AGNES ROBERTSON BOUCICAULT
(December 25, 1833 - November 6, 1916)
"Her sweetness, her susceptibility, her submission under suffering, her uncomplaining courage and repining resignation beneath undeserved persecution" made her ideal for such roles as Dot, Eily O'Connor, Jeanie Deans, and the wretched, beaten Smike." (Actors and Actresses, Vol. VI pp. 83-86).
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, her father was Thomas Robertson, an art publisher. She began her stage career at the age of ten as a singer at the Theatre Royal, Aberdeen, and acted in the play,
The Spoiled Child. The family moved to Dublin and she later wrote she considered herself more Irish than Scottish.
She appeared in provincial companies with Fanny Kemble,
William Macready and the Terry family. In Liverpool she acted with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean and joined Kean's company when he took over the Princess's Theatre in London. Since she was only seventeen, she lived with the Keans and became their temporary ward.
Dion Boucicault, the house dramatist. For the Keans' benefit in 1852 he wrote an afterpiece called The Vampire which featured both Dion and Agnes. After an argument between Dion and Kean, he resigned and Agnes moved out of the Keans home, withdrew from the company, then joined Madame Vestris at the Lyceum and soon found herself unemployed.
Boucicault, attracted by her charm and beauty, wrote several more plays for her including performing five roles in The Young Actress, his adaptation of Edward Lancaster's play The Manager's Daughter. Sold out houses at the Theatre Royal in Montreal and news of her success brought offers from every major city in the United States. She opened the play at Burton's Theatre in NYC in late October, 1853. She also married Dion Boucicault who became her manager. They acted in several of his plays on tour and in 1854 she played five characters in his comic sketch at the Broadway Theatre in New York. Audiences nicknamed her "The Fairy Star," for the title of the piece.
Signed up for a summer season at Wallack's Theatre in New York (1857) they added Old Heads and Young Hearts and London Assurance in their repertoire in which Boucicault played Dazzle and Agnes played Grace. In September 1859 she played the title role in Dot, his successful dramatization of Charles Dickens' novel, The Cricket on the Hearth with Joseph Jefferson as Caleb Plummer. The play opened the season at the remodeled Union Square Theatre, (now known as the Winter Garden). In the same season she played the pitiful, abused Smike in her husband's adaptation of Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby. One of the sensations of the season was his play The Octoroon, in which she played Zoe, the girl with one-eighth Negro blood who is put up for auction as a slave. Dealing with the current attitudes of both Northerners and Southerners toward slavery, the play opened on December 6, four days after John Brown had been hanged.
|Zoe in The Octoroon|
The Heart of Midlothian, The Colleen Bawn, his play based on a true incident that had recently taken place in Ireland. She played Eily O'Connor, the Colleen bawn (fair-haired girl), a simple girl married to a wealthy husband who tries to have her murdered.
In a triumphant return to London in 1860 they opened in The Colleen Bawn at the Adelphi Theatre which was the biggest success seen in London for decades.
They also presented The Octoroon in London but English audiences could not accept her death at the end of the play and so Boucicault wrote another ending that spared her life.
Arrah-na-Pogue which ran for 164 performances in London; The Long Strike, one of the earliest examples of a play based on a labor dispute. They continued to act in England and Ireland until 1868 when they announced their retirement from the stage while she was busy rearing their five children. In 1869 their sixth and last child was born.
Leaving their children in school in London, they sailed for the United States in 1872, began an engagement at Booth's Theatre and toured to Boston and other cities. Inspired by their enthusiastic reception in America, they applied for citizenship. Unfortunately their marriage was imperiled when one of Dion's mistresses followed him to the U.S. and Agnes sailed back to England in 1873.
The Shaughraun with him starring as the vagabond. But their magic on stage was short-lived when their 20 year old son Willie was killed in a train accident.
In spite of attempts at reconciliation Boucicault went with a company to Australia where he married a young actress in the company. Agnes contended that they were still married and the court ruled in her favor.
After his death in 1890, she returned to America and a benefit was arranged for her at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York.
E. H. Sothern, Maurice Barrymore, Lillian Russell and their daughter actress Nina Boucicault appeared.
"She had the prettiest of ballad voices and was always unaffected in the use of it." (July 4, 1875)
In the juvenile comedy of her early career and in the breeches' parts she was bright and bewitching, but it was in serious and sad roles that she won the hears of her audience. To the popular melodramas of the day she brought charm, naturalness, and simplicity.
She wrote about her early life in "In the Days of My Youth", in Mainly About People, July 1, 1899.
REFERENCE: Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989 Alice McDonnell Robinson