“There is melodrama in every tragedy, simply as there is a son in every adult.”–Eric Bentley, Life of the Drama

 A suggested WALK 

I expect by this suggest you’ve currently purchased her ticket for An Octoroon. I also hope the it is a pretty evening once you attend, and also that friend will want to discuss and extend your endure of the manufacturing afterwards… Or friend may also just want to sweep it the end of you mind…In one of two people case, when the show is over, take a left as soon as you leave Soho Rep.

You are watching: What is the genre of the octoroon

, go follow me Walker Street a half block to the corner, take an additional left onto Broadway and also walk north across Canal, through Soho, throughout Houston into Noho (cartography it s okay murky here), and across Bleeker. Slow-moving your pace and also go over to the east side that Broadway if you haven’t already. Your target is to gain a better view of those on the west next of the street (or offered to be). Ns hope you will look up in ~ the spectacular 19th-century cast-iron architecture all along your tour.

Google Maps claims it bring away 16 minutes:

If you stand whereby Bond Street comes in indigenous the east and look throughout Broadway toward the west, you will be facing the site of brand-new York’s an initial Winter Garden Theatre. Nothing confuse it through the fourth incarnation by the name, likewise on Broadway but between West 50th and also 51st. (It now homes Rocky the Musical.) The an initial Winter Garden opened up in 1850 and its ar in American social history is significant.

Among many important occasions involving many major performers, it was below on November 25, 1864 the the Booth Brothers played in Julius Caesar – Edwin (as Brutus), Junius (Cassius) and John Wilkes (Marc Antony). This to be the just time the brothers ever played together.

John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth and also Junius Booth, Jr. (from left come right) in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1864.

That really night a fire broke out in the surrounding Lafarge home Hotel. Confederate sympathizers collection it to protest the reelection the Abraham Lincoln earlier that month. Edwin stepped front to patience the complete house and the beat continued. The went top top the next night to begin what came to be known together the “100 Nights Hamlet” – a performance record not damaged for much more than a fifty percent century. Some 5 months later, ~ above April 9th, Lee surrendered at Appomatax. Five days later, on April 14th, man Wilkes Booth shot chairman Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C. that night, the theater’s playbill announced Boucicault’s The Octoroon to it is in presented for 12 performances, beginning April 15th. Those performances never ever happened.

In 1867, a fire ignited under the phase of The Winter Garden and it shed down, Hamlet’s tights and all. Booth relocated to the up-and-coming Chelsea neighborhood and opened the new Edwin Booth Theatre on 6th Avenue and 23rd Street.  

advertisement because that Ford’s April 15th, 1865 performance of The Octoroon, which never ever took place because of Lincoln’s assassination


I started my account v an odd, watch off-topic finale in order to provide background—and foreground—to my actual subject, Dion Boucicault’s melodrama, The Octoroon. If my beginning may be pertained to as a closing historic parenthesis, here’s the opened one: Boucicault’s Octoroon premiered in ~ The Winter Garden Theatre ~ above December 5, 1859. Two days before, top top December 2nd, john Brown was hanged in ~ Harpers Ferry, Virginia – among the starts of the beginning of the civil War. History has many ways to measure time, and also art certainly does.

Between the fatality in 1816 of ireland playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (best known for the comedy of manners, The college for Scandal) and the birth in 1854 of an additional Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (best known for, well, Oscar Wilde) come a period frequently thought about a dead zone for English drama. It is wrong. Over there were many worthwhile, efficiently still playable works during that time, though more than likely none same to college for Scandal or definitely The importance for being Earnest. What anthologists often miss in their find for drama is theater.  those defined above was a grand age of acting (Kean, Macready and also Booth; Siddons, Cushman and also Keene) and also scenery (eye-boggling spectacle, the sort that eventually begged for the bear of cinema).

Oscar Wilde, best known for, well, Oscar Wilde

At the facility of this crucial period stood one more Irishman, the Dubliner, Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot (circa 1820 come 1890), professionally, despite not constantly consistently, well-known as Dion Boucicault. His new York times obituary called him “the many conspicuous English dramatist of the 19th century.” His 1841 comedy London Assurance is a worthy bridge between Sheridan and Wilde and still revived, most recently in 2010 at The national Theatre in London. In enhancement he wrote other plays, 140 with his name on lock in some kind and rather that present his unnamed influence. His functions were rarely original and also often coauthored – adaptations indigenous English and foreign sources, plays, novels, operas, ballets, and also sometimes re-workings of himself but under different titles. He created farces, comedies, major dramas, character studies, regional plays (Irish, of course), and also melodramas.

He was also a certification actor and a show-business pioneering manager and producer.


Everything performed deserve to contain facets of the melodramatic. Certainly theater can, since its beginnings. Limiting ourselves just to western created drama, we uncover nightmares, ghosts, and also monsters amongst the life that administer the an essential emotional power for profound tragic content. The stormy weather in the works of the roman inn Seneca blows down with Shakespeare and also the various other Elizabethans and Jacobeans every the means to our latest teenage vampire. For this reason goes the abiding strength of the melodramatic.

Melodrama the genre is a much much more recent phenomenon. The an initial play designated by its writer as a melodrama is Pygmalion by Rousseau. Yes, the Rousseau. He wrote it in 1762, the same year as The society Contract. The is a monologue with musical interludes. Although, likewise a composer, he did not compose the music. Numerous others contributed scores end the years. His innovation stayed in repertory at the Comedie-Française till 1775. There were part imitations (after all, he was Rousseau), yet its historic importance is as a brand-new dramatic genre, combine text and music, yet not in the type of an opera.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

That is the first chapter of what is well-known as melodrama. The second doesn’t arrive until the 19th century when it i do not care what we commonly laugh at as MELODRAMA! but there is an important intervening step: the French change and that is aftermath. The upheaval, terror, and royal executions resulted throughout Europe in political, moral panic and retreat. In England it manifested itself artistically as the Gothic – Gothic novels and also Gothic plays. That dramatic movement, for all its lingering, delicious thrills, to be a reactionary, repressive one – no much more Égalité, Fraternité, Liberté.

What to be demanded in the theatre was a sure, stable, aristocratic ethical order, plainly legible come the most distant balcony: a virtuous, innocent but utterly helpless heroine, a satanically powerful, lascivious rogue (often yes, really the main character), and also a hero of differing complexity and interest. The locale, and also this is one enduring tradition from the Gothic, is the castle v impregnable towers and labyrinthine, imprisoning cellars – one embodiment the the ancient but enduring feudal order.

a stole engraving indigenous the amendment edition the Frankenstein by mar Shelley, 1831

The catalyst that brought about Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, or The contemporary Prometheus, come on the very same June night next to Lake Geneva that Polidori began to think around his work. The occasion has come to be legendary. Byron suggested to his house guests, mar Wollestonecraft Godwin, her husband-to-be Percy Bysshe Shelley, and also Polidori to enter with him into a creating contest: ghost stories. Inspired by two desires – one hers, one percy – mary embarked upon a novel, first published anonymously in 1818. Seen v a really dark glass, if The Vampyre can be related to as a Gothic Don Juan, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, as it is known in one stage version, becomes a Gothic Faust. It reflects science, the journey to know, unable to do awry and turned into an anti-Enlightenment cautionary tale.

Mary Shelley, a writer the the Gothic period, and author that Frankenstein

Although there to be credible examples written earlier, the golden age of 19th century brothers melodrama got in high equipment with the coronation the Queen Victoria in 1837. The simple character types, unambiguously moralistic acting semiotics, and also standardized, sensationalist plots, all ongoing from Gothic drama. What changed came indigenous the optimism of growing worldwide empire, a moral code of quiet strict but originating native a much more stable society, and a brand-new range the spectacular stage possibilities emerging from ever advancing technology.

Possibly the most important readjust of every is melodrama’s representational shift into the here-and-now. even when the genre depicts history, at its ideal it connects the previous to the current with modern-day directness. The Vampyre and also Frankenstein presumably occur in the present, but it is a time haunted by fear and longing for stability in an imagined feudalistic previous – before the Revolution. In contrast, Victorian melodrama regularly feels favor the day’s news filled through inventive changes, most particularly those of metropolitan modernity. Come an audience the the 19th century, seeing those transforms represented on stage was both entertaining and also immediately relevant, also – perhaps particularly – when they confirmed problems, anxieties, and also suffering. Everything almost always transforms out for the best in this reliably confident form. Good is rewarded, evil punished, back life exterior the theater reflects otherwise. Below is the clear relationship and shared duty of melodrama and also the fairy tale. below we are children, no adults. 


After Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel the 1852, along with an immediate procession of phase versions), The Octoroon is the many prominent modern fiction around American slavery. In countless ways, Boucicault’s beat fits the sample of victorian melodrama. Zoë, the Octoroon, is the experiencing heroine, return much more strongly drawn than her Gothic predecessors. initially played by Agnes Robertson, at the time Boucicault’s wife, she choose her very own destiny, also though hers is the fate the a victim. The unmistakable rogue is Jacob M’Closky, certainly modeled ~ Stowe’s lustful, murderous Simon Legree. Both personalities are from the North, both finish up in Louisiana, both are in the industry for slaves. George Peyton, the romantic lead, is brave and main to the plot but recedes somewhat in the presence of the others.

Agnes Robertson, 2nd wife the Dion Boucicault and also the very first actress to play Zoe the octoroon in The Octoroon

As with many Victorian melodramas, The Octoroon, has a huge supporting cast. most of them are there, not just to aid along the plot, but additionally to add selection to a well-known entertainment. They are part of the newspaper element of the genre and create a human being containing a range of society classes, ages, occupations, localities and nationalities.

Most pertinent to this play room races, an especially those of african descent, and they are represented with extraordinary specificity. In enhancement to the octoroon (one eighth black), there room in the actors list a quadroon (one fourth), a yellow (mixed race), and also Whanotee, an Indian cook of the “Lepan” people (probably a misspelling that the Lipan Apache). Boucicault himself played the chief. His famous mimetic capacity surely assisted him come negotiate the character who, when not completely silent, speaks a fictitious “mashup” the French, Mexican and also what is supposedly his native dialect, which contains “ugh.” most of the supporting characters likewise have part comic function, which is basic in most melodrama. Scholars think about the genre come exist between tragedy and also comedy, yet leaning towards the latter, especially because of the almost inevitable happy endings.

Another aspect that firmly web links The Octoroon to victorian melodrama is the spectacles, orchestrated scenic impacts of which Boucicault was an acclaimed master. They showed up in his “sensation scenes,” together he referred to as them. In Arrah–na-Pogue (London, 1865) a character escapes from jail by climbing a tower, i m sorry sinks into the phase as he seems to ascend ever greater and higher. In The flying Scud (London, 1866) the Epsom Derby gallops on phase with cardboard horses, except for a real one paraded as winner; the Oxford and Cambridge watercraft Race – rowed on stage – throughout the orgasm of Formosa; or, The railroad to ruin (London, 1869); and in The negative of brand-new York (New York, 1867) a house burns down. In Pauvrette (New York, 1858) over there is an avalanche in which, follow to the phase directions,

Large block of hardened snow and also masses of rock fall…. leg is broken and also falls right into the abyss…. in an immense sheet, rushes down from the best entirely buries the totality scene to the elevation of twelve or fifteen feet, swallowing up the cabin….silence and also peace return – the number of the Virgin is unharmed – the light prior to it quiet bums.

Queen Victoria herself experienced The Corsican Brothers in 1852. She wrote:

The effect of the ghost…with its wonderful management and also entire noiselessness was quite alarming, the tableau that the Duel…almost automatically after the vanishing of the Ghost, was beautifully grouped and also quite touching. The entirety lit through blue light and also dimmed by gauze, had actually an unearthly effect and was most impressive and also creepy … we both and also indeed everybody remained in admiration in ~ the totality performance.

Queen Victoria in 1882

These scenes are at the very least equaled in The Octoroon, very first by a slave auction in the Louisiana plantation Terrebonne, then Wahnotee swimming in quest of the villain M’Closky together the burning steamboat Magnolia floats through on the alligator-infested bayou.

The Octoroon is likely to be the an initial play in i m sorry a camera has actually a decisive role in the plot. Together in so numerous subsequent television series from all media, the solves a murder secret and permits the good to go cost-free and the evil to be punished. This is no a spectacular item of technology in comparison, because that example, v the train locomotive in ~ Dark (London, 1868), yet it is a novelty thing at that an extremely moment sinking deeply into the windy imagination.

So, this famous, in truth notorious play is a victorian melodrama. Correctly but likewise decidedly no. An Irishman conceived it, but it is through and through American. It lacks the sturdy moral certainty of contemporary British culture. Instead, not at all surprise under the surface, room the stress of a separated society. The Irishman Boucicault travel to Louisiana and visited plantations in that deepest southerly regions. There, his sharp ear heard and also recorded with some accuracy the intermixing dialects and also the actual ar names. He also observed over there both nature and the architecture of human habitation, and also he lived among slaves and owners. Below is one excerpt of his very own account that the last from a item he created after the less than effective opening of the pat in London in 1861:

A long residence in the Southern states of America had persuaded me that the delineations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin the the condition of the slaves, their lives, and feelings were not faithful. I uncovered the slaves, together a race, a happy, gentle, kindly cure population, and the restraints upon your liberty so slight regarding be hardly ever perceptible. A visitor come Louisiana who could expect to uncover his vulgar sympathies aroused by the exhibition the corporal punishment and also physical torture, would be lot disappointed. Because that my part, with every facility for observation, I never ever witnessed any type of ill-treatment everything of the servile class; top top the contrary, the slaves are in basic warmly attached to your masters and also to your homes, and this problem of things I have actually faithfully depicted. However behind this over there are features in enslavement that space far much more objectionable than any hitherto held up to human being execration, through the next of which physical suffering appears as a vulgar detail.

A group of slaves gathered external their soldier on a plantation ~ above Cockspur Island, Georgia in the mid-19th century.

This statement, so disturbing in our times, might be an moral account of what he saw or was enabled to see, and also he depicted that idyllic visibility in the opening of his play. However, then comes the ambiguously harrowing, final sentence, i m sorry downgrades murderous torture below some various other unnamed “feature.” Perhaps, practically certainly, that is referring to Zoë’s sex-related harassment and general hopelessness together a mixed-race woman. But the totality of The Octoroon, definitely its dialogue, vibrates through the tension of cross-purposes. v his statement along with his melodrama, Boucicault seems to be playing plenty of sides of plenty of issues. He has opened in new York, a city in a country both separated over slavery, separated over race, and also moving towards war. It’s the racial issue, even much more than slavery, the traumatizes the play: miscegenation, with every one of its evocations the forbidden eroticism and lurking violence.  it’s amazing, come me at least, that in 1859 a play prefer this, so straight harrowing and sensual, might exist at all, much much less on a major stage. I’ll rest my instance with this item of conversation from plot II:

Zoë (to George Peyton): … girlfriend must learn what I assumed you currently knew, George, you can not marry me, the regulations forbid it!

George: Forbid it?

Zoë: over there is a gulf between us, as vast as your love – together deep together my despair; but, oh, phone call me, speak you will certainly pity me! the you will pity me! the you will certainly not litter me native you favor some poisoned thing!

George: Zoë, explain yourself – her language filling me v shapeless fears.

Zoë: and also what shall ns say? ns – my mother was – no, no, no her! Why should I refer the blame come her? George, execute you check out that hand friend hold; look at these fingers, do you check out the nails space of a blueish tinge?

George: Yes, near the fast there is a pass out blue mark.

Zoë: Look into my eyes; is the same shade in the white?

George: the is their beauty.

Zoë: can you view the roots of my hair girlfriend would view the same dark fatal mark. Execute you recognize what that is?

George: No.

Zoë: that is – the is the ineffaceable curse the Cain. That the blood the feeds my heart, one drop in eight is black color – shining red together the rest might be, that one drop poisons every the flood. Those seven bright drops offer me love choose yours, hope favor yours – ambition prefer yours – life hung v passions prefer dew-drops ~ above the morning flowers; yet the one black color drop gives me despair, because that I’m an unclean thing – forbidden through the regulations – ns am an Octoroon!

George: Zoë, ns love friend nonetheless; this expertise brings no revolt to mine heart, and also I have the right to overcome the obstacle.

Zoë: yet I cannot.

the auction scene from Dion Bouicault’s The Octorooon, 1859

The complying with is the final concern that trumped all of the others that are mixed into Boucicault’s confusing statement on slavery: The Octoroon to be a hit. Despite an initial bumpy agree in London, it played and played in good Britain, the Continent, and also the Union next in this country. For every the ethical minefields that appeared to be hidden in his sensational melodrama, the author’s canny eye was on package office.

The London audience objected once Zoë, together played again by the adored Agnes Robertson, poisoned herself, just as she had done in brand-new York, in bespeak to totally free George from what she knew the civilization had in store. The Londoners demanded an additional ending and also it is stated that the ever-mercantile writer gave lock one. It hasn’t survived yet a possible account of the has: “… the piece concludes with a declaration the in an additional land Zoë and also Peyton will certainly solemnize a lawful union, and live because that the joy of each other.” Intermarriage became legal transparent the United claims in 1967.

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James Leverett is a writer, dramaturg and also professor that Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism in ~ the Yale institution of Drama.