Dion Boucicault Collections

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The University of Kent Special Collections holds two significant collections of material about the playwright and actor Dionysius Lardner Boucicault (1920-1890), better known as Dion Boucicault. Items include programmes, playbills, letters and illustrations.

These collections focus on Bouciault's life and his work. The Fawkes Boucicault Collection contains material gathered by Richard Fawkes for his book, Dion Boucicault: a Biography (1979), while the Calthrop Boucicault Collection, collected by Boucicault's great-grandson, contains biographical material and items relating to Dion Boucicault's plays.

Administrative / Biographical History

Dionysius Lardner Boucicault was born in Dublin on 26th December 1820. His Irish mother Anna, nee Darley, was married to Samuel Boursiquot, but it is likely that Dion was the son of Dr. Dionysius Lardner, who was closer in age to Anna than her husband. In 1828, Anna and her children followed Lardner to London when he became Professor of Philosophy and Astronomy at the new University College. Dion attended several schools in London, but it was a production of Pizarro in 1835 which inspired his interest in the theatre; he wrote a sketch, Napoleon’s Old Guard, to follow the main play. When Anna returned to her family in Dublin, it was made clear that the theatre was not a respectable occupation, so Dion was apprenticed to Lardner as a Civil Engineer. During this time, Lardner had given up his chair at the university to write his Cabinet Cyclopedia and to carry out experiments involving the railway. Dion detested both the work and his ‘guardian’ and set off to the provinces to find work in the theatre.

With a quarterly allowance from Lardner, Boucicault acted under the name Lee Moreton in amateur productions in Cheltenham and in Gloucester, swiftly gaining title roles. Charles Hill took Boucicault to the Brighton Theatre Royal as part of his professional company, during which time Boucicault wrote A Lover by Proxy and A Legend of the Devil's Dyke. Frustrated by Hill’s reaction to his plays, Boucicault returned to Cheltenham, then to Bristol's Theatre Royal (under the management of Mrs. McCready) where acted in his own play Lodgings to Let. This was performed anonymously as an afterpiece to plays starring Benjamin Webster, manager of the Haymarket in London. The transfer of Lodgings (and Boucicault) to the Haymarket proved disastrous with a more sophisticated audience and Boucicault soon retreated to the Hull Theatre Royal, where his first full length play, Jack Sheppard, was performed. Although the play was successful, personal disagreements and reaching the end of his allowance from Lardner sent Boucicault back to Dublin in 1840, to work briefly as a clerk in the brewery belonging to the Guinness family.

Boucicault began training at Fanny Kelly's Theatre and Dramatic School in Dean Street but had to return to acting at the Queen's Theatre when his funds dried up. There he met up with a fellow Irishman, Charles Brougham, a member of Charles Mathews and Madame Vestris's Covent Garden company. Brougham’s support persuaded Matthews to take a chance on Bouciault as a dramatist: a play written by Boucicault in a month, with extensive alterations and additions by Mathews, Vestris and the rest of the cast, opened on 4th March 1841 to great acclaim. This play was eventually known as London Assurance.

In the next 4 years Boucicault had 22 plays produced on the London stage including an operetta, The Fox and the Goose (1844), in collaboration with the playwright Benjamin Webster, for the Adelphi Theatre. However, not all his original work was successful and, often short of money and embroiled in litigation, he was forced to spend more time on translations from popular French theatre. At the end of 1844 Webster sent him to Paris to see what new material there might succeed in England; there, Boucicault altered his name to the current spelling and researched his French ancestry. He sent back adapted plays, which often did not bear his name. In 1845 he married Anne Guiot, a wealthy French widow several years older than him. Little is known about her, but when she died after a long illness there were rumours Boucicault had hastened her end.

Boucicault swiftly became bankrupt when he returned to London in 1847 after Anne's death. He eventually worked for Charles Kean at the Princess Theatre: as dramatist in residence he adapted The Corsican Brothers from Dumas’ original French. The play was a sensational success, and was seen by Queen Victoria five times. However, Kean's discovery of the liaison between Agnes Robertson, his ward, and Boucicault led to the end of their professional relationship. In 1853 Agnes arrived in New York two weeks ahead of Boucicault to appear in The Young Actress, which he had adapted, at the Theatre Royal, Montreal on 19th September. She was an instant success, and went on to triumph in New York, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago. Boucicault acted as her manager and wrote many, less successful adaptations. He also lectured and, more successfully, went back to acting with Agnes. After a formal declaration (at that time legal in the U.S.A) they lived as man and wife, and their first child, Dion William, was born in May 1855. In New Orleans, they leased the Varieties Theatre, renaming it the Gaiety. Here Boucicault managed, produced and directed his actors, a new concept at the time, but gave up the venture after 3 months, disappointed in his lack of success. Engagements in Philadelphia and New York followed, particularly a production of London Assurance with both Dion and Agnes in the cast. When Eve, their second child, was born, Boucicault had even greater need of a "hit" to support his family. The Poor of New York was Boucicault’s adaptation of a French play, in collaboration with two journalists, Goodrich and Warren. It was produced at Wallack's Theatre in 1857 and became a huge hit, with its dramatic staging. This success was followed, over the next two years, by Jessie Brown and The Octoroon, both of which used contemporary events as inspiration. Agnes appeared in both plays.

In 1859 a second son was born. Boucicault then leased the Washington Theatre and the former Metropolitan Theatre in New York (renamed the 'Winter Garden'). Subsequent arguments with his partner William Stuart over money and the ownership of The Octoroon led to Boucicault and Agnes decamping to the theatre of Laura Keene, the first woman manager in the U.S.A. Here, they produced Jeanie Deans, Vanity Fair and The Colleen Bawn, which was based on Gerald Griffin's novel The Collegians, itself based on a true story. It ran to packed houses in New York from March 29th to May 1860 and provided Agnes and Dion with roles for many years, and with financial security which allowed them to buy two houses in New York. After a short run in Philadelphia, they returned to London under contract to Benjamin Webster at the Adelphi, where The Colleen Bawn was performed 230 times and was seen by Queen Victoria 3 times. However, disagreements with Webster led to litigation, which eventually led to the Boucicaults abandoning props at the Adelphi and taking the lease at Drury Lane to put the play on there. Many of Boucicault’s popular plays, including The Colleen Bawn spawned pirated versions which led to court cases. Although Boucicault sued other dramatists for infringement of copyright, he was also taken to court for the same crime.

In December 1862, Boucicault acquired the lease of Astley's Theatre, at Lambeth, renaming it the ‘New Theatre Royal’, Westminster. Despite the expense and the presence of the Boucicaults, the area was unpopular with fashionable society and Dion’s attempts at theatre reform were unprofitable. The commitment of investors in Boucicault’s New Theatre Company and the bad publicity created by Dion's involvement with an actress, Mrs. Emily Jordan, led to his bankruptcy in July 1863. Although he had to sell assets and the copyright of eight of his plays, after withdrawing to Brighton Boucicault discharged all his debts in six weeks. He still had income from his own touring companies in the provinces, and he and Agnes were soon repeating their popular roles in the Colleen in Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh. In Liverpool, Boucicault reworked the Poor of New York, substituting Liverpool, and playing to packed houses there; the production toured towns under local titles. Dion and Agnes also performed in Dublin, Glasgow, and Birmingham, earning ‘easy money’ from spectacle rather than drama, as Boucicault admitted. A year after his bankruptcy, he returned to London with the London version of the play, The Streets of London, at the Princess's Theatre, in a deal which gave him half the profits.

In 1864, the Boucicaults’ success enabled them to buy a home in London, where Dion concentrated on writing, including a new and original Irish play, Arrah-na-Pogue. This was first staged in Dublin in November with Dion and Agnes in the cast and became hugely popular. The play was substantially revised before opening in London in March 1865 at the Princess's Theatre, where it ran for 164 nights. Visitors to the Boucicault's new apartment in Regent Street included the Davenport brothers, American illusionists and spiritualists and the American actor Joseph Jefferson. Jefferson persuaded, and bribed, Boucicault to revise an adaptation of Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle for him to star in at Benjamin Webster's Adelphi Theatre. This brought the two men into conflict again, but the play ran for 170 nights, made Jefferson's name, and restored the Adelphi's fortunes.

Boucicault produced three pieces in 1865 as the result of a bet: a society drama, Hunted Down, a domestic drama, The Long Strike, and a sensation drama, The Flying Scud, about a race horse. The first of these plays opened at St. James's Theatre on 5th November, starring Henry Irving, in his first important role in London, but the latter was the most popular among the public. Litigation followed when the closing scene of After Dark, first put on at the Princess's Theatre in August 1868, was held to be too close to a similar scene in Under the Gaslight by Augustus Daly. Despite losing the case, the publicity was profitable.

Dion and Agnes announced their retirement from acting in 1868, but Boucicault continued writing, with varying success. Anything but a hit decimated their income, as Boucicault always lived beyond his means: the expense of producing a new play, Babil and Bijou, incurred losses despite a successful six month run. Having returned to America to play in New York and Boston, the Boucicaults received American citizenship in 1873. However, Agnes returned to London to the children, whilst Dion completed and starred in Daddy O'Dowd, with poor houses. He wrote Mimi, a version of La Bohème, for Katharine Rogers, an actress with whom he was having an affair. They both appeared in it at Wallack's Theatre in August and visited California, playing in San Francisco and Sacramento, and Nevada.

On 14th November 1874, The Shaughraun opened at Wallack's Theatre in New York. Boucicault, now fifty-five, played the title role of Conn, a young man of 18. It ran for four months in New York, then Boston and San Francisco, before Boucicault returned to London. At Drury Lane The Shaughraun played with Agnes as the heroine for three and half months, only being taken off for the annual pantomime. The play then moved to the Adelphi where, on the last night, 22nd January 1876, news arrived that the younger Dion had been killed in a rail accident. Dion subsequently returned to New York to Katherine Rogers; after initial attempts at a reconciliation, Agnes asked for a divorce in 1880, citing Katherine and several other actresses. Dion claimed that they had never been legally married, but after three years Agness dropped the case. As a result, people flocked to see the monster Boucicault who had disowned his wife. In 1885, during a tour of Australia with a cast including two of his children, Dot and Nina, Boucicault 'married' Louise Thorndyke, a 21-year-old member of the company. A year later 1886 Agnes filed a second divorce petition which was not challenged. Dion and Louise toured together as he and Agnes had done: the publicity surrounding his private life encouraged audiences to attend. Despite Dion's renewed lease of life as an actor and a writer, The Shaughraun was his last 'big hit' as his plays went out of fashion. Offerings like Belle Lamar or Cuishla-ma-Chree opened, played for a short time and closed without great success. He carried on touring in the U.S.A. until May 1888, when he was sixty-seven, in dubious health and again short of money.

Albert Palmer’s invitation to run a drama school attached to Madison Square Theater provided Boucicault with a regular salary, but the failure of a final play, A Tale of a Coat, depressed him utterly. An attack of pneumonia followed and he died on 18th September, 1890.

Boucicault was most famous during his lifetime for his skill in characterization and his timing as an actor, but his inventiveness as a director and his innovations as a theatre manager led to his place today as one of the great personalities of Victorian theatre. He helped to improve the status of playwrights; in the USA, by helping to get the first dramatic copyright law passed in 1856, and in England, where his demands got the royalty system established.

Arrangement

The Boucicault Collections are divided into

  • UKC/BOUC/FAW : Fawkes Boucicault Collection
  • UKC/BOUC/CAL : Calthrop Boucicault Collection

Conditions Governing Access

Contact specialcollections@kent.ac.uk to make an appointment for viewing. You will need to give a list of items you would like to see. Please be aware that we need at least half a day's notice of a visit.

Note

The Boucicault Collections are part of the Victorian and Edwardian Theatre Collection at the University of Kent.

Other Finding Aids

Item level catalogue of papers available on the Special Collections website.

Item level catalogue of bound items available on the University of Kent and Cathedral Library catalogue

Archivist's Note

Biography and details of plays composed by Mrs S. Crabtree and Dr. Angela Groth-Seary.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies permitted in accordance with copyright law and at the discretion of the Specialist Collections and Academic Archives team where contents are of a sensitive nature.

Appraisal Information

Permanent

Accruals

No further accruals expected

Bibliography

Fawkes, Richard, Dion Boucicault : a Biography (1979)