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It was not the American Revolution of the 1770s, but the French Revolution of the 1790s, that finally disrupted the dominance of the English classics— and the elite dramatic tendency toward highborn characters speaking in clever aphorisms or blank verse—on the American stage. In his 1843 introduction to some collected works by the revolutionary French dramatist René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt, Charles Nodier describes Pixérécourt’s new genre, the “melodrame,” as “the only popular tragedy befitting the period in which we live” (xi) and as purposefully staging “the morality of the revolution.” Specifically, melodrama featured the plights of common persons, intensifying its moods of pathos, danger, or tragedy with emotion-laden musical cues and assuredly delivering its virtuous hero/ine from the clutches of evil by the final curtain. Notably, melodrama was identified by Nodier as little less than a modern religious experience, a uniquely edifying influence on newly liberated French peasants who had never been “better behaved morally” and among whom “crime has never been more rare” (xii), thanks to melodrama’s resounding assertion that it simply does not pay. From the Puritans’ fear of theaters as dens of vice and depravity, we shift to Nodier’s declaration that “[e]vil-doers would not have dared to show themselves in a place of amusement where everything spoke to them of harrowing remorse and inevitable punishments” (xii); it was exactly melodrama’s tendency, however sensationalized, toward moral uplift that American managers such as P. T. Barnum, profit-motivated showman extraordinaire, latched onto in their efforts to market theatrical entertainment among the religiously or otherwise moralistically oriented middle classes as the nineteenth century wore on. For Nodier, post-revolutionary theater enabled a decidedly post-Christian populace to renewed communion with the traditional values of sexual continence, honesty, humility, and nonviolence, and the melodramatic form itself “lends a skillful and powerful helping hand to providence by demonstrating its working through facts!” (xv).
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The page numbering to Eugene Page’s widely available edition of this play is erratic since Act IV, whence comes this quote, was recovered by Richard Moody in an archive years after the earlier acts of the play were found. It was therefore published at the end of volume 14 in the America’s Lost Plays series, whereas the rest of the play appeared at the beginning of volume 13.
Notably, a 1964 musical adaptation with music and lyrics by Barry Manilow, and first staged off-Broadway in the 1970s, provides Mary and her daughter with more active roles. Rencelaw is excised, and Mary and William rescue Edward in the last act. Even Carrie A. Nation, famed temperance crusader who once played a featured role in Ten Nights in a Bar-room (see Frick, 135), shows up in Act II. Despite these more active female characters, a recent reviewer criticized the portrayal of Nation: “a real-life hero of the temperance movement who made a career of single-handedly destroying taverns with rocks, bricks, hatchets, and brute strength … [Nation] was six feet tall and reportedly could rip cash registers out and heave them across a room. Unfortunately, The Drunkard’s Nation is a mere Bible thumper. She implores a crowd of barflies to stop drinking … and gets shouted down” (Shaw).
Richard Fawkes tells the story of The Octoroon at the Adelphi Theater in 1861; as at the 1859 debut, Boucicault’s wife, Agnes Robertson, was in the title role, and so beloved a stage figure had she become that the audience booed loudly at her death. When a week later Boucicault announced “a new last act, ‘composed by the audience and edited by the author’” (Fawkes, 128), his audience immediately hated the depiction of interracial nuptials and caused the show to close a few months later.
Regarding The Poor of New York and his other potboilers, Boucicault remarked, “I can spin out these rough-and-tumble dramas as a hen lays eggs. It’s a degrading occupation but more money has been made out of guano then out of poetry” (qtd. in Hogan, Dion Boucicault, 67).
go back to reference ———. Autobiography of an Actress, or: Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854. ———. Autobiography of an Actress, or: Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854.
go back to reference ———. “City Summary.” New York Clipper, November 10, 1860. 238. ———. “City Summary.” New York Clipper, November 10, 1860. 238.
go back to reference ———. “City Summary.” New York Clipper, March 28, 1868. 406. ———. “City Summary.” New York Clipper, March 28, 1868. 406.
go back to reference ———. “Introductory.” New York Clipper, November 23, 1878. 278. ———. “Introductory.” New York Clipper, November 23, 1878. 278.
go back to reference Stone, John Augustus. Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags. 1829. Metamora and Other Plays. America’s Lost Plays, Vol. XIV. Ed. Eugene R. Page. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1940, 1965. 7–40. Stone, John Augustus. Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags. 1829. Metamora and Other Plays. America’s Lost Plays, Vol. XIV. Ed. Eugene R. Page. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1940, 1965. 7–40.
go back to reference Tyler, Royall. The Contrast. 1787. Representative Plays by American Dramatists, 1765–1819. Ed. Montrose J. Moses. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1938. 431–98. Tyler, Royall. The Contrast. 1787. Representative Plays by American Dramatists, 1765–1819. Ed. Montrose J. Moses. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1938. 431–98.
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