Irish Melodrama Theatrical
Analyse the representation of character in Irish melodrama and evaluate its relation to historical circumstances.
The term ‘melodrama’ was originally used by Swiss author Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1763 to describe his play, Pygmalion, as a drama with spoken lines accompanied by music. In his 1968 study, The Character of Melodrama, William Paul Steele defined the distinctive qualities of what Rousseau’s term eventually became – a theatrical form to which its practitioners adhered rigidly during the 19th century.
Four principal ‘stock characters’ inhabited melodramas: the hero, the villain, the heroine or ‘virtuous woman’, and the fool/comical character. The plots were formulaic, and conformed to strict dramatic principals Firstly, That virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, therefore good always triumphs over evil at the climax; Secondly that the machinations of the villain is the story’s driving force, representing a powerful antagonism against the hero and heroine and Finally, Melodrama was seen to have sensational elements, enhanced by suitably powerful stage effects, as well as pathos and sentimentality based on audience empathy for the plight of the hero or heroine.
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Steele’s study of these intrinsic ingredients of melodrama focused on one its foremost exponents during the Victorian era – the quintessential Irish ‘man of the theatre’ in the 19th century, Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot (1820 – 1890), known as Dion Boucicault. Although he became the ‘forgotten man of the theatre’ in the early 20th century, Boucicault is now recognised as the premier Irish playwright of melodramas in the 19th century.
However his significance as a dramatist, writing about Ireland and the Irish, soon became eclipsed by the more distinguished reputations of Wilde, Shaw and O’Casey, who owed a debt to Boucicault in his authentic delineation of Irish character and history. Critical reassessment of the playwright now places Boucicault squarely as one of the major dramatists of the period in which popular melodrama flourished, during the second half of the 19th century.
Even at his most hurried or casual, he is rarely dull. What he lacks altogether is the high seriousness that characterises much of the best writing of the Victorian age; but that high seriousness did not flourish in the theatres of the period. (Thomson, 1)
Boucicault enjoyed considerable commercial and critical success as both a dramatist and an actor during a long and prolific career, in which he wrote or re-worked/adapted 150 plays, and he achieved this great popularity in England and America, as well as his native Ireland. The Colleen Bawn (1860) notably became a favourite play of Queen Victoria.
From the outset, Boucicault wrote for the public, the mass audience, without shame or reservation. He is acknowledged as a fine storyteller in the tradition of Irish storytelling, and he shaped his characterisations and themes for popular tastes, to appeal to the ‘average man’. The melodramatic form perfectly suited Boucicault’s theatrical style, and he utilised all the available resources of stagecraft to increase entertainment value. Scenery and effects were as predominant in the staging of his plays as the portrayal of his stock characters.
Boucicault’s plots were largely derivative and he adapted many of them from French plays, as he was fluent in the language and well-versed in the theatrical scene in France. From a dramatic aesthetic perspective, at his best, Boucicault situated his stories in contemporary settings with historically relevant themes, most effectively and memorably in The Shaughraun (1874), his third Irish melodrama, set against the background of the Fenian rising and the trial of the ‘Manchester martyrs’.
This historical context was more than window dressing in The Shaughraun, considering Boucicault’s Irish nationalism. The plot draws on the actions and mishaps of the Fenian Brotherhood. The Fenians were a secret society who espoused nationalistic fervour and revolution in Ireland and, in the 1860’s, they launched a series of failed prison raids against the British, the ‘Fenian rising’, which led to imprisonment and martyrdom in 1867.
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Although these events both inspired and provided a realistic backdrop for the play, this didn’t exactly form the basis for a passionate political statement. Boucicault was an entertainer first and foremost, whose aesthetic principle is summarised by his own statement that ‘art is the philosophy of pleasure’. His true loyalties lay with the medium of the theatre rather than the arena of political protest.
One of his characters refers to the ill-fated prison raids at Manchester and Clerkenwell in 1867, but he completely romanticises his Fenian rebel, Robert Ffolliott, and the whole play is too full of harmless entertainment to be taken as anything more than a Celtic version of Ruritania. (Krause, 36)
Nevertheless, in both the plot and characters of The Shaughram and in his actions outside the theatrical milieu, Boucicault’s commitment to his Irish roots in relation to the situation in his country is indisputable. In 1876, Boucicault campaigned for an amnesty for the Fenian prisoners. In an open letter to the British press, the playwright made a direct public appeal to the British Prime Minister, Disraeli.
Boucicault’s appeal was duly ignored by Disraeli and dismissed by the press as the theatrical gesture of an arch-showman, motivated more by publicity for his play than a genuine plea for the release of the captives. Effectively, this clearly sceptical assessment of Boucicault’s motives does illustrate the playwright’s perceptive insight into the sympathies of public opinion as much as the demands of his audience, which became synonymous to him. The letter to the prime minister demonstrated his Utopian idealism by his citing of the support of 200,000 playgoers who saw The Shaughram and cheered the news of a Fenian amnesty.
From the outset, Boucicault calls attention to the ‘British-Irish question’ in the opening scene between Claire Ffolliott and the English officer, Captain Molineux. Mistaking Claire for a dairy maid, Molineux remarks, “Beg pardon; your Irish names are so unpronounceable. You see, I am an Englishman”, before engaging in a flirtatious exchange with the Irishwoman, which reaches an ironic climax as Claire turns the tables with her comment; “I ax your pardon! You see I’m Irish, and them English names are so unpronounceable!”
The stock image of the upright, noble Englishman, who falls in love with a charming, witty Irish girl, fits the Captain to a T. Their mutual understanding, which blossoms into a love affair, is based more on class than national division, despite Claire’s strong nationalistic leanings. Within the fabric of the play, patriotism (Irish) and colonialism (British) are separate issues to the virtues of honour and true love, which triumph over the forces of corruption and dishonour, represented by Corry Kinchella and Harvey Duff, in classic melodramatic fashion.
Boucicault’s idealism, in direct opposition to the aesthetic of realism, infuses The Shaughram like a dynamic theatrical force. When the play was first presented on the stage in New York in 1874, Boucicault played the title role of Conn the Shaughraun, the stock comical character in traditional melodrama, as he had previously appeared in variations on the same in The Colleen Bawn, as Myles-na-Coppaleen, and in Arrah-Na-Pogue (1864), as Shaun the Post. These three characters were all variants of the typical Irish character of the loveable rogue or vagabond.
Conn the Shaughraun is indeed a fellow of rare quality, even though he is an irresponsible vagabond, as his name indicates, for Boucicault made it up by changing the Irish participle, ‘seachran’ (anglicised to ‘shaughraun’ and pronounced “shockrawn”), which means ‘wandering’, into a noun, and so his hero is literally a wanderer or tramp. (Krause, 37)
David Krause listed Conn’s primary interests as ‘drinking and poaching, sporting and love-making’, which defined an archetypal, and eventually stereotypical, portrait of the ‘Oirish’ comical hero, personified by Boucicault in Myles, Shaun and especially Conn – the Shaughraun. Essential to this character’s personality is his penchant for telling stories or ‘tall tales’, therefore ‘storytelling’ in its simplest, purest form, or rather, in Krause’s definition, ‘whopping, glorious lies’. He does so for both his own pleasure or amusement and like Boucicault himself, a strong desire to entertain and as a defence mechanism to protect himself, primarily from the narrow limits which so-called ‘respectable people’ try to impose on him.
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Although Conn the Shaughraun is the title character, and ostensibly the leading role, as originally performed by Boucicault, he is not the hero of the play. This is Robert Ffolliott, a Fenian rebel on the run from the police. Aside from his avoidance of respectability and convention, Conn stands in diametric opposition to the stock melodramatic characters known as ‘middlemen’. These usually present themselves as pillars of the community or authority figures, but are actually villainous in their true intentions, and effectively the real rogues. In The Shaughram, the middlemen are Corry Kinchella, a squireen, and Harvey Duff, a police informer and agent provocateur.
Nicholas Greene noted “Corry Kinchella and Harvey Duff, as magistrate and police spy, are the ostensible agents of law and order who are in fact deeply subversive; Conn the lawless vagabond is the incarnation of true loyalty. The middlemen deceive, misrepresent, misinterpret.” (Greene, 13)
Boucicault’s earlier play, The Colleen Bawn; or, The Brides of Garryowen, which provided him with his first great commercial success, is also his first Irish melodrama. He adapted his play from The Collegians, a novel by Gerald Griffin, which David Krause stated, ‘Boucicault transformed into an outstanding comic melodrama’.
Based on a true murder case – the killing of a sixteen-year old peasant girl in Limerick by her aristocratic lover and his boatman – Griffin’s novel depicted 18th century rural Ireland in vivid detail, and offered a telling portrait of the Irish peasantry and the ruling, land-owning, class who persecuted them.
By contrast, Boucicault’s play painted a less realistic picture of the country and its customs and social inequalities. He derived the name of the heroine, and title character, from a familiar Irish ballad, Willy Reilly and the Colleen Bawn. (Colleen Bawn meaning ‘the fair-haired girl’.) The comical hero, Myles-na-Coppaleen, originated from Samuel Lover’s picaresque novel, Rory O’More, set during the Rising of 1798.
It related the travels and adventures of another vagabond peasant rogue, Boucicault’s prototypical Irish rascal, which became known as the ‘Peasant Stage Irishman’. In addition to his heroine and comical hero, he also introduced a second heroine to the plot, Anne Chute. A playful and witty girl, Anne is the Colleen Ruadh. (‘The red-haired girl’)
Like Claire Ffolliott, Anne is exceptionally adept at repartee, as she expresses herself: “When I’m angry the brogue comes out, and my Irish heart will burst through manners and graces, and twenty stay-laces”. Boucicault’s strong female characters in his Irish melodramas stand in bold relief against the more traditionally weak portrayals of simpering heroines and ladies-in-distress in Victorian ‘barnstormers’ and ‘penny dreadfuls’, the natural progression from the Gothic romances of the 18th century, such as The Castle of Otranto. Boucicault’s understanding of feminine virtues, as well as vices, was clearly borne of considerable experience of the ‘fairer sex’. Anne makes an effectively comical verbal sparring partner to the equally droll Myles, and both use their aggressively witty tongues to deflate any pomposity or prissiness.
The ‘energy and gaiety’ (Krause) of his characters gives Boucicault’s melodramas their joie de vivre, but the requirements of the form demanded a fair measure of action, spectacle and colour, which he provided in abundance. An innovator in many respects, Boucicault knew how to exploit his audiences’ craving for sensation and novelty to the utmost by employing most of the mid-19th century’s new stage devices, including the diorama, an early version of the revolving stage, panoramic scenic apparatus, and back-stage tread wheels that produced various atmospheric sounds such as wind and storm effects.
Boucicault’s influence on the theatre as an artistic form should not be underestimated. Both Sean O’Casey and George Bernard Shaw acknowledged their debt to him, and he deserves recognition as a seminal dramatist in two main respects: firstly, his importance to the popularity and development of the melodrama as a dramatic form; and secondly, as a pivotal playwright in the history of Irish theatre in general, credited with writing two of the greatest comedies and three of the greatest melodramas of the 19th century.
He knew all the psychological tricks of a (Phineas T.) Barnum and was able to play upon an audience as if it were an instrument of his own invention. Unlike Barnum, however, Boucicault invariably gave his audience what he advertised and what they wanted – a theatrical extravaganza guaranteed to produce thrills and laughter. (Krause, 26)
Boucicault, Dion. The Dolmen Boucicault Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1964.
(Ed. Krause, David.)
Boucicault, Dion. Plays by Dion Boucicault, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. (Ed. Thomson, Peter.)
Grene, Nicholas. The Politics of Irish Drama Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Steele, William Paul. The Character of Melodrama Orono, Maine, USA: University of Maine Press, 1968.