The Octoroon - Premiere - New York, December 6, 1859


The Octoroon - Premiere - New York, December 6, 1859


The Octoroon opened at a particularly charged time in US and New York City history. The timing of the New York opening of a melodrama featuring a mixed-race enslaved heroine was both risky and audacious.

John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry had taken place two months earlier on October 16; John Brown was executed for leading that insurrection against slavery on December 2.

Pro-South democrat Fernando Wood was elected mayor of New York City on December 6, the same day that The Octoroon opened at the Winter Garden Theatre. Critical reaction to the play was immediate and extreme. For some of Boucicault's white American critics, like the anonymous reviewer from the pro-Democrat New York paper, Spirit of the Times, the prospect of Zoe and George's proposed interracial marriage was exceptionally inflammatory.

The New York Herald editorial entitled "Abolition On and Off the Stage" that we show here was published the day before the opening night, describing the play as a "work of disunion and treason." (James Gordon Bennett], "Abolition On and Off the Stage," (editorial), New York Herald, December 5, 1859, 6). But other reviews were equivocal, for example, the New York Times in a December 15, 1859 review declared that the play was a "cleverly-constructed, perfectly impartial, not to say non-committal picture of life as it is in Louisiana.”

Robertson's sympathetic portrayal of an enslaved mixed-race woman seemed to fuel the controversy and she later recounted that she had been "solemnly warned that if I attempted to play this auction scene I should be shot as I stood on the table to be sold." ("A Splendid Record: Mrs Dion Boucicault," The Sketch, May 16, 1894, 146). Seemingly as a result of this threat (though Boucicault had been attempting to break their contract with the Winter Garden), Boucicault and Robertson, by 14 December had left the Winter Garden altogether, although for several months the play continued to be performed there and in several other theatres in New York during the 1859-60 season.


December 6, 1859

Spatial Coverage



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