Dion Boucicault (1820-1890) was one of the most prominent playwrights of the 19th century. He was also a renowned actor, director, and theatrical manager whose work shaped European and American theatre as we know it today.
Born Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot in Dublin, Ireland; Boucicault’s mother, Anne Darley, was from a prominent Irish family. Boucicault’s last name comes from her husband, Samuel Boursiquot, but his father was likely the scholar Dionysius Lardner. In 1928, Darley and her children moved with Lardner to London.
Boucicault began acting in 1837. He produced his first play, London Assurance, at Covent Garden in 1841. It was an immediate success, catapulting the young playwright to sudden prominence and wealth, which he quickly squandered. He followed the success of London Assurance with two other extremely popular works: Used Up and Old Heads and Young Hearts, and in 1845, he married a wealthy older widow, Anne Guiot; but his financial mismanagement continued and he declared bankruptcy in 1848. The first major scandal of his personal life was his wife’s disappearance between 1846 and 1848.
In 1853, Boucicault traveled to New York and married actress Agnes Robertson. Together, they toured his plays across the USA, where he was widely popular. In the USA, Boucicault was instrumental in passing the first copyright law for drama in 1856, and he staged the first-ever matinee performance a year later. This period introduced several of Boucicault’s most beloved plays, including The Poor of New York, The Octoroon, and The Colleen Bawn, along with major technical innovations in stagecraft, including trap doors and fireproof scenery. Boucicault’s ventures into theatrical management were less successful; he opened and closed theaters in New Orleans, New York, and Washington DC.
In 1860, the Boucicault family returned to London, where Boucicault planned to open a new theater. However, his partners withdrew after Boucicault’s affair with a married woman became public, forcing Boucicault to declare bankruptcy again in 1863. He completed two of his most famous works during this time, Arrah-na-Pogue and The Shaughraun, performing in both. His sympathetic performances of these plays’ complex Irish characters revolutionized the way Irish people were portrayed on the British stage.
In 1872, Boucicault returned to the United States. His relationship with Agnes soured and costly unresolved divorce proceedings forced him to sell the rights to his most successful works. On a trip to Australia in 1885, Boucicault bigamously married the twenty-one-year-old actress Louise Thorndyke. By the time of his death in 1890, he was working as an acting teacher in New York City.