface to play a Native American ally. It playfully elbows at the jittering anxieties of contemporary identity, including the angst of Jacobs-Jenkins himself – a subplot follows a version of him as a depressed man who describes himself as “a black playwright … I don’t know what exactly that means”.
Bleakly, the play doesn’t offer any easy answers, leaving us instead with lingering spectres of racism and a woeful history of slavery. What is optimistic is how the terms of representation are shifted. An Octoroon writes buried racial trauma back into theatre history. It burns off an old conciliatory melodrama with a radical new one. If the original story superficially challenged white audiences and ultimately flattered their sensibilities, this one dares the medium to treat blackness as a default identity, allowing black actors to play roles historically withheld from them.
That was pertinent in 2014, in the early days of the Black Lives Matter Movement, and it feels appropriate in Ireland now, when, among the cultural reckonings, a theatre industry struggles with its overwhelming whiteness. The Abbey Theatre’s approach combines familiar echoes with the promise of new voices, casting Rory Nolan, a comic actor who played the popular swashbuckling roles in The Colleen Bawn and Arrah-na-Pogue, as Boucicault, while newcomer Patrick Martins is given the role of Jacobs-Jenkins.
This portrayal of Boucicault doesn’t make him out to be a 21st century liberal. (In one scene, he complains about having to pay black actors). Jacobs-Jenkins’s version takes on his achievements as well as some septic attitudes. His controversial legend endures. Here is one of the century’s greatest plays, and he’s right at the centre of it.
An Octoroon runs at the Abbey Theatre from 21st May. abbeytheatre.ie
In case you missed it, my review of Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster (“Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster: Modern horrors presented as thrilling gig theatre”) was published recently in the Irish Times.
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