The Octoroon: Early History of the Drama of Miscegenation

The Octoroon: Early History of the Drama of Miscegenation

The Journal of Negro Education
Volume 20, Number 4 (Autumn, 1951)
pages 547-557

Sidney Kaplan, Instructor In English
University of Massachusetts

From the moment of its birth the American democracy has appeared to some of its best champions as the perfect subject for Aristotelian tragedy. Could the democracy with an overwhelming reservation be anything other than the hero with a fatal flaw? The essence of slavery, complained Jefferson at the close of the Revolution, was the “perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other”; he trembled for his country when he reflected that God was just and that his justice could not sleep forever. One ramification of this peculiarly American tragedy—the “problem” of passion between black and white—has been a staple of our stage for almost a century. From Boucicault’s The Octoroon in the decade before Gettysburg, through O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun in the era of the first World War, to Hughes’s The Barrier of the current guilty hour, the drama of miscegenation has packed box and balcony throughout the land.

Putting aside the question of its dramatic merit, it is easy to see why Boucicault’s play, from the historian’s point of view, is the most interesting of the genre; for not only did The Octoroon for the first time, effectively and sympathetically, place a Negro in the center of an American stage, but also, in the troubled time of its premiere, despite all its meagerness as play or tract, it became a small portent of impending crisis and irrepressible conflict. As Joseph Jefferson wrote, thirty years after its first night, The Octoroon “was produced at a dangerous time”; for the slightest allusion to the peculiar institution served then only “to inflame the country, which was already at a white heat.”

Three days after John Brown had been hanged in Virginia, the curtain arose on The Octoroon in New York. On the evening of December 6, 1859, just as Brown’s coffin began the last lap on the journey North to the quiet Adirondack farms, the Winter Garden

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