On November 6, 1883 , The Chicago Tribune reported that the “laughter and applause” at last evening’s performance of The Shaughraun at McVicker’s Theater, poved that author and star Mr. Dion Boucicault “has lost none of his power to please.”
The same may be said of the current poduction of Boucicault’s rarely produced The Shaughraun.
Dion Boucicault (1822-1890), an important figure now virtually lost to history, was the inventor and practitioner of the modern melodrama, the dramatic form which today dominates the stage and screen throughout the world. In his obituary The New York Times correctly called him “the most conspicuous dramatist of the 19th century.”
From the time actor/manager Charles Mathews produced his first play London Assurance at Covent Garden in 1821, with over two hundred plays Boucicault ruled as the cleverest, raciest, and most theatrically inventive playwright of his age.
Boucicault had perfected the basic ingredients of the modern melodrama: sentimentality, wit, sensationalism, and local color. Audiences looked forward to his latest “sensation”, the scene in which the hero or heroine is rescued from the brink of peril by some death-defying stunt.He also brought important social and cultural issues of historical significance to the stage, such as race, slavery and political issues. Nevertheless, Boucicault never let serious social commentary, diminish his chief aim – to entertain.
The Shaughraun (1875) is based around the Fenian Uprising, as well-meaning gentry were punished for their aid of Ireland’s bid for freedom. Villanous middlemen and the wily cunning native Irish people round out the cast. Conn, played by Boucicault himself, is the Shaughraun, a loveable, whisky loving character whose tall tales could easily place him into the stage Irish tradition – but whom Boucuicault gives a certain sophistication and accidental heroic panache. So successful was the play that British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was moved to write letters calling for the release of the Fenian prisoners.
The plot revolves around a wrongly-accused convict, Robert Ffolliott, ably played by Andrew Lachlan Cawley, who has escaped from Australia and sneaked back into Ireland. While searching for Robert, the courtly English officer Molineux (Austin Tyler Heemstra) falls for his sister, Claire (Sarah Seidler) , who is about to be evicted from Robert’s estate, along with Robert’s lady love, Arte (Nora McKirdle). The land agent causing everyone’s distress is Kinchela (Jack Burr), who holds the lease to the estate, and of course, has designs on Arte.
Director Peter Dobbins’ production is a true ensemble, each actor sharng rather than stealing the stage. The cast has been instructed on highlighting important plot points to clarify the complicted story. Neverthess, a few actors manage to stand out:the Father Dolan of Maurice McNicholas, the Moya Dolan of Madysen Frances, Conn’s mother, Mrs O”Kelly played by Denise Smolarek, and of course, the Shaughraun himself, filling Boucicault’s big shoes, of Cooper Bohn.
Special notice should be given to the impeccable dialect coaching of Paul Anthony McGrane and the precise and compelling fight direction of Violent Delights.The company struggles to find a style of acting apprpriate for Boucicault. At the time his plays were considerd “real” since they replaced the heroic/romanic style which preceded them. But they certainly weren’t real if compared with the “realism” of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov which followed. Even the most experienced theater companies face this problem.
Perhaps the simple, bold and theatrical set design by Grey Smith could serve as a model. The actors needed to find a manner of presentation congrous with the style of the setting. A touch more conscious theatricalism deep in the realistic core of each charcater would move them toward thir desired goal. Boucicault was, if nothing else, a theatricalist, even in his language.
Hopefully the acclaimed Storm Theatre Cpmpany will return to Chicago often. The kind of plays they have offered over the past eighteen years seem absent from the current Chicago theatre scene. The void needs to be filled.
An historical curiosity:
Irishman Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, can be seen as the slightly fictionalized story of Shaw’s mother, Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw, and her live-in guru/lover, the renowned voice teacher George Vandeleur Lee. Young Bernard was raised in the ménage à trois of mother, George Vandeleur Lee, and his “father” George Carr Shaw. Throughout his life, Shaw was plagued by questions of his paternity. Though he publicly pooh-poohed the subject, the matter relentlessly infuses most of his plays.
To allay rampant rumors of his parentage Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion to demonstrate once and for all how a young woman, like his mother, Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw could be educated by a dashing man, like her live-in guru/lover George Vandeleur Lee, without any hint of sexual activity between them.
Interestingly, Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot was born in Dublin where his mother Anne Darley, recently separated from Samuel Smith Boursiquot but, like Shaw, the identity of the boy’s father is uncertain. He was probably Dionysius Lardner, a lodger at his mother’s house at a time when she was separated from her husband. Boucicault was born Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot in Dublin . As did Shaw, Boucicault adopted the surname of his mother’s boarder rather than that of his mother’s busband.
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