Dion Boucicault, the Irish playwright whose life was stranger than fiction

King of Victorian sensation theatre took inspiration from his own life’s twists and turns

Dionysius Boucicault, taken 1890 or before. Photograph:  Harvard Theatre Collection/Wikimedia Commons

Dionysius Boucicault, taken 1890 or before. Photograph: Harvard Theatre Collection/Wikimedia Commons

Playwright, actor and theatre manager Dionysius Lardner Boucicault is remembered as the originator of the so-called “sensation” scene, in which a hero or heroine is rescued from the brink of peril by some death-defying stunt. These spectacular scenes pushed the boundaries of the theatrical form in requiring ingenious sets, the use of wires, and many other processes which would eventually inform the swashbuckling films of Hollywood’s Golden Era.

The king of Victorian sensation theatre took inspiration for his plays from the many twists and turns in his own life. Born the illegitimate son of scientist Dionysius Lardner in Dublin in 1820, he blazed a somewhat chaotic trail across the theatre world in Ireland, the UK and America during a life that contained so many reversals of fortune as to render it dramatically implausible.

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