Dion Boucicault: pioneering playwright

Irish actor, theatre manager and playwright Dionysius (Dion) Boucicault  was born on this day (26 December) in 1822.

Dion Boucicault

While not immediately apparent from his exotic Huguenot name, Boucicault was born and brought up in Dublin. A contemporary of William and Jane Wilde, he was almost certainly the son of pioneering science writer and lecturer Dr. Dionysius Lardner, the lodger who had become his mother’s lover while her unwitting husband remained in the family home. As well as providing his forename, Larder supported Boucicault financially for the first years of his life and funded the completion of his education in England.

Aged seventeen and using the pseudonym Lee Moreton in order to thwart his mother’s opposition, young Dion embarked on a career in the theatre and enjoyed early success in London. Although his plays were profitable, he was an extravagant man and soon ran up insurmountable debts. In July 1845, when he was in his mid-twenties, Boucicault married Anne Guiot, a wealthy and considerable older French widow. He inherited her fortune after she died in an apparent mountaineering accident while she and Boucicault were holidaying in Switzerland a short time into their marriage. He was the only witness.

Before long, Boucicault was back in the debtors’ court and he was obliged to borrow money in order to pay for passage to New York for himself and Scottish actress Agnes Robertson, who would become the second of his three wives. There, he found success and wrote his most enduring play, The Colleen Bawn. For decades, Boucicault divided his time between London and New York, delighting audiences with his repertoire of original plays and adaptations of the work of others. He improved the lot of fellow playwrights by leading a campaign for the introduction of American copyright laws for original drama; he may have been the first playwright to receive a royalty rather than a fixed payment for his output.

Agnes Kelly Boucicault (née Robertson), by Unknown photographer, 1860s - NPG x1178 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Agnes Robertson

Boucicault took a keen and solicitous interest in the welfare of his compatriot Oscar Wilde. On reading his first play, Vera, the older man counselled: ‘You have dramatic powers but have not shaped your subject perfectly before beginning it’. He urged Oscar to convert his stilted dialogue into ‘action’ rather than ‘discussion’. In a letter to mutual friend Elizabeth Lewis, written while Oscar was touring America in 1882, Boucicault expressed alarm, writing: ‘He [Oscar] has been much distressed; and came here last night looking worn and thin’. In an amusing postscript, he suggested that, as well as securing better management, Oscar needed to ‘reduce his hair and take his legs out of the last century’ in order to find success.

Boucicault with Josephine Louise Thorndyke

While touring Australia in 1885, Boucicault, insisting that his marriage to Agnes, with whom he had six children, was invalid, married a young American actress named Josephine Louise Thorndyke. His reputation suffered as a result. Five years later, aged sixty-nine, he died in the arms of his new wife in New York city. In addition to leaving us his plays, he secured passage of the Copyright Law of 1856, developed fire-proof scenery, secured a profit-sharing system for playwrights, and established a foundation for actor-training. He also puts in an appearance in Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

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