The Octoroon as a Melodrama
TheOctoroon as a Melodrama
The Octoroon, aplay by Dion Boucicalt, was drama inspired by the novel titled TheQuadroon by Thomas Mayne Reid, and Boucicalt’s visit to thesouthern states of the United States. The play is historicallyimportant because its release was four days before the execution ofJohn Brown, a renowned abolitionist in October 1859. The play focuseson how American society denied the slaves their dignity, identify,and liberty. It is important to note that the play coincided with aperiod when pro-slavery and antislavery sentiments were almost theirpinnacle. In order to send the message clearly, Boucicault appliedmelodrama as one of the primary stylistic elements.
The play has allthe elements necessary of a good melodrama. The play includes thethemes of social threat, poverty, murder, unfulfilled love affair,and suicide. It is imperative to note that to some audiences, theplay has a happy conclusion. A good example of the melodrama aspectin the story is the love affair between Zoe Peyton and her cousinGeorge. Zoe is the daughter of a judge who owns a plantation known asTerrebonne located in Louisiana. When Judge Peyton dies, Zoe andGeorge fall in love. George has recently returned from France.However, their love faces some challenges that threaten their socialwellbeing. Zoe’s mother is not the judge’s wife but a slave whowas a mistress of the judge. This aspect of the melodrama shows howthe society subjected slaves to racial and social insecurity becausethe masters could sire with slaves and the children born out of theserelationships were considered an inferior race without any rights. Insome instances, these mixed race children were considered as propertyeligible for disposal at any given time.
This kind ofmelodrama is critical in highlighting the social awkwardness ofpeople who were born as mixed race in the United States during theera of slavery. The title octoroon refers to one-eight blood, whichis applicable in Zoe. In this respect, the aspect of threat inmelodrama manifests itself because at the time, there was a law thatprohibited marriage between whites and blacks. The law referred to asanti-miscegenation act as a threat to the love relationship betweenZoe and George. This highlights how the play incorporates themelodramatic elements of social threat and unfulfilled love. In theinstitution of American slavery, most of the slaves could fall inlove with members of the society considered superior than the slaves.Although the love was reciprocated, the society did not give therelationship an opportunity to develop and would usually end withheartbreak and misery on both parties. This was a result of thesocial perception that slaves were not human and not trustworthy of ameaningful relationship (Eyerman 56).
Boucicault alsointroduces another melodramatic element of threat that is associatedwith imminent bankruptcy of the Peyton family. A check that couldhave averted the family deciding to auction off their property goesmissing. This has a dramatic turn for Zoe because she finds out thatshe was wrong about her liberation because she her father did notlegally free her as a slave. This meant that during the auctioning ofthe property, she was part of the auctioned property. This is amelodramatic portrayal of the experiences of people born as mixedrace individuals. Zoe’s predicament gets worse when M’Closky theoverseer of Terrebonne is interested in owning Zoe because he is inlove with her. At the beginning of the play, M’Closky waylays Paul,a slave sent to collect the mailbag that contained the check that wasto save the property from auction. The American society at the timedeemed that slaves were not equal to human beings and weredisposable. Killing or selling a slave to conceal a secret was anonissue and the Americans were morally allowed to kill or sell offslaves who were an inconvenience to the achievement of their goals orobjectives.
Other elements ofmelodrama present in the play include murder and suicide. M’Closkymurdered Paul the slave in order to ensure that the check did notreach Mrs. Peyton. However, there is evidence of the murder thatcould have saved Zoe from her predicament. However, the evidence isreleased too late which leads to Zoe committing suicide to avoidbeing owned as a slave by M’Closky. Despite the tragic death of theplay’s hero, there is a happy conclusion to the Terrebonne propertybecause there is the retrieval of the check and the auctioncancelled. This is also a melodramatic turn of events because thehero does not get to enjoy the fortunate turn of events. Themelodrama presented in The Octoroon is typical of whathappened in the American society during the era when slavery waspermitted. In this respect, it shows how the slaves were treated inthe American society and how this treatment affected their social andpersonal wellbeing.
There is littlerelevance of the play’s themes in the modern society. In thisrespect, it is important to note that slavery was abolished andAfrican Americans achieved equal rights. However, there are someinstances when some of the themes are manifested in the contemporarysociety. For instance, some societies not approve of relationshipsbetween whites and blacks and there are some incidences whenunfulfilled interracial love affairs lead to suicide and murder.However, most of the themes in the play have been out phased by timeparticularly since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Eyerman, Ron. Cultural trauma: Slavery and the formation ofAfrican American identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2001. Print.
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