Replaying and Rediscovering The Octoroon

Merrill, Lisa and Saxon, Theresa orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-2129-2570 (2017) Replaying and Rediscovering The Octoroon. Theatre Journal, 69 (2). ISSN 0192-2882

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For over one hundred and fifty years, productions and adaptations of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s explosive 1859 melodrama, The Octoroon, have reflected differing and sometimes contentious meanings and messages about race and enslavement in a range of geographic locations and historical moments. Originally staged in New York in 1859, The Octoroon graphically portrayed the suicide of its white-appearing mixed-race heroine who had been auctioned into slavery. But in London, in 1861, Boucicault famously rewrote the ending, allowing the heroine to survive and be united with her white lover. Although theatre historians have known about Boucicault’s original adaption for over one hundred and fifty years, no extant script for that original “British” version has heretofore been discovered. Now, however, our recent archival discoveries reveal portions of that long-missing script. In addition, we have found that The Octoroon appeared on the colonial stages of Australia a full ten months before Boucicault changed the ending for London audiences. Our exploration of the performance history of The Octoroon in Australia further illustrates the potential shifting meanings of racial categories and representations of enslavement in nations whose colonial histories were built upon differing constructions of racist oppression, genocide, and slavery. Moreover, annotations in promptbooks from multiple nineteenth-century productions reveal ways stagings of The Octoroon have served as unique fluid—rather than stable—vehicles for depicting the transatlantic and colonial cultural attitudes that surrounded and tensions that emerged from antebellum representations of racialization, racial hybridity, interracial desire, and enslavement on both sides of the Atlantic and across British colonies in Australia.

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