DION BOUCICAULT: A Biography by Richard Fawkes


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He was ""the greatest dramatist of the Victorian age."" Now, that may sound like a dubiously inflated claim for the near-forgotten Dion Boucicault--but it's hard to come up with any other candidates. And, indeed, part of the interest and amusement in this decent, unpretentious biography is that it focuses on the notoriously lousy period of British theater that rarely gets written about. Probably illegitimate, and stagestruck while young, Boucicault ran off to become a dazzling teenage actor in the provinces (it was a ""remarkable debut. . . even allowing for the fact that he may well have bribed the local critics""). But soon he was concentrating on writing plays, and--informed that London actor-manager Charles Mathews wanted a five-act comedy--he expanded a one-acter in 30 days. . . and produced London Assurance, his first ""made-to-order"" hit, at age 20. He soon discovered, however, that it was more profitable and popular to translate (steal) French melodramas than to come up with originals. And so began a career of: inspired hackwork; constant wrangles and relocations whenever his popularity waned (London, N.Y., New Orleans, Liverpool); desperate style shifts to tantalize the public (""gentlemanly melodrama"" like The Corsican Brothers, spectacle, sensation, current-events plays); and occasional stabs at real plays, usually with Irish themes. Fawkes makes some attempt to defend Boucicault's pandering-to-the-public, and he emphasizes the actor-author's efforts to protect playwrights via royalties and copyright (an ironic campaign for a great plagiarist). But the dominant tone here is one of dry amusement at DB's antics--the Barnum-inspired huckstering, the feuds and philanderings (Fawkes doesn't even flinch at the idea that DB perhaps pushed his first wife off an Alp). So, all in all, with guest appearances by such colorful sorts as Macready (a Boucicault enemy) and Henry Irving (a Boucicault protÉgÉ), this is pleasant, slightly plodding theater history, with a lively semi-scoundrel downstage center.

Pub Date: Jan. 8th, 1980
Publisher: Quartet Books--dist. by Horizon