It’s funny how quickly things get forgotten by fashion. As I’ve been told, the reaction to any mention of Dion Boucicault today is likely to be “Boucic-who?”. But at the end of the nineteenth century, Dionysius Lardner Boucicault was an international star, bad at managing his money, his personal life attracting audiences as much as his plays. Only recently have his plays begun to come back into vogue; a recent production of London Assurance at the National Theatre was broadcast live around the UK and in the US.
While editing entries for Archives Hub, part of an effort to get Special Collections ‘out there’, I’ve been lucky to have a lot of biographical material to work with, particularly for the two Boucicault Collections. (We generally refer to them as one collection, but technically, they’re the Fawkes Boucicault Collection and Calthrop Boucicault Collection). Editing down a three-thousand word essay to something more manageable hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learnt a lot of fascinating things along the way.
When I started in Special Collections, I admit that my reaction was “Boucic-who?” as well. Other, better informed, people tried to explain the importance of the Irish-born playwright, but it’s only really by looking at the items in the collection(s) that I’ve been able to get a real idea of Boucicault’s importance. It seems as if he kept lawyers in business, with the amount of litigation he became embroiled in, yet he was influential in establishing the copyright and royalty systems in the US and UK. His personal life was the subject of some controversy; he claimed never to have been married to his second wife, Agnes, while having an affair with an actress called Katherine Rogers, then married a 21-year-old member of his company when he was 65 and still married to Agnes.
But beyond the scandals of the celebrity lifestyle, some of Boucicault’s melodramas, both original and ‘adapted’ (or plagiarised) were hugely popular; Queen Victoria noted some of the performances she attended in her diaries. Boucicault managed, directed and wrote for the stage, displaying a mixture of talents unusual for his time. While he experienced many failures and frequently squandered his earnings, his successes were hugely successful and he often pushed at the boundaries of professional expectation. Added to this, he is also, bizarrely, credited with inventing fireproofing for scenery, to create increasingly lavish (melo)dramatic productions. This elaborate staging was one of his difficulties; a production of Babil and Bijou, for example, made losses despite a hugely popular six month run.
So far, I have only created entries for the Fawkes Boucicault collection, the smaller of the two. Next, I’m moving on to the entries for the Calthrop Boucicault collection which, I have to admit, I prefer because it contains more original material, including images of many productions. When they’re both complete, they will be sent to the Archives Hub team to be put onto their database. Hopefully the University of Kent’s entries will start going live early next week; I hope that putting these collections out in the public eye will encourage the renaissance that Boucicault’s work recently seems to have enjoyed.
There are currently some items on display in the Reading Room from the Bouciault and Melville Collections which relate to The Flying Scud.
If you’re interested in Victorian and Edwardian Theatre, why not take a look at some of the University’s other Theatre Collections?
Another major and complimentary Boucicault Collection is held at the University of South Florida, Tampa.