Educated in England, Boucicault begins acting in 1837 and in 1840 submits his first play to Lucia Elizabeth Vestris at Covent Garden, however it is rejected. His second play, London Assurance (1841), which foreshadows the modern social drama, is a huge success and is frequently revived into the 20th century. Other notable early plays were Old Heads and Young Hearts (1844) and The Corsican Brothers (1852).
In 1853 Boucicault and his second wife, Agnes Robertson, arrive in New York City, where his plays and adaptations are long popular. He leads a movement of playwrights that produces in 1856 the first copyright law for drama in the United States. His play The Poor of New York, based on the panics of 1837 and 1857, has a long run at Wallack’s Theatre in 1857 and is presented elsewhere as, for example, The Poor of Liverpool. The Octoroon (1859) causes a sensation with its implied attack on slavery.
Boucicault and his actress wife join Laura Keene’s theatre in 1860 and begin a series of his popular Irish plays — The Colleen Bawn, or The Brides of Garryowen (1860), Arrah-na-Pogue (1864), The O’Dowd (1873), and The Shaughraun (1874). Returning to London in 1862, he provides Joseph Jefferson with a successful adaptation of Rip Van Winkle (1865). In 1872 he returns to the United States, where he remains, except for a trip to Australia that results in his third marriage (for which he renounced the legitimacy of his second marriage). Among his associates in the 1870s is the young David Belasco. At the time of his death on September 18, 1890 in New York City, he is a poorly paid teacher of acting. He is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Hastings, Westchester County, New York.
About 150 plays are credited to Boucicault, who, as both writer and actor, raises the stage Irishman from caricature to character. To the American drama he brings a careful construction and a keen observation and recording of detail. His concern with social themes prefigures the future development of drama in both Europe and America.
(Pictured: Dionysius Boucicault, taken 1890 or before. Photograph: Harvard Theatre Collection/Wikimedia Commons)