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.
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