When Dion Boucicault’s tragedy The Octoroon (set on a southern plantation) opened in December of 1859, many viewed the play as sectional propaganda; there was widespread disagreement, however, concerning the side for which the play argued. This New York Times article cautions its readers against jumping to conclusions about Boucicault’s intentions in the writing of the play and downplays the work’s political significance. Yet the author also seems to understand that the suggestion that not everything is a political statement is unrealistic, given the fever pitch of sectional tension that wracked the U.S. in the weeks following John Brown’s execution. For this reason, and despite the warnings of the Times, the author concluded that the New York audience was bound to “insist on rewriting the piece according to its own notions,” ascribing to the play political importance far beyond Boucicault’s design.
There are two highways to theatrical success, which are commonly distinguished as the "legitimate" and "illegitimate," but which we, for reasons of our own, not necessary to be here set forth, prefer to describe as the 'artistic" and the "artful." What the first of these ways is, we all know, for though we do not very often see it trodden in these latter days, the luminous traces of the footsteps of GARRICK, the KEMBLES, KEAN, RACHEL, still mark it clearly out on the dramatic horizon. It is the way of the great actors who make themselves events and compel the world to lose its wits in admiration of them by sheer force of their own noble gifts, and of the creative genius which inspires each play they touch with a real life and glory of its own.
The second of these ways lies through the passions of the audiences in their every-day capacity as men and citizens. This was the way which led DUMAS and VICTOR HUGO and the other French dramatists of the "Romantic" school to fame and fortune, when they seized upon the rising spirit of their time, and translated the passionate heart of "Young France," with its scorn of the BOURBONS, and its hatred of the Holy Alliance, into tragedy. They caught, as it were, the "Revolution of July" in the air, and put it upon the stage. There was genius in the doing of the work, but it was after all, artful rather than artistic, and dealt with the drama as a means more than as an end. Nevertheless it was a brilliantly successfully experiment and has been repeated with no inadequate results, many times since, both in and out of Paris. Mr. STUART, who proved himself a master of this kind of artfulness in his former management at Wallack's Theatre, has just made a new and grander stroke in the direction at the Winter Garden. He has taken up bodily the great "sectional question," which is now forcing itself steadily in upon the public mind throughout the United States, and set it before us in a concrete shape. The consequence whereof is the great dramatic "sensation" of the season. The "Octoroon" consoles New-York for the loss of the Opera, delights the partisans journals with a fresh way of attacking old themes, dreadfully exercises the quid-nuncs* on the matter of the animus which breathes through it, provokes telegraphic comments in provincial newspapers, and fills the soul of the manager with a well-being much, very much beyond words. The mischief-makers denounce the drama as a subtle approach mined into the fortress of conservatism and Southern rights, so that in listening to them one becomes half-convinced that Scudder and Old Pete are really pulling the wires of the noisy Congressional puppets that are dancing up and down so alarmingly at Washington. The mischief-lovers echo these pleasing outcries. Ladies go home from the play so absorbed in speculation on its moral and meaning as to forget little hoards of banknotes which they had stowed away for safe-keeping behind the chimney-back, and only wake from their political dreams next day to find their bills all converted into very unmetaphorical dust and ashes. Everybody talks about the "Octoroon," wonders about the "Octoroon," goes to see the "Octoroon;" and the "Octoroon" thus becomes, in point of fact, the work of the public mind. We have already uttered our critical verdict upon the drama as a drama -- the work of one man. Judged in that light, we own ourselves still unable to see what possible reason or common sense there can be in regarding it as formidable political engine. It seemed and seems to us to be merely a cleverly-constructed, perfectly impartial, not to say non-committal, picture of life as it is in Louisiana. Its negroes are negroes, and nothing more -- with the least imaginable likeness to TOUSSAINT L'OUVERTURE, or DOMINICK VESEY; its Southerners are Southerners, and nothing more -- for the most part kindly, high-spirited, generous, slightly reckless beings, who eat no more fire on the stage than their neighbors in the parquet. The only irreclaimable rascal in the piece, indeed, is a Yankee by origin, and by name a child of Green Erin. Still, the public having insisted on rewriting the piece according to its own notions, interprets every word and incident in wholly unexpected lights; and, for aught we know, therefore, the "Octoroon" may prove after all to be a political treatise of great emphasis and significance, very much to the author's amazement. Possibly there may be some subtle political meaning, too, in the fact that Mrs. ALLEN, who is, we believe, a Southern woman by birth, has now replaced Miss ROBERTSON in the part of the "Octoroon," and that Mr. BOURCICAULT who did the original tomahawk and scalping-knife business, has given way to Mr. PEARSON, a much stouter and more tremendous savage. For ourselves, we can only see in these changes a desire on the part of the management to improve the cast of the play; but then we have a singular infelicity at hunting up mares' nests. We commend the matter to those "geese of the Capitol," the Presidential organs here and at Washington. It demands their prompt attention.
* n. One who is curious to know everything that passes; one who knows, or pretends to know, all that is going on.
Source: New York Times, December 15, 1859, p. 4.