The Oxford English Dictionary defines the genre of melodrama as, “a stage play, usually romantic and sensational in plot”, this description certainly applies to The Octoroon. It was an extremely popular form of stage drama and what I will discover is whether its themes, content and structure are typical of the Victorian period melodrama. From the first time it was presented at the start of the nineteenth century, melodrama attracted big audiences. It started out very popular with the lower classes in society but as the century progressed melodrama became appreciated by large sections of society(Leaver,444).
It usually contained themes of love, murder and honour. Audiences that went to see melodrama’s were looking for cheap entertainment that was accessable for all and didn’t require a knowledge of other more sophisticated modes of drama. As the genre progressed, events on stage became more and more sensational, none more so than the burning steamboat scene in The Octoroon(Faulkner,35). Melodrama contains a few characters that are common to the majority of plays, the hero, the heroine, an old woman, an old man, a comic woman and a comic man.
These characters are reproduced constantly(Booth,26). Evidence of these stereotypical characters in The Octoroon is blindingly obvious. A common component of melodrama was the upkeep of strict moral justice, and social and ideological justice aswell. This is evident in the American ending of The Octoroon, when Zoe takes poison to commit suicide, thinking that because of the society she lives in, she cannot be with her beloved George. Maybe Boucicault felt that the American audience’s sense of moral justice could not allow Zoe and George to be together.
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Dion Boucicault was one of the most successful and prolific dramatists of the nineteenth century. He produced a huge number of plays of which the exact number is between 135 and 400 titles (Kosok,82). He is a prominent figure in Victorian era drama and is said to belong to more than one national literature, Irish, English and the United States. He is said to have “combined sentiment, wit and local colour with sensational and spectacular endings”(Nova). His greatest successes however, were on London’s stages. Only three of his plays were to have an American setting, The Octoroon is one of these.
The version of The Octoroon Boucicault used in Britain differs from the version he premiered In the U. S. A. The U. S version had a tragic ending while the London version had a happy one. At the British Premiere in the Adelphi Theatre on November 18th, 1861, to the shock of boucicault and the performers, the fifth act was hailed with boos and jeers from the crowd. Zoe’s suicide angered the British audience. They had heard that Southerners sometimes found a way around the problem of mixed-race marraiges by cutting their veins and mixing blood(Enkvist,167).
Some argued that the audience had felt it wasn’t melodramatic enough, even though there was a slave sale and a burning steamboat in the play. One critic said, “Deep tragedy will not do for melodrama”. The audiences active dislike of the death of Zoe, forced Boucicault to substitute a more happier ending(Enkvist,170). At the end of the play in the London version, the mixed race couple, Zoe and George are united. The fifth act which shows Zoe’s final agony and death is simply omitted.
Boucicault was perhaps showing that Victorian British audiences harboured less predjudices and could accept the marraige of a young southerner of good birth to a slave girl and see nothing unusual in that ending(Degen,76). More likely he was giving the audience what they wanted by changing the ending to one that is more appropriate to the melodramas that the Victorian public would have been used to. This ending shows me that boucicault altered his play to fit the British publics preconceptions of what a melodrama should be, therefore making it into a standard melodrama for the time.
The fact that the plot in The Octoroon is based around the topic of slavery shows us that it is in someway different from other melodrama’s of the time. Slavery was a hot topic when the Octoroon was produced and some argue that it is abolitionist in its tone. Victorian melodrama’s while sensational, tended to be centered around more common everyday settings and themes. Some argue that the play is abolitionist in its tone but I disagree. Boucicault himself denied the piece was meant to be an anti-slavery statement(Degen,173).
In a letter to The New York Herald in December 1859, Boucicault explains that he is not taking sides, “I have laid the scene in the South, and, as slavery is an essential element of society there, insomuch I have been obliged to admit it into my scheme. . . .I believe the drama to be a proper and very effective instrument in the discussion of all social matters. . . .It is by such means that the drama can be elevated into the social importance it deserves to enjoy. Therefore I have involved in ‘The Octoroon’ sketches of slave life, truthful I know, and I hope gentle and kind”(NY Times,6/12/1859).
I think that the use and portrayl of slavery in The Octoroon is not Boucicault venting his feelings on slavery, but just the background and setting of the overall text and his honest view of the South. There are no anti-slavery tirades in the play and the villian of the piece, McClosky, is not a Southern slave-owning tyrant but an Northener(Faulkner,35). I think this shows that The Octoroon is being different from other melodramas of the time by containing a divisive topic like slavery but it is also being typical of its counterparts by not being a political piece of drama.
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