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Boucicault, Dionysius George (Dot) (1859–1929)

by Helen M. Van Der Poorten

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Dionysius George Boucicault (1859-1929), by unknown engraver, 1885

Dionysius George Boucicault (1859-1929), by unknown engraver, 1885

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S18/11/85/189 [with his sister, Nina]

Dionysius George (Dot) Boucicault (1859-1929), actor and manager, was born on 23 May 1859 in the United States of America, the third child of Dionysius Lardner Bourcicault and his wife Agnes Kelly, née Robertson (1833-1916). Known generally as Dot, he spent much of his childhood at the luxurious family home, The Boultons, South Kensington, London, and was educated in Paris. After brief service in the militia he made his stage début at Booth's Theatre, New York, on 11 October 1874 in his father's play, Louis XI. He first appeared at London in November 1880 and in 1883 acted at Cambridge in the original cast of The Private Secretary, by his friend A. W. Pinero. He also won repute as a dramatist and the Court Theatre, London, presented several of his plays, including the costume drama Devotion. As an actor he limited himself to character parts, believing his height, 5ft 7ins (170 cm), to be short.

Dot arrived in Australia with his father in 1885. Dion Bourcicault senior was born on 20 December 1822 at Dublin, son of Samuel S. Bourcicault, a businessman of French extraction, and his wife Anne, née Darley, who came from a literary family. Dion began to drop the 'r' from his name about 1860. He was educated at Dublin and the University of London. As 'Lee Morton' he made his stage début at Cheltenham in 1838. In 1841 a dazzling Covent Garden company performed his farce London Assurance, the first success of his career as the most prolific dramatist to write in English. The quality of his work varied greatly and, although many of his pieces were translations and adaptations, this did not, as jealous opponents suggested, negate his theatrical skill. From 1844 Dion seems to have been married to a woman older than himself; she died on the Continent in 1848. In London he joined Charles Kean's Princess Theatre company in June 1852 as actor and translator. In 1853 he eloped to New York with Kean's ward, Agnes Kelly Robertson, then juvenile lead in their company; they separated about 1875 after she had won fame as heroine in her husband's Irish plays. At least twenty of his plays were well known in Australia when Dion arrived in July 1885 with his son Dot and daughter Nina (b.1867). He made his début at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, on 11 July as Conn O'Kelly in The Shaughraun, and delighted audiences with his sprightly bearing. On 25 July the bill changed to his The Jilt, followed on 3 August by The Colleen Bawn and Arrah Na Pogue on 15 August. Houses were constantly filled and critics thought it presumptuous to give novel reviews of such a famous man's portrayals. The Melbourne visit was marred by professional disagreement with his managers, Williamson, Garner & Musgrove.

The Boucicault company played a similar repertoire in Sydney, commencing at the Theatre Royal on 24 August. His public was also interested by an announcement that the urbane Boucicault had married Louise Thorndyke, a young member of his company; first seen at Melbourne in The Jilt, she had been described by the Argus as 'weak and ineffective'. She separated from Boucicault in 1888, but not before litigation in England and America had established the marriage as bigamous. The Daily Telegraph, 1 June 1889, claimed that Agnes Boucicault, now divorced, had to enforce an order for alimony that Dion had until then avoided.

Boucicault's Sydney season was a huge financial success. He had been lavishly entertained by local Irishmen and on the last night, 7 October, a group led by Daniel O'Connor presented him with an illuminated address and gold medal for having exercised a 'beneficent influence' on the fortunes of Irishmen through his stage representations. Boucicault replied by alluding to his 'unprecedented popularity' and promising his audience 'to write an Australian play and produce it in Australia'. He was never to do this. On 8 October 'Mr and Mrs D. Boucicault' sailed for the United States, where Dion's decreasing powers and increasing arrogance lost him much popularity. He died unhappy and friendless at New York on 18 September 1890.

Dot Boucicault remained in Australia after his father left. In their season of Irish plays he had excelled in playing the villain and soon established himself as a favourite with Australian audiences, his curtain calls being almost as frequent as his father's. The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August 1885, described the perfect realism of this make-up as Harvey Duff in The Shaughraun, and on 17 September congratulated him for exciting 'occasional hisses and groans from the more emotional section of the audience'. In October 1886 Dot and Nina, who was later best known as the first Peter Pan, joined Robert Brough. In the Brough & Boucicault Comedy Company, Dot was the outstanding character actor, specializing in schoolboy parts as a foil to Mrs Brough.

In the prosperous years of the B. & B. he had residences in both Sydney and Melbourne. Through his influence costumed period pieces such as School for Scandal were revived in the lavish manner advocated by his father, but after his valuable private collection of costumes was destroyed in 1889 Boucicault seems to have lost interest in the venture. In December 1892, however, he adapted Much Ado About Nothing for presentation at the New Bijou Theatre, Melbourne, and played Verges himself.

Boucicault and Irene Vanbrugh (1872-1949), whom he had met when she toured Australia in 1890, both explained his retirement from the B. & B. Company in terms of overwork on the colonial stage. Certainly he remained immensely popular with audiences and was known as an energetic manager, his only professional vice being unpunctuality, but his rather cold manner seems to have lost him many friends.

Back in London in 1897 Dot joined the Court Theatre, playing Sir William Gower in Trelawney of the Wells. His taste in character parts had now changed to portrayals of 'crusty senility'. After he married Irene Vanbrugh on 2 July 1901, his chief interests became production and management. He directed at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1901-15, and in 1905 supervised the first presentation of Peter Pan.

Boucicault's second visit to Australia was in August 1923, under engagement with his wife to the Australian Theatre Combine. They opened in Melbourne with His House in Order by Pinero. Although Irene was the chief attraction, Dot was amazed at his enthusiastic reception from a first night audience that remembered him from the B. & B. days. More critical observers, however, commented on his artificiality as the elderly Hilary Jesson. Other performances included pieces by A. A. Milne and F. Lonsdale, but Dot publicly deplored the post-war taste for escapist entertainment. The Boucicaults' final tour commenced at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, in October 1927 and featured a J. M. Barrie repertoire, with Mary Rose as the chief attraction. Their performances were well received in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide but at Melbourne in November 1928 Dot announced that the visit would be their last. Clearly he was unequal to strenuous touring especially during Australia's 'interminable strikes' and critics were noticing the absence of his 'earlier protean talents'.

After a brief tour of New Zealand they returned to England. He died in Berkshire on 25 June 1929, and his private funeral was attended by Pinero, Barrie and Nellie Melba. When the news reached Australia, critics mourned the death of the man who had joined with Robert Brough in offering the country its finest single period of theatre.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. Pascoe (ed), Our Actors and Actresses. The Dramatic List (Lond, 1880)
  • Much Ado About Nothing, Boucicault's Acting ed (Melb, 1892)
  • M. J. Moses, The American Dramatist (Boston, 1925)
  • G. B. Shaw, Our Theatres in the Nineties, vols 2-3 (Lond, 1932)
  • I. Vanbrugh, To Tell My Story (Lond, 1948).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen M. Van Der Poorten, 'Boucicault, Dionysius George (Dot) (1859–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/boucicault-dionysius-george-dot-3029/text4443, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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