The Octoroon: The Broadview Anthology of British Literature Edition (Broadview Editions)
Edited by Sarika Bose
Calgary, Canada: Broadview Press, 2014
Dion Boucicault’s romantic melodrama, adapted from the 1856 Thomas Mayne Reid novel The Quadroon, opened on December 6, 1859 at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre. In the over 150 years since its premiere, this play, even from its start, has inspired scholarly and critical debate over its history and themes, especially in regard to its depictions of race issues and the once explosive issue of miscegenation.
The original production of The Octoroon opened just days following John Brown’s execution for his raid on Harper’s Ferry, an inciting event in the Civil War; because of that, Boucicault’s play, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is often seen as inflaming abolitionist sentiments. However, the play’s content seems ambivalent on the subject of race, depicting the tragic results of love between the races, and does not seem to take a decisive stand on the institution of slavery. Boucicault, a consummate commercial theatre man, may have chosen to avoid obvious polemics in order for the play to find an audience even in the slave-owning Southern states.
The plot of The Octoroon contains some of the entertaining clichés of melodrama, beginning with a ripe villain, McCloskey, setting about to ruin the fortunes of George, a young plantation owner, who is in love with Zoe, an octoroon (one-eighth black). Rebuffed by Zoe, McCloskey angrily reveals that her late master (and father) never freed her, and as such, she is forced on the slave block where she is auctioned in a scene that shocked audiences to the point of women fainting in audiences, if contemporary accounts are to be believed. McCloskey is subsequently proven to be a murderer (an act caught on a new-fangled camera); and Zoe, realizing that she and George share a forbidden love in a racially-charged society, takes poison and she dies in his arms as the play ends.
In 1859, the subject of miscegenation was deemed unacceptable to many American audiences and the death of Zoe, a character type—the half-caste beauty—that would recur in many plays until well into the 20th century, is the only possible outcome. Zoe is also a forerunner of the tragic Julie in the classic musical, Show Boat (1927), who does not die, but falls into alcoholic ruin. Commercial playwrights like Boucicault could flirt with controversial subjects, but were compelled to leave their audiences a way of accepting the meaning of play’s ending in their own way.
This outstanding new edition provides what one wishes any important play script might. It is packed with extensive appendices of reviews of the original American and English productions (in England, the play was given an alternate happy ending, which is included); letters to the editor and responses from Boucicault explaining his intentions; Boucicault’s and other’s writings about slavery; and vivid illustrations from publications of the era. The Broadview edition is the equivalent of a course in 19th century history and theatre, and provides a superlative examination of the inner workings of a highly representative melodrama that should stand a bit taller in the pantheon of important American plays.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro