The stage Irishman

 

Broths of boys. Sweet colleens. Dastardly villains. Stunning coincidences. Literally cliffhanging action. The images conjured up by the impossibly resonant name of Dionysius Lardner Boucicault are still vaguely embarrassing. He is seen, with some justice, as the founder of the hop, lep and jump school of Irish theatre, in which some good-natured dolt is forever saving the life of some preposterously innocent heroine and in which the cads and miscreants give themselves away by the cut of their eyebrows and the arrogance of their swagger. Even at the turn of the century, when the Abbey Theatre was founded, part of its point was to bury forever Boucicault's mortifying Oirishness.

Boucicault was indeed something of an embarrassment to his profession. His private life was like a parody of his own more outrageous plots. His first wife, a middle-aged and wealthy French woman, died mysteriously in the Swiss Alps, leading to widespread speculation that he had married her for her money and then pushed her off a mountain. He scandalised London by seducing and running off with Agnes Robertson, the young ward of his collaborator, the actor Charles Kean. When he was 65, he again eloped, this time bigamously, with another young woman. The contrast between his own behaviour and the sweet morality of his Irish plays tends to make the latter seem even more ridiculously artificial. And yet, suppose for a moment that Boucicault is not an Irish playwright at all. Imagine him as what, in a sense, he was - an American dramatist. Think of him as the prodigious orchestrator of spectacles and special effects, as the founder of the global mass media event, as the first major playwright to come to grips with new technology, as a key figure in the development of the notion of intellectual property. He becomes, then, an important inventor of modernity itself. Leave aside, for a moment, the extravagant Irishness of The Colleen Bawn, Arrah-na-Pogue and The Shaughran, which are, after all, just three of the almost 200 stage pieces that he wrote, stole, concocted or adapted in his 50 years as an active dramatist.

Imagine, instead, the global brand images of movie blockbusters like Titanic or Godzilla. Boucicault had something like that idea in the 1850s when he wrote a play called The Streets Of New York and then adapted it to local circumstances wherever it toured, so that it became, also, The Poor Of Liverpool, The Streets Of London and, of course, The Streets Of Dublin. Imagine the boldness, in the age of romantic nationalism and the search for distinctiveness and authenticity, of suggesting that you can tell the same story of the urban poor everywhere, in the same language and with the same characters, merely altering the placenames and the territorial details. In Boucicault's imagination, the industrial masses, regardless of where they swarmed, made up one audience with the same desires and fears.

Consider, too, his acute awareness of new inventions. It's not just that Boucicault made brilliant use of the possibilities of electric lighting and understood its implications for the way reality had to be represented on stage. It's also that he grasped the demand of the new mass audience he encountered in New York when he eloped there in 1853 with Charles Kean's young ward, for "the actual, the contemporaneous, the photographic".

Boucicault anticipated the development of cinema by trying to create moving pictures on stage. He envisaged the "sensation scenes" for which his plays became famous, as a film director would imagine a big, outdoor climactic sequence. He tried to evoke on stage the vividness of fires and storms, of natural disasters and human heroics. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that he is one of the people who invented our modern way of seeing dramatic events as if they were on camera.

Sometimes, this is literally so. You could hardly ask for a play more contemporaneous or photographic than Boucicault's melodrama The Octoroon. In it, a New York audience confronted, with a remarkable degree of seriousness, the issue of black slavery. It opened just four days after the hanging of the anti-slavery campaigner John Brown. And it has an extraordinarily modern, and literally photographic, plot device: the villain is unmasked by the camera that catches and preserves the evidence of his villainy. This kind of technological acuity is a constant feature of Boucicault's American melodramas. A telegraph machine is an important player in The Long Strike, premiered in 1866. In After Dark, first staged in 1868, the climax comes when the heroine is rescued from the path of an oncoming underground train. The hum and buzz of cities and industry, the push and shove of the sweating masses, are at least as important to Boucicault as are the green fields and romantic gestures of Ireland. There's nothing very innocent or rustic about Boucicault's sensational situations. The essential vision in melodramas like Boucicault's, as Eric Bentley has pointed out, is paranoid. Everything conspires against the decent heroes and heroines and "even the landscape has come to life, if only to assault us". The wild coincidences of the typical Boucicault plot are, as Bentley also points out, a part of this vision: "Outrageous co-incidence, when not frivolously used, has no frivolous effect. It intensifies the effect of paranoia. It enlists circumstances in the enemy's ranks . . ." Behind the happy endings of Boucicault's plays there is a modern sense of the world as a dangerous, unsettled place."

Boucicault is modern in another respect, too. He is one of the creators of the cultural industries that have become so important in the late 20th century. His American melodramas did much to create the context in which Hollywood later emerged. His work as a writer, producer and actor had a huge impact on the creation of the Broadway theatre. David Belasco, who invented and controlled Broadway, was, for a period, Boucicault's secretary and learned much of what he knew from him.

Boucicault, besides, virtually created the idea of the professional playwright. His decision to take a share of profits from the first English production of The Colleen Bawn, rather than a flat fee, paved the way for the system of author's royalties that is now taken for granted. In America, his public campaigns played a huge part in the passage of amendments to the copyright laws that recognised, for the first time, that the playwright controlled the rights to his own work. This was somewhat ironic, given Boucicault's own brilliant career as a filcher of other people's plots (especially French ones) but it was also of immense importance in the development of play-writing as a potentially lucrative activity to which someone might devote a career. Perhaps, if all of this is borne in mind, plays like The Colleen Bawn, Arrah-na-Pogue and The Shaughran can be looked at in a way that makes them seem less anachronistic. It is well to remember, for one thing, that The Colleen Bawn and The Shaughran were first performed not in Dublin or London but in New York. They weren't intended for naive Irish peasants but for clued-in immigrants and city sophisticates. They were created by someone who had an immensely sharp sense of an audience that worked in factories and department stores, that lived in the noise and heat of Manhattan, that travelled on the subway, that was excited by electricity and photography.

And they were attempts to answer an important, continuing question - how do you connect received images of Ireland with this voracious new world of the burgeoning megalopolis? Their tension and their fascination is that they are trying to tell rural Irish stories in the middle of the shifting, bewildering world of random coincidences and vivid sensations that we call modernity. Boucicault was trying, in other words, to do exactly what young Irish playwrights in the late 1990s are attempting. However odd his forms now seem, they mask a rich, complex and enduring content.

The Colleen Bawn, directed by Conall Morrison, previews from tomorrow and opens on Wednesday at The Abbey Theatre.