The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VIII. Nineteenth-Century Drama

§ 9. Dion Boucicault

The writer who gave to melodrama its distinctive formula, and set it upon a path of development which, in time, was to draw it far apart from drama of serious interest, was Dionysius Lardner Bourcicault, better known as Dion Boucicault. This prolific author of plays was a master of dramatic construction. His plots were seldom of his own invention; the incidents never. He borrowed from near and far, and his special skill lay in weaving multifarious incidents together into a swiftly-moving and exciting plot, and in writing dialogue that is nearly always fresh and racy. His characters are never human beings, but always representatives of some one quality. That, however, does not prevent him from filling his dramas with sentiment, not grossly exaggerated, which may appeal to a mixed audience as recognisably human. Before him, there had been no dramatic author so cunning in the discernment of what elements are desired in a popular play, and in the mixing of the ingredients. Before the works of Sardou were introduced to English audiences, the influence of Boucicault’s very different compositions had become almost as tyrannous as the dramatic construction of Sardou was to prove itself; and, to Boucicault’s influence, largely, must be attributed a conception of the necessities of dramatic form which was destined to hamper the efforts of later dramatists and to cause, for a while, a split between two schools of drama and dramatic criticism. At the same time, there is more “nature” in Boucicault’s drama than in that of his predecessors. This is due, in great measure, to the humour and suggestiveness of his dialogue, which often bears a close resemblance to natural speech; and this especially in his famous Irish dramas, such as The Colleen Bawn, Arrah-na-pogue and The Shaughraun. Boucicault thus occupies a position at the turning-point between the purely theatrical drama of the first half of the century and the more naturalistic drama which was to put forth a bud while he was at the height of his career as dramatist. In some of his adaptations, such as The Corsican Brothers and Louis XI, he belongs entirely to the footlights; through much of his work gleams the false dawn of a coming day. It cannot be said that there was any improvement, later in the century, on the melodrama of Boucicault. The type remained fixed, and subsequent examples showed merely variation in detail, though Pettitt and other authors contrived to treat the familiar material with vigour. The new impulse was to reach the drama through another channel. Meanwhile, a small amount of superior work was being produced outside the region of comedy, though in sporadic fashion. Both Sheridan Knowles and Westland Marston wrote dramatic pieces of merit besides their tragedies and comedies.