The Octoroon, only considered second amongst antebellum melodramas, is a play written by Irish author Dion Boucicaut. The play focuses on the Plantation Terrebonne, the Peyton estate and its residents, namely it’s slaves. During the time of its premiere, The Octoroon, inspired conversations about the abolition of slavery as well as the overall mistreatment of the African Americans. Derived from the Spanish language, the word ‘octoroon’ is defined as one who is 1/8th black.
Zoe Peyton, , “The Octoroon”, is the supposedly “freed” biological daughter of Judge Peyton, former owner of the plantation. In play, the lovers, Zoe and the judge’s prodigal nephew, George Peyton, are thwarted in their quest by race and the the evil maneuverings of a material-obsessed overseer named Jacob M’Closky. M’Closky wants Zoe and Terrebonne, and schemes to buy both. Boucicault’s play focuses on the denial of liberty, identity, and dignity, while ironically preserving common African-American stereotypes of the antebellum period. The play does this through several characters, most importantly, through Zoe and the Household slave Pete. While the author attempts to evoke anti-slavery sentiments, the play is largely in ineffectual of being a true indictment of slavery by further perpetuating the African American stereotypes.
Zoe, the octoroon, serves as a means for the author to explore themes of racial prejudice without an excessively black protagonist; she is “black, but not too black”. She plays the role of the “tragic mulatto” a stock character that was typical of antebellum literature. The purpose of the “tragic mulatto” was to allow the reader to pity the plight of oppressed or enslaved races, but only through a “veil of whiteness”. Through this veil the reader does not truly pity one of a different race but rather the reader pities one who is made as close to their race as possible. This is made evident especially in Zoe’s speech patterns. Compared to the other black characters, even the white characters, such as Scudder and M’Closky, Zoe displays a usage of language superior to that of theirs, showing she received an extensive education.
Zoe’s first entrance in play begins with “Am I late, Ah! Mr. Scudder, good morning. “(Act I, pg. )The formality expressed in Zoe’s first line, is only expressed the play’s white characters, with the other black characters addressing the white characters with titles of “Masr” or “Missey”. The slaves even address Zoe as “Missey Zoe” comparable to Zoe’s romantic rival, Dora Sunnyside, who is also addressed as “Missey Dora”. The title given to Zoe elevates her position above that of the other black characters.
Zoe’s “’ one drop in eight’” roots have been trained and thoroughly tamed so that she is virtually a white woman. Thus Zoe plays to the trope of the female “tragic octoroon”, a light-skinned woman raised as if a white woman in her father’s household, until his bankruptcy or death has her reduced to a menial position and sold. (Gross, What Blood Won’t)The octoroon, desires a white lover above all else, and must therefore go down to a tragic end. (Brown, Negro Poetry and.
. ) She is a woman who has all the social graces that come along with being a middle-class or upper-class white woman and yet Zoe is nonetheless subjected to slavery. The mulatto is also highly sexualized. In some slave markets, mulattoes and quadroons brought higher prices, because of their use as sexual objects. The mulatto approached the white ideal of female attractiveness the mulatto afforded the slave owner the opportunity to rape, with impunity, a woman who was physically white (or near-white) but legally black.
” (Furnas, Goodbye Uncle Tom) This is evident as M’Closky eyes Zoe in Act I, “‘Dam that girl; she makes me quiver when I think of her; she’s took me for all I’m worth. ’” Then later admits to Zoe, “‘Come, Zoe, don’t be a fool. You know I’d marry you if I could, but I can’t. ’”(Act I, pg. 14) M’Closky acknowledges the limitations of Zoe race in terms of marriage, and attempts to settle for her being his mistress. The sexualization of the tragic mulatto merges prohibitions against miscegenation with the reality that whites routinely used blacks as sexual objects.
Even Scudder states that the only true thing in M’Closky’s body is his lust for Zoe. In a race-based society, the tragic mulatto found peace only in death, shown in Zoe’s suicide. Zoe’s suicide is depicted as the only way she could transcend the wretched “‘ineffaceable mark of Cain. one drop poisons all the flood'”, yet her death defeats the writer’s purpose in attempting to make a sympathetic character. Instead Zoe’s death permits female white readers to identify with the victim by gender while estranging themselves because of her one-eighth blackness, since her death was inevitably caused by it.
Thus the author avoids confronting a racial ideology that denies the full humanity of nonwhite women. With the tragic mulatto, the author romantically stresses the problem of miscegenation above the problems pertinent to African-Americans; therefore allowing the author to avoid more serious social issues and omit more representative characters. The household slave, Pete, takes on the stereotype of a Tom caricature. The Tom caricature portrays black men as faithful, happily submissive servants. This stock character posed a question to northern audiences, ‘How could slavery be so wrong, if they were so loyal and content? The Tom caricature was popularized after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin b Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Constantly throughout the play Pete shows behavior very typically of that of the Tom caricature, submissive and faithful servant; resembling that of Stephen from the film Django Unchained, with his unflinching loyalty. Like Stephen, Pete shows an internalized racism towards other black characters especially the children threating to “ ‘kill some on ‘em sure”, and dehumanizing them by calling them “ ‘darkies. . dem black tings. .
. niggers”(Act 1, pg. )These stock characters are typically shown with a cane or a limp, a they are usually lame, as seen in the stage directions for the first entrance of Pete, “Enter PETE, R. U.
E. , (he is lame)”(Act I, pg. 5) The Tom is old, physically weak, eager to serve, a dependable worker, and is psychologically dependent on whites for approval. “Point. Aged seventy-two.
Pete. What’s dat? A mistake, sar–forty-six. ?Point. Lame. ? Pete. But don’t mount to nuffin–kin work cannel.
Come, Judge, pick up. Now’s your time, sar. Jackson. One hundred dollars.
? Pete. What, sar? Me! For me–look ye here! (Dances. )” This excerpt from Act III, pg. 6, displays how despereate Pete truly is for approval, he lowers his age just to be sold, insists that he is still able to work though he is lame, and dances for the crowd of slave-owners, similar to that of characters in Tom shows, which were emptied of the noble traits the original Tom held. By perpetuating black stereotypes, Boucicaut fails in nearly the same way Uncle Tom’s Cabin did.
In preserving these stock characters, the play fails to represent the reality of slavery, and fails to offer a more realistic cast of characters. Instead the play relies on caricatures to attempt to appeal to the masses of the antebellum period.
Ariela J. Gross, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, p. 61.
Brown, S. (1969). Negro poetry and drama and the Negro in American fiction. New York, NY: Atheneum. Furnas, J. C.
Goodbye Uncle Tom. New York: Sloane Associates, 1956. Print. Boucicault, Dion. The Octoroon.
London: J. Dicks, n. d. Print.