Melodrama meets farce in tale of thwarted love

Kelly McAuley and Marie Mullen in The Colleen Bawn
Kelly McAuley and Marie Mullen in The Colleen Bawn

Famous Victorian melodrama The Colleen Bawn arrives at the Grand Opera House, Belfast tomorrow. JOANNE SAVAGE talks to director Garry Hynes about staging Dion Boucicault’s masterpiece

The Colleen Bawn was written by Victorian Irish playwright and actor Dion Boucicault (1820-1890) after he happened upon a novel by Gerald Griffin, The Collegians, while browsing in a New York bookstore. The novel was based on a true story about a 15-year-old peasant girl, Eileen Scanlan, who was drowned in the River Shannon near Kilrush, Co Clare, by a friend of her husband’s; she was marginalised by his middle class family and a threat to the security of her husband’s inheritance.

Boucicault, whose first name was Dionysus (after the Greek god of madness and ecstasy) had been born in Dublin, established a reputation as a witty playwright – one of the first after Sheridan and Goldsmith to put stage Irishry before audiences – and resided in the US from 1854 until 1860.

He had in fact just finished writing and starring in a play against the American Slave Trade entitled The Octoroon – which fared badly with audiences and left he and his actress wife penniless and out of work – when inspiration for a new farcical melodrama hit him in that Big Apple bookstore.

The Colleen Bawn was an instant hit, a bestseller in America, and was also produced at the Adelphi Theatre in London and toured all over the UK to great critical acclaim.

Now the Druid Theatre Company are reviving the fast-paced, darkly humorous piece, with Garry Hynes in the director’s chair.

Hynes is a seasoned-director and talks quickly and knowledgeably about Boucicault’s work, explaining that this style of melodrama is difficult to stage, moves at breakneck velocity and has had a huge impact on the Irish theatre that followed it – in all sorts of ways from characterisation to humour and style.

“You know,” she says, “the character of Myles NaGopaleen is probably the first caricature of the Irish stupid person to appear on the stage and the paradox is that the person who appears the most stupid is actually the most clever – you see echoes of him throughout the Irish drama that follows, like in Christy Mahon [from JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World].

“What Boucicault has created is the most extraordinary mix of melodrama, farce and pathos and so it would be absolutely wrong to emphasise one element more than the other. There’s darkness, there’s comedy, there’s physical comedy – the play is a great big hearty stew of all of these things,” explains Hynes. “The way Boucicault slips from one to the other instantly is just genius and the challenge is trying to keep up with the speed of his wit and all those changes in tone and mood.”

Boucicault in particular has fun with the gulf between the upper class and the peasantry and the different languages they speak; for Hynes there are clear lines to be drawn between the dramatist’s handling of the Irish peasantry and the black American slaves in his play The Octoroon; a connection in terms of exploitation was obviously apparent to him.

“Boucicault gets a great deal of fun out of the different languages spoken by the peasantry and the landed gentry; he gets much fun out of that distinction in manners and mores,” adds Hynes, finally.

Does she feel he is trying to disseminate a particular message in this play?

“No,” she says firmly. “He would very much be of the school of thought that if you want to send a message then use the Western Union.

“Boucicault’s was the era of the first mass theatre audiences, so you would have had thousands of people in the theatre and Dion was very proud of himself indeed. He believed he had in effect written the first Irish play – ie the first play written by an Irishman set in Ireland and about the Irish character and staged in America. Anyway, he was known to have been very proud of himself.

“With a grandiose name like Dionysus there is no way he could have gone and been anybody ordinary!” Quite true.

Grand Opera House, Belfast, Jan 28 until Feb 1.