London Assurance: Dion Boucicault as the Proto-Oscar Wilde

Portrait of Dion Boucicault.

Portrait of Dion Boucicault.

Before there was Oscar Wilde, there was Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot, otherwise known as Dion Boucicault.  Born thirty-four years before Wilde, also in Wilde’s homeland of Ireland, Boucicault managed to earn his fame off of the strength of his play London Assurance, which was first produced to great acclaim thirteen years before Wilde’s birth  The play was a precursor of sorts to Wilde’s ‘s society plays, a mocking or parody of the Victorian melodrama.  Like Wilde’s plays, London Assurance serves to criticize Victorian morality, questioning class and the nature of marriage and how it came to serve, not as a vehicle of love, but as a means to ensure aristocratic estates remained intact.  The play also relies heavily on word play and subtext to demonstrate both the shifting and organic nature of language and how each person draws the meaning they want from the conversation they take part in.  In reading London Assurance after the works of Wilde, it is hard not to see where Wilde drew his influence from, and though Wilde was clearly the master of the genre, one has to wonder why Boucicault isn’t as celebrated today as Wilde is.

 

 

Actress Nina Boucicault, daughter of Dion Boucicault.

Actress Nina Boucicault, daughter of Dion Boucicault.

One of the sharpest criticism Boucicault makes in his play is of the economic consideration offers when considering matrimony.  It is important to note that the marriage that the play centers around is an arranged marriage.  Sir Harcourt, the groom to be, frames the potential match in terms strictly outside of romantic love or companionate marriage.  Grace, his would-be wife, is young, or as Harcourt puts it, a “blushing eighteen”, beautiful (she has a ‘rich’ portrait) and most importantly, has money, as he notes when he says he has seen her “banker’s account” and looks forward to the £ 15,000 annually that the marriage will allot him.  This combination of youth, beauty and money makes Grace ideal in Harcourt’s eyes because she is “an heiress, and a Venus” (3).  This is not an isolated instance for Harcourt, or one based on the fact that he is fast approaching 60 years of age.  He mentions in passing that his prior wife left him for a younger and more handsome man, but he takes no issue with the abandonment, firstly because the man was attractive, and secondly, because he “pocketed ten thousand pounds” in damages (6).  As he notes: he “married money and [he] received it” (7).  For Harcourt, then, marriage is a contract devoid of emotion and based on finances, and so long as he leaves it with a monetary reward, he is content.

 

 

The beautiful and talented Judy Dench, who played Grace in a 1970's production of the play.

The beautiful and talented Dame Judi Dench, who played Grace in a 1970’s production of the play.

Grace, the play’s heroine, is forced ‘encouraged’ by her dead father, via his sadistic will (not his will, though perhaps that too) to marry Sir Harcourt.  On the matter of marriage, Grace takes a pragmatic approach because she has no choice but to do so.  She states that “marriage matters are [managed] in a most mercantile manner” (17).  Boucicault employs alliteration to link ‘marriage matters’ and ‘mercantile manner’ through a repetitive ‘m’ sound, driving home the fact that marriage decisions are made based, not on love, but rather money.  Of love, Grace states that a “woman is always in love with one of two things… A man, or herself”, asserting that she “know[s] which is the most profitable” (18).  This reinforces Grace’s pragmatic approach, and showing that she is marrying out of self-interest, or rather love for herself, and not for romantic love, or the love of a man.  Grace does not delude herself about the nature of marriage.  She states that “Sir Harcourt takes [her] with the encumbrances on his estate, and [she] shall beg to be left among the rest of the livestock” (18).  Like livestock, then, Grace sees herself through the patriarchal lens that defines her quite literally as a piece or property akin to a cow or a sheep, and one which her father has sold to Harcourt.  Though such a scenario seems hopeless, Grace tries to rationalize some degree of hope, stating that in marriage, the “gentleman swears eternal devotion to the lady’s fortune, and the lady swears she will outvie him still” (24).  This aim to outvie a husband suggest that marriage is seen as a competition of sorts, with the wife hoping that she will better the husband, perhaps by outliving him.

 

Another shot of the young Judi Dench.

Another shot of the young Judi Dench.

When Grace discusses marriage to the young Harcourt, Charles, she speaks in her pragmatic tone, framing marriage as a form of institutionalized prostitution where women are sold by one man (their father or guardian), to another (their future lover husband).  Charles responds with dismay: “Sale!  No!  that would be degrading civilization into a Turkish barbarity.”  Though Charles still holds onto romantic notions of love, Grace asserts that ‘Turkish barbarity’ has at least the saving grace of its honesty, suggesting that the English tradition of marriage is

a great deal worse; for [in Turkey] at least [the Turks] do not attempt concealment of barter; but here, every London ball-room is a marriage mart – young ladies are trotted out, while the mother, father, or chaperone plays auctioneer, and knock them down to the highest bidder, – young men are ticketed up with their fortunes on their backs, – and Love, turned into a dapper showman, descants on the excellent qualities of the material.  (25)

This is perhaps the most potent passage of the play, where Grace tears down the shroud of respect and shows how patriarchal society treats women as nothing more than property and that marriage is glorified, institutionalized prostitution where the father plays the role of pandering pimp.  It is not simply the fact that women are objectified that is the problem, but the fact that patriarchal society dresses it up to make it look as though women have some sort of autonomy when they do not, and that men have respect for them when in actuality they view them as nothing more than property. Disguising the nature of the arrangement is even more oppressive because it attempts to rationalize, justify and celebrate the objectification through ceremony and tradition.

 

Lucia Elizabeth Vestris, who played Grace in the first production of the play.

Lucia Elizabeth Vestris, who played Grace in the first production of the play.

Despite her pledge to remain pragmatic, Grace falls in love with Charles.  Charles, hoping to circumvent his father’s plans of marrying Grace, sets forth a plan that will cancel their marriage contract and allow him to marry Grace.  The problem is that he does not discuss his plan with Grace, though she overhears Charles claiming that he “will bend the hotty haughty Grace” (67).  When the plan unfurls, Grace forgives Harcourt his transgressions and agrees marry him, much to the surprise of Charles who assumes that she would rather marry him.  She replies: “the exchange of an old fool for a young one?  Pardon me if I am not able to distinguish the advantage” (77).  As Charles fumbles to respond adequately, Grace continues (GIRL POWER!): “Moreover, by what right am I a transferable cipher in the family of Courtly” (77)?  This seems to be a direct challenge to the statement made earlier in the play by the aptly named Meddle, a meddlesome lawyer who says that Grace is “bound morally and legally to be [Harcourt’s] wife, and nobody else’s in effect, except on [his] written permission” (65).  Though Charles gets his father’s permission, both he and Meddle left one person out of the equation: Grace.  Grace does concede that she loves Charles, and does agree to marry him, but she ensures that it is on her own terms and that she is autonomous in the decision.  This serves as a proto-Sartistic/Sartastic dialogue, borrowing from Jean-Paul Sartre’s focus on the element of choice being present in order for one to truly define one’s own self.  This places Grace as a precursor to the existentialist hero.

 

Oscar Wilde seemed to have learned some of his mastery of the language from fellow Irishman Dion Boucicault.

Oscar Wilde seemed to have learned some of his mastery of the language from fellow Irishman Dion Boucicault.

While Boucicault’s conversations n marriage are perhaps the most insightful part of the work, his language play is perhaps the most entertaining part of the play, and are not without their own merits, often demonstrating the shifting social values.  Max, Grace’s uncle and guardian since her patriarch’s passing, plays host to Harcourt and several others.  When things do not go his way, he insists that he “will be king in [his] own house”.  The word ‘king’ has historically been linked with absolute and monarchical power, but English society, though it still has a monarchical system, no longer indulges in the absolute power once associated with ‘kings’.  Grace demonstrates this when she offers a retort to her uncle: “you shall be king, and I’ll be your prime minister, – that is, I will rule, and you shall have the honour of taking the consequences” (44).  This shows first how people fail to recognize how the meaning of words change and how anachronistic expressions carry over into future generations and the people who use them seldom give thought to the meanings linked with them.  Grace makes the same mistake her uncle made when rebuffing Charles, who is posing as ‘Mr. Hamilton’.  Annoyed with his deceit, she says “Leave me, dear Mr Hamilton!”  Charles latches onto the word ‘dear’, whose traditional meaning has been usurped by formal and insincere applications in casual conversation: “Dear!  Then I am dear to you; that word once more; say – say you love me” (51).   Both instances demonstrate how traditional meanings and current meanings of words shift, and how this shift can cause confusion among those people who don’t hold the same meaning of the word.

 

Jan Francis, who portrayed Grace in a BBC production of the play.

Jan Francis, who portrayed Grace in a BBC production of the play.

Part of this incongruity in communication is due to the ambiguity of shifting definitions, but part of it is due to the fact that people hear what they want to hear, an aspect of language which Boucicault explores through Meddle, the play’s lone solicitor, who seems to adopt the traditional role of parasite (though Dazzle seems to fit the role of parasite as well).  Meddle’s inability to understand the nuances of the language and the subtext of those he speaks with is clear early on.  After Mrs. Pert compares Meddle to a pig, Charles tells him that he is a bore.  Meddle shows his confusion: “Mrs. Pert said I was a pig; now I’m a boar” (22)!  When Cool, Harcourt’s valet, shows frustration with Meddle, he tells Meddle that a “fellow insulted” him and asks how he might “abuse him”.  Meddle replies: “You may call him anything you please, providing there are no witnesses”, after which Cool proceeds to call Meddle a “rascally, pettifogging scoundrel” (34).  And as we all know, pettifogging scoundrels are the worst, given how they fog up pettis all the time.  Here Meddle shows that he is unable to read the subtext and gives his own enemy the tools with which to abuse him.  Dazzle takes full advantage of this characteristic that seems innate within most of humanity when he tells Max that he is related to the Harcourts, claiming that “one of [his] ancestors married one of [Harcourt’s]”, adding in an aside that it was “Adam and Eve” (9).  Because Max wants to believe this, he does not question the details and so Dazzle is able to talk his way into Max’s home by manipulating language.

 

Shakespeare and Boucicault seemed to hold the same opinion regarding lawyers.

Shakespeare and Boucicault seemed to hold the same opinion regarding lawyers.

As a solicitor, Meddle can also be seen as a representation of the legal system, and not a flattering one at that.  Rather than serving as a means to find compromise between people, Meddle often tries to prevent compromise and fosters antagonistic relationships, but Boucicault employs interesting word play to undercut Meddle’s intent.  In one scene, Meddle, when accusing Mrs. Pert of slander, says “an action will lie” (20).  ‘Action’, in this sense, means that a case will be made.  Such cases are initiated through words, and laid.  There is a little grammar trick here, though, that changes the meaning of the sentence.  The ‘action’, requires a transitive verb, which in this instance would be the word ‘laid’ and not ‘lie’.  The fact that Boucicault uses lie, encourages the reader to question why there is a slip in grammar, calling attention to the double meaning of the word lie.  It is not just an intransitive verb that means to recline, but also a verb that means to tell an untruth.  This grammar mistake makes Meddle’s dishonest intent clear.  Meddle encourages others to adopt his approach.  When Harcourt moves to offer an apology, Meddle jumps in, saying “don’t apologize, don’t – bring an action.  I’m witness” (33).  In this instance, when two men are on the cusp of finding a compromise on a trivial matter, Meddle attempts to escalate the situation and turn it into a legal matter, likely so he can profit by selling his services.  Though the legal system is meant encourage civility, the solicitor in this play employs it with the hopes of creating antagonistic situations.  Meddle seems to have been written in a manner to support the famous Shakespearean line from Henry VI (Part 2): “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.

 

Elizabeth Spriggs, who played Lady Gay Spanker in the 1970 stage production.

Elizabeth Spriggs, who played Lady Gay Spanker in the 1970 stage production.

It wasn’t just word play and lampooning of Victorian morality that Wilde borrowed from Boucicault, but also allusions to homosexuality (though the term was not coined fifty years after London Assurance was first performed).  The character Adolphus Spanker, it is alluded to, is homosexual.  His wife’s name alludes to this, as Boucicault gave her the name Lady Gay Spanker.  The word ‘gay’, though not implicitly meaning ‘homosexual’ at the time it was first performed, had been used to describe wanton, lewd, and lascivious behaviour since the 16th century, and likewise a promiscuous or hedonistic person.  It was also used euphemistically to describe a woman who lived from the profits of prostitution.  Though ‘gay’ was not documented as being used to mean homosexual until the 1920’s, homosexuality was associated with hedonistic behaviour and the word gay was linked with that.  There are several things that queue the reader to view Adolphus homosexuality.  Firstly, the common stereotype the homosexual indulge in vanity is drawn on as Boucicault frames Adolphus as a “gentleman… highly celebrated in the world of fashion” (43).  He also encourages the reader to question the purpose of the marriage between Adolphus and Gay.  Max explains that Gay “married him for freedom, and she has it; [Adolphus] married her for protection, and he has it” (45).  What did Gay need freedom to do?  Indulge in hedonistic behaviour?  And what did Adolphus need protection from?  Societal stigma associated with homosexuality?  It is also noted that Adolphus “permits [Gay], with the most placid indifference, to flirt with any old fool [she] may meet” (63).  Why would Adolphus be indifferent to his wife flirting with other men?  If Adolphus is homosexual, what are the implications of this?  Well, since the characters help to facilitate the heterosexual realm, and since they exude a moral behaviours which are found to be lacking in heterosexual counter parts like Harcourt and Charles, it could be argued that the such‘hedonists’, are less of the a threat to Victorian morality than are the hyper-hetero fops like Harcourt and Charles.  Adolphus, though, has perhaps too small a role in the play to really draw an concrete conclusions, but it is clear that with references to fashion and dandyism, the work was an influence on Wilde who would further explores issues pertaining to less ‘conventional’ orientations.

 

Judy Cornwell, who played the part of Lady Gay Spanker in the BBC production.

Judy Cornwell, who played the part of Lady Gay Spanker in the BBC production.

Overall, though the work does not shine as brightly as the society plays by Wilde, London Assurance is a play that can be read and enjoyed in the same spirit as A Woman Of No Importance, The Importance of Being Ernest, Lady Windermere’s Fan, and An Ideal Husband.  It makes the hypocrisy of Victorian morality clear in many instances, such as when Lady Gay notes that Charles learned the behaviours his father chastises him for from Harcourt himself (86).  The play also discusses issues of class, such as when Cool suggests “A valet is as difficult a post to fill properly as that of prime minister” (1).  And with strong female characters that deliver some of the best lines, it seems that Boucicault had at least feminist tendencies, which creep up often, such as when Lady Gay and Grace frame men as subservient, noting that men roar when women leave the room in “celebration of their short-lived liberty… rejoicing over their emancipation” (53).  This situates women as the true leaders of the house, which is reinforced when Adolphus abdicates his rule of the household.  It may not be among my favorite plays, but it is one whose humour would translate well to the stage and would likely be able to entrain 21st century audiences almost as much as it entertained Victorian audiences.  Boucicault and Wilde share more than their homeland of Ireland, they share a clever wit, sharp satire, and keen observations skills, all of which translates beautifully into the written word.

 

 

Wilde-esque witticisms and epigrams:

Grace on men: “I am afraid they are getting too pleasant to be agreeable.”  (53)

Max: “The man that misses the sunrise loses the sweetest part of his existence.”  (41)

Grace: “Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them.”  (24)

Cool on the behaviour of the man to whom he serves as a valet:  “I shall be compelled to dismiss him.”  (68)

Dazzle on solicitors: “what had an attorney to do with affairs of honour?”  (73)

 

 

 

Words I thought I’d look up:

Escutcheon:  A shield.

Requiescat: Latin for ‘Rest In Peace’.  I think I’m going to start using this instead of RIP.

Ribands:  Just how they spelled ribbons back in the Victorian era I guess.

Burgundy:  A wine of the same colour.

Jocund:  Joyful and lighthearted.

Ebullition:  The action of bubbling or boiling.

Calumniate:  To make false or defamatory statements.

Dioramic: A three-dimensional miniature of a life-size scene, kind of like the ones used in Logan’s Run and the intro for Game of Thrones, or the models that serial killer from CSI made.

 

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to get updates on my latest posts by following me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.

 

 

Works Cited:

 

Boucicault, Dion.  London Assurance.  Methurn & Co Ltd.  London.  1971.  Print

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master’s in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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