Boucicault, Dion Lardner (1820–90), playwright and actor, was born 27 December 1820 at Gardiner St., Dublin, probably the illegitimate son of Dr Dionysius Lardner (qv), a TCD scientist, and Anna Maria Boursiquot, sister of George Darley (qv) and wife of Samuel Boursiquot, a Dublin wine merchant. Educated in Dublin and London, he spent 1834 at the University College School, Gower St., and 1836 at Dr Geoghegan's Academy, St Stephen's Green, before being dispatched to London by his mother as an apprentice civil engineer. Working briefly with Lardner on the London–Harrow railway, he assumed the name ‘Lee Moreton’ and became an actor, appearing in Gloucester and Brighton and having his first play, ‘Lodgings to let’, performed in February 1839. After the failure of his second play, ‘Jack Sheppard’, he moved to Dublin, where he worked for some time as a clerk in Guinness's brewery. Acquiring an allowance from Guinness's through his mother's family connections, he enrolled at the Dramatic Academy, Dean St., London.
He was on the verge of quitting the stage when a chance meeting with Charles Mathews, manager of Covent Garden theatre, facilitated the production of ‘London assurance’ (March 1841). An immediate success, the play prompted his election to the Dramatic Author's Society, a rare honour for a man of 20. Assuming the name ‘Dionysius Bourcicault’ (he appears to have dropped the ‘r’ in Paris, 1844/5), he soon squandered his vast earnings and was forced to sell poems to Bentley's Miscellany and the Musical Examiner. An unsuccessful editorship of Maestro, a vain attempt at establishing a feminist tract, West End, an abandoned three-volume novel, and several failed plays resulted in bankruptcy (1842). While anonymously translating and adapting French plays, he married a wealthy French widow, Anne Guiot, daughter of Étienne St Pierre, on 9 July 1845 at St Mary's Church, Lambeth. They lived in Paris till her death (September 1846), when he allegedly pushed her from a mountain top during a trip to Switzerland. Leaving a riot-torn Paris in 1848, he arrived in London as manager of the Alexander Dumas Théatre Historique, but the company was driven from Drury Lane by the growing opposition to the influx of French drama. He was declared bankrupt (October 1848); financial vicissitudes prompted him to campaign for the replacement of the flat-fee payment system of British theatres with the French royalty system. After two lean years he was appointed house dramatist of the Princess's Theatre, where he continued to adapt new French drama, producing ‘The Corsican brothers’ in February 1852. Heralding the era of gentlemanly melodrama, he developed the ‘Corsican trap’, the first of his many popular, custom-built stage devices. A benefit performance of ‘The Corsican brothers’ witnessed his return to the stage in an afterpiece entitled ‘The vampire’. Despite its unpopularity he won acclaim for his acting and the admiration of Queen Victoria, who commissioned a watercolour of him in the role for her collection at Windsor.
After a dispute with the manager of the Princess's Theatre, Charles Kean, over his ward, Agnes Robertson, the daughter of Edinburgh art publisher Thomas Robertson, he left for New York in September 1853, taking the young actress with him. Later considered married under American common law, they had six children, four of whom trod the boards. Managing Agnes Robertson's career, he continued to write and rewrite plays, including works such as ‘The school for scheming’ and ‘Andy Blake’. After an unsuccessful lecture tour of America (1853), he appeared in ‘The Irish artist’ in 1854. In 1856 he bought the lease of the Varieties Theatre in New Orleans, which he renamed the Gaiety Theatre, but it failed after three months. Back in New York he became involved in a successful campaign to change the copyright law; the American copyright act of 1856 gave the author the right to print and publish. After a short and disappointing tenure as general director of the promenade concerts at the Academy of Music, he was again on the threshold of penury and wrote his first play based on contemporary events, ‘The poor of New York’, in December 1857. Catching the mood of the times, the play – a popular success – established what was to become his trademark, the sensational scene, and enabled him to purchase the lease of the Carusis Theatre, Washington, with William Stuart. Disagreements ended the partnership after four weeks. ‘Jessie Brown’, a play revolving around the Indian mutiny (1857–8), was favourably received and was followed by the relatively successful ‘Brigham Young’ and ‘Pauvrette’. His renewed success rekindled the partnership with Stuart, and together they acquired the Metropolitan Theatre, New York, which they renamed the Winter Garden. ‘The octoroon’, an anti-slavery play, touched a raw American nerve in 1860 and after a week the play and partnership foundered. The same year he wrote ‘The colleen bawn’, a play based on The collegians by Gerald Griffin (qv). Successfully staging it at Laura Keene's theatre, he played the lead, ‘Myles na Coppaleen’, in a triumphant return to the London stage he had spurned in 1853. Opening at the Adelphi in September 1860, it was the biggest success in London for decades. An opera version, ‘The lily of Killarney’, was produced in 1862 and became one of the most popular British operas. To meet provincial demands for the play he mounted his own authentic touring production, eschewing the usual procedure of granting licences to provincial managers. By demanding and winning a nightly royalty (a measure that, for the first time in Britain or Ireland, enabled a playwright to live solely by writing) he earned over £10,000 in its first year. Taking over the Drury Lane Theatre after a failed British production of ‘The octoroon’ in 1862, he was embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with the former manager. He later sued several theatre managers for producing his plays through pirated versions.
Boucicault was implicated as an adulterer in the farcical Jordan v. Col. Gibon case (1862); the publicity had a disastrous effect on his fortunes. Declared bankrupt in July 1863 after the failure of Astley's Amphitheatre (renamed the New Theatre Royal), he was forced to sell his exclusive Earl's Court mansion and transfer the copyright of eight of his most successful plays to his creditors. Adapting ‘The poor of New York’ to the locale of its production, he quickly reestablished himself as one of the country's most successful and well paid playwrights. In 1856 ‘Arrah-na-pogue’, a play based on the United Irish rebellion (1798), was staged at the Theatre Royal, Dublin; it was possibly his greatest success. In 1866 he gave evidence to a parliamentary commission on the theatre as well as presenting four new dramas in the West End. Two failures in 1867 prompted revivals of his more successful works as well as a petition to parliament on behalf of the French Society of Authors, of which he was now a member, requesting a copyright agreement to be drawn up between Britain and France. Collaboration with Charles Reade produced a novel, Foul play (1868), which was published in weekly instalments in Once-a-Week to cries of plagiarism. The novel was also satirised by Punch in a series entitled ‘Chicken hazard’. Having suffered a nervous breakdown, he announced his retirement from stage acting at the 1868 Dublin revival of ‘Arrah-na-pogue’. Returning to London he penned ‘Formosa’ (1869), whose depiction of prostitution aroused both protest and curiosity. Its success paved the way for ‘The rapparee’ (1870). Commissioned by Lord Londesborough, he produced the most costly West End failure of the nineteenth century, ‘Babil and Bijou’, and fled to America in September 1872.
Acquiring American citizenship in early 1873, he oscillated between acting and retirement according to the whim of finances. From January 1874 he toured with the travelling burlesque ‘Boucicault in California’, visiting the west coast of America. In November 1874 ‘The shaughraun’, set during the Fenian uprising (1867), opened in New York to unprecedented success. Its arrival in London in 1876 occasioned a letter from the author to Benjamin Disraeli demanding the release of Irish political prisoners in Australia and Britain. Whether this was written for publicity or out of sympathy cannot be discerned; but he did, without apparent advantage to himself, stage several benefit performances of the play in New York for the families of prisoners in Ireland, and also hosted a banquet for escaped Fenian prisoners. He was allegedly offered a seat in the house of commons on two occasions by the Irish party; however, with unusual modesty, he declined. Prompted by a fire in Brooklyn Theatre, he pioneered fireproof scenery in July 1877, which was soon installed in most American and British theatres. The disappointing opening of ‘Marriage’ (October 1877) forced his return to stage acting. By 1879, after stock market success, he assembled a travelling company, but his return to theatre management was marred by the failure of ‘Rescued’. Another nervous breakdown followed. Sued for divorce on the grounds of adultery in 1880, he was arrested in New York on related charges. Though he denied the legality of his second marriage, a decree nisi was granted in June 1881 (decree absolute 1889). Finding success with a revival of ‘The shaughraun’ in London, he presented ‘The O'Dowd’ in October 1880. However, inured by recent events, London audiences now found his political views unpalatable and he left for America (1881), where he assembled an accomplished touring company. Returning to England, he toured with his three Irish plays, selling his tract The fireside story of Ireland to his tiring patrons. At the end of 1882 he arrived back in America, where the failure of ‘The amadan’ in 1883 seemed to confirm his alienation from the modern audience. Touring Australia with a small company, he bigamously married the 25-year-old actress Louise Thorndyke in Sydney (9 September 1885). Legal complications ensued, forcing him to remarry Louise at a civil ceremony in New York (7 March 1889). On their return to America (December 1885) after a brief tour of New Zealand, the novelty of the bigamous couple filled theatres for a brief period. He concentrated on writing throughout 1886, but gout necessitated his retirement in May 1888. He began teaching at Albert Palmer's Madison Square Theatre School and in January 1889 debated the state of drama at the Goethe Society, New York. His changes to Chamber's ‘Captain Swift’ were unpopular, as was his own ‘A tale of a coat’ in August 1890. The moderate success of ‘Lend me your wife’ that followed seemed immaterial. He died 18 September 1890 of heart failure at his home in New York. He was initially buried at Woodlawn cemetery but was reinterred (November 1890) at Mount Hope cemetery on the banks of the Hudson.
Boucicault was honoured by the Irish communities in America for his contribution to Irish drama (1874) and by the Saturday Night Club of New York (1888). His unpredictable career left a legacy of over 150 plays and such innovations as the matinée and the sensational scene. The first person to give attention to ensemble playing, he is responsible for much of what is now considered the accepted art of modern theatre direction, with many of his innovations anticipating Stanislavsky. Eclipsed by the emerging theatre of Shaw (qv), Ibsen, and Chekov, his fame was soon forgotten, or remembered only for its propagation of the stage-Irishry which he always indignantly disavowed. Revivals of his plays since the 1960s rekindled an interest in his work and an acknowledgement of his influence.