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London Assurance

by Dion Boucicault

Wilder than Wilde

In 1841, London Assurance, the début of the young playwright Dion Boucicault, hit the London Stage. It appeared in the dismal company of plays such as William Thomas Moncrieff's Giselle; or, The Phantom Night Dancers and George Dibdin Pitt's The Beggar's Petition; or, A Father's Love and a Mother's Care, and it contained dialogue that sparkles even today:

MAX (to SIR HARCOURT):You must leave your town habits in the smoke of London; here we rise with the lark.

SIR HARCOURT: Haven't the remotest conception when that period is.

GRACE: The man that misses sunrise loses the sweetest part of his existence.

SIR HARCOURT: Oh, pardon me; I have seen sunrise frequently after a ball, or from the windows of my travelling-carriage, and I always considered it disagreeable.

We know the voice: it is Oscar Wilde's. Half a century before Wilde began to write for the stage, Boucicault already sounded like him, and quite unlike the melodrama of the "Dead! and never called me mother!" school exemplified by Moncrieff and Pitt.

Yet London Assurance was written by the man who today is almost exclusively remembered for melodramas such as The Shaughraun, The Colleen Bawn and The Octoroon. His way was the exact opposite of Wilde's: towards melodrama instead of away from it, away from the comedy of manners instead of towards it. Consider this passage:

SIR HARCOURT: [...] Charles, who is Mr Dazzle?

YOUNG COURTLY: Dazzle, Dazzle - hang me, if I know - will you excuse an impertinent question?

DAZZLE: Certainly -

YOUNG COURTLY: But who the deuce are you?

DAZZLE: I have not the remotest idea.

This is so close to Jack's speech at the end of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest as to make it seem a pastiche. London Assurance is full of phrases, lines and situations that sound like an echo of The Importance - but for the fact that it was written half a century earlier. Wilde's fictitious Bunbury and Boucicault's Hamilton, the notorious handbag in one play and the hamper in the other: these are striking parallels. There are even matching characterizations: the fierce independence in marriage of Lady Gay Spanker and Lady Bracknell, the scroungers Algernon and Meddle, the London assurance of Cool, the servant, which finds its equivalent in Algy's valet Lane.

Wilde's debt to Boucicault is large, and in more ways than one: When the two men met in Boston in 1883, Boucicault offered Wilde "a couple of thousand" pounds. Wilde certainly saw London Assurance at least once - there is a letter by him describing the costumes (he liked them.)

Boucicault was 21 when he wrote London Assurance, and only a year older when he tried to capitalize on the play's success by writing the very similar A Lover by Proxy (1842). It didn't repeat the success of London Assurance, and it was only with The Corsican Brothers (1852) that he managed to secure his public for decades to come. It is a sensational play that requires identical twins, a ghost and a heroine with four doomed love affairs to get the creaking plot moving, a throwback to the sort of melodrama rendered seemingly obsolete by London Assurance. Boucicault stuck to the new, old formula for the rest of his life. As late as 1884, the eponymous hero of Robert Emmet gets away with lines like these:

SARAH: [...] Thank heaven!

ROBERT: Do so, with all your heart on which I have come to rest! for mine is well nigh sped! I have none for further struggle! I have slighted your love for a wanton infatuation! My other love has betrayed and deserted me; I come to you for forgiveness, for comfort, and for peace!

Leaden prose cluttered with exclamation marks was what the audience wanted, and Boucicault gave it to them. He wrote for money and fame, and if his audience regarded London Assurance as a brief digression from the course of melodrama, not to be repeated, then so did he. It was for Oscar, the son of his old friends Speranza and William Wilde, to continue where Boucicault had left off.

A booklet on Boucicault and his contribution to Irish and world theatre is available from the theatre group for 2DM. If you are not in Tübingen and would still like a copy of this booklet, just send us a stamped, self-addressed, A5 envelope (1.50DM in Germany, 2DM for the rest of the world).