The Octoroon is a tragic mulatto play by Irish playwright and actor Dion Boucicault. It opened on Broadway in 1859, just a few years before the American Civil War. The play was based on Mayne Reid’s novel, The Quadroon, and the incidents relating to the murder of the slave in Albany Fonblanque’s novel, The Filibuster.
Wikipedia describes the tragic mulatto genre:
The Tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries. The “tragic mulatto” is an archetypical mixed race person (a “mulatto”), who is assumed to be sad or even suicidal because he/she fails to completely fit in the “white world” or the “black world”. As such, the “tragic mulatto” is depicted as the victim of the society he/she lives in, a society divided by race. Because of society’s reluctance to acknowledge ambiguity in racial classifications, this character is particularly vulnerable.
The “tragic mulatta” figure is a woman of biracial heritage who must endure the hardships of African-Americans in the antebellum South, even though she may look white enough that her ethnicity is not immediately obvious. As the name implies, tragic mulattas almost always meet a bad end.
Generally, the tragic mulatta archetype falls into one of three categories:
• A woman who can “pass” for white attempts to do so, is accepted as white by society and falls in love with a white man. Eventually, her status as a bi-racial person is revealed and the story ends in tragedy.
• A woman appears to be white. She has suffered little hardship in her life, but upon the revelation that she is mixed race, she loses her social standing.
• A woman who has all the social graces that come along with being a middle-class or upper-class white woman is nonetheless subjected to slavery.
The play centers around its heroine Zoe, a Louisiana octoroon in the pre-Civil War era. An octoroon is a person who has one biracial grandparent, while the other three grandparents are white. An octoroon is the child of a white parent and a quadroon parent. A quadroon is the child of a white parent and a biracial parent.
Octoroons are very often light enough to appear white. However, under the era’s one-drop rule, they were considered black. Additionally, any child born to a slave was automatically considered a slave. So, an octoroon born to a quadroon mother, where the quadroon mother was born to a biracial slave mother, was herself a slave.
Zoe lives on the Louisiana slave plantation of the late Judge Peyton and his wife, Mrs. Peyton. Due to financial problems, Mrs. Peyton is being forced to sell the plantation and its slaves. Zoe is the daughter of Judge Peyton through one of the slaves. Zoe is light enough that she appears white. Zoe was raised as, and grew-up believing, she was a freewoman, but learns during the play that she is legally a slave.
The hero of the play is George, the nephew of Mrs. Peyton, who visits the plantation after an extended stay in France. George falls in love with Zoe, and he proposes to her. However, Zoe rejects the proposition, pointing out that the law prevents a white man from marrying a “black” woman. George offers to take her to a different country, but Zoe says wishes to stay with the plantation.
The villain of the play is Jacob McClosky, a scoundrel whose under-handed dealings with the late Judge Peyton led to the plantation’s financial problems. McClosky desires Zoe for himself, but she rejects him. He plots to have her sold with the plantation and the rest of the slaves, and then buy her and make her his mistress.
And the worst does happen. Through a series of events, which includes McClosky murdering a slave boy who has information that could save the plantation from being forced into sale, McClosky outbids George at an auction for the right to own Zoe.
Eventually, McClosky’s evil machinations are exposed, and he is killed by the Indian friend of the slave boy that McCloskey murdered. George is now in line to inherit the plantation and its slaves, including Zoe.
However, this happens too late to avoid tragedy-at least in American stagings of the play. In the United States, the play ends with a despondent Zoe taking poison, rather than becoming McCloskey’s concubine. Just after she has done so, George comes to see her, and she dies at his side.
In a version of the drama presented in London two years after the New York opening, Zoe lives and, the two lovers vow to move to some other land where they can be wed. Miscegenation was not seen as a problem for British audiences.
Zoe’s “in-between-ness” – is she black or white, is she free or slave? – is one of the play’s main themes. As noted by Jennifer DeVere Brody in the book Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture:
There is no doubt that Zoe is a lady; and yet, because she is one-eighth black, she is seen as being luxurious. Zoe is the supreme object of desire. “Niggers [sic] get fresh at the sight of her. . . , the overseer M’Closky shivers to think of her,” and George, the judge’s nephew, is captivated instantly. She becomes the common denominator between these disparate men.
When the hero, George Peyton, declares his love to Zoe, he says, “Love knows no prejudice” and offers to marry Zoe, despite the fact that she is illegitimate… Zoe proves herself to be a lady not only in appearance, but also in fact, honorably informing George of her maternal heritage.
In a dramatic moment, Zoe declares herself “an unclean thing, forbidden by the laws”, and asks for George’s “pity.” George, who is ignorant of American antimiscegenation legislation, is mortified to learn that the object of his desire cannot be recognized as his legal wife.
Zoe points out the “bluish tinge under her nails and around her eyes as evidence of her Black” maternal roots, and states that “the dark fatal mark . . . is the ineffaceable curse of Cain.”
In the American version, Zoe reacts to her fate by drinking a suicidal poison, like Shakespeare’s Juliet. This action relieves her from becoming a slave and the property of the vile M’Closky, and is presented as the noble choice… She opts to go to the “free” land so often celebrated in “Negro” spirituals. She is purified in death. At the end of the play, however, the script says that she turns “white” — again following the typical trajectory of the octoroon.
So here we have the spectacle of a “white” woman who sings the blues because she is black… at a time before the blues had not been invented yet.
The play proved to be a sensation. It debuted at the height of America’s conflicts over slavery and abolition, and sparked debates about the role of theatre in politics.
Meanwhile, its story of tragic interracial love made for a particularly and peculiarly American melodrama.
The play was made into a movie in 1913.
Of note: in the American stage version in 1859, George was played by author Dion Boucicault, and Zoe was played by Boucicault’s wife Agnes Robertson. This way, when George and Zoe kissed, they could avoid the scandal of a white man kissing a black woman.