“WHEN I wrote The Colleen Bawn, I invented the Irish drama. It was original in form, in material, in treatment, and in dialogue.” So declared Dion Boucicault of the play which has delighted audiences for more than 150 years and is about to get a new production from Druid.
Boucicault was justified in his bold claims. There had been Irish playwrights before, and plays with Irish characters – Boucicault himself had written such roles – but these were inevitably located in England, their Irish characters minor figures. The Colleen Bawn, for the first time, presented an Irish-themed and sourced story, in an Irish setting, and with Irish characters as the play’s main protagonists.
The original inspiration for the play was one of Ireland’s most notorious 19th century crimes in which a young bride, Ellen Hanley, was murdered at the behest of her upper-class husband, John Scanlan, with the murder carried out by Scanlan’s servant, John Sullivan.
The story was later fictionalised in Gerald Griffin’s novel, The Collegians, with the names of the principals altered. It was from Griffin’s book Boucicault derived the plot and characters for his The Colleen Bawn – though he gave the story an audience-pleasing twist at the end.
In the play, which Boucicault sets around the lakes of Killarney, Hardress Cregan, member of the country gentry, has secretly married country-girl Eily O’Connor, the eponymous Colleen Bawn.
Unaware her son is already hitched, and desperate to rescue the family from debt, Hardress’s mother wants him to wed local heiress Anne Chute. Hardress is sorely conflicted, he loves Eily yet is repelled by her un-ladylike brogue and peasant ways. As he agonises over whether he should wriggle out of the marriage, his slavishly faithful servant, Danny Mann, resolves to make the problem of Eily disappear one way or the other.
The other principal characters are Hardress’s friend Kyrle, who loves Anne, Myles na Coppaleen, poacher and poitín maker who adores Eily, and the villain of the piece, Corrigan, who holds the mortgage on the Cregan’s estate and is described by Hardress as “genus squireen – a half sir and a whole scoundrel”.
From these ingredients Boucicault fashions a drama bursting with theatrical brio and flair, packed with incident and intrigue, colour and comedy, song, spectacle, and surprise. Amid all the entertainment, the play also makes some sharp observations on Ireland’s class divisions and prejudices.
For all its Irish credentials, The Colleen Bawn’s premiere was actually in New York in March 1860 with Boucicault playing Myles na Coppaleen and his wife, Agnes Robertson, playing the Colleen. It was a huge success, both in America and in England. Like a 19th century Riverdance it gave theatre audiences an appetite for things Irish and Boucicault followed it up with Arragh-na-Pogue and The Shaughraun, which were also hits.
Yet when Boucicault wrote The Colleen Bawn he had already been away from Ireland for 30 years, so the Ireland of the play is one viewed and remembered from a distance. To that extent Boucicault can be likened to film director John Ford and, with its picturesque setting, vivid characters, and lively action, The Colleen Bawn can be seen as a fore-runner of The Quiet Man. It is, perhaps, as much an Irish-American play as an Irish one.
Away from the stage, Boucicault’s personal life could easily have supplied enough melodrama for one of his plays. It includes uncertain parentage, three wives, one he married bigamously, and several fortunes earned and squandered throughout a long and, at times, glorious theatrical career.
He was born in Dublin in 1820 as Dion Boursiquot. His father was of Huguenot origin and his mother was Anne Darley, sister of poet and mathematician George Darley. It is widely assumed Dion’s real father was the scientific writer Dionysius Lardner, who supported him financially until he was 20. He was not yet 21 when he had his first major stage success, with his play London Assurance. It was the beginning of a remarkably prolific career, it is estimated he wrote or collaborated on 150 - 200 plays, though many of them comprised mere hack-work. “I can spin out these rough-and tumble dramas as a hen lays eggs, it’s a degrading occupation but there is more money in guano than poetry,” he once remarked.
In 1850, he began writing plays for star actor Charles Kean but the relationship between the two foundered when Boucicault began a relationship with Kean’s 19-year-old ward Agnes Robertson, a gifted actress in her own right. In 1853, Boucicault and Robertson travelled to the USA, there they were married and had six children together. They also enjoyed immense success with Boucicault’s plays, in many of which Boucicault also acted. Henry James praised his acting as “very like genius.”
Boucicault was a master of dramatic construction. His plots were seldom of his own devising, he plundered from near and far for his material. His special flair lay in weaving multifarious incidents together into a swiftly-moving and exciting plot, and in writing fresh and racy dialogue. He also invented fireproofing for scenery which facilitated the sensational stage spectacles that became his trademark such as the burning tenements of The Poor of New York and exploding riverboat in The Octoroon. Another notable achievement was his role in helping to introduce US copyright laws which ensured playwrights received a fair share of the profits of their work.
In 1860, Boucicault and Robertson returned to England with The Colleen Bawn which made a fortune that Boucicault invested and lost in theatre-management ventures – a recurrent theme in his career. Dividing his time between the US and England his plays continued to be hugely popular.
In 1885 he became embroiled in romantic scandal when, while on a tour of Australia, he married Louise Thorndyke, an actress some 40 years his junior, even though he had not yet divorced Agnes. By this time also, tastes in theatre were changing and his plays began to fall out of fashion. Boucicault spent his final years in New York teaching in a drama school. He died in 1890.
Throughout much of the 20th century Boucicault’s crowd-pleasing plays tended to be looked down upon but O’Casey admired him “for his colour and stir” while his life was examined in Stewart Parker’s 1986 play Heavenly Bodies. Now, Druid’s new staging of The Colleen Bawn can re-affirm the great strengths and sheer theatrical delight of Boucicault at his best.
Directed by Garry Hynes, the production features Marty Rea (Hardress Cregan ), Kelly McCauley (Eily O’Connor ), John Olohan (as Corrigan ), Aisling O’Sullivan (Ann Chute ), Aaron Monaghan (Danny Mann ), and Marie Mullen and Rory Nolan.
The Colleen Bawn runs at The Black Box Theatre from December 5 to 21. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie