In the 1874 play by Dion Boucicault (say his name with two soft “c”s), The Shaughraun (define him as a romantic and rather positively deemed Irish vagabond and pronounce the word "shak-grun"), a young man comes back from the dead.  He may remind you of Christy’s father in Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1911), the wanderer in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1887), the tramps in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1948)—or, most immediately, Tom Sawyer, in the adventures (1876), who attends his own funeral.  Twain may have known of The Shaughraun—or the conceit may have simply been commonplace. Nevertheless, according to biographer Everett Emerson in Mark Twain, A Literary Life, when the novelist’s new dramatic work was shown,“Dion Boucicault, a leading figure in the New York theater,” felt it was getting better.  “To the surprise of no one,” however, a producer could not be found.  Twain actually waited until 2007 for one of his bad, unproduced plays, from 1898, Is He Dead? (it also concerns a fake death), to debut on Broadway (it was reworked to acclaim by David Ives).  Boucicault (1820-1890), too, is emerging in contemporary theatre. London Assurance, his first produced play, written at age twenty, was revived in London last year starring Fiona Shaw—and, now, in New York, The Shaughran is being performed by the Irish Repertory Theatre. (Boucicault was indeed Irish; he also lived in England and the U.S., and he was “the first major star to tour Australia.” As noted in The Irish Repertory Theatre program, he instituted “the royalty system . . . his most important victory was getting some copyright protection for playwrights.  He is also credited with such innovations as fireproofing scenery, popularizing the matinee, and shortening performance times.”)

Synge, however, writing in 1904, found it “unfortunate for Dion Boucicault’s fame that the absurdity of his plots and pathos has gradually driven people of taste away from his plays, so that at the present time few are perhaps aware what good acting comedy some of his work contains.” He felt “modern drama should follow the rich speech and ‘personal humour’ of Boucicault, instead of the ‘impersonal wit’ of sophisticated French and English comedies.”  Additional research from the fine writer and historian David Krause tells us that Henry James found The Shaughraun,  “commendable,” noting Boucicault’s “skill and shrewdness in knocking together effective situations and spinning lively dialogue.”  George Bernard Shaw, further, felt that “anyone interested in drama could not afford to overlook Boucicault.”  The New York Times called him “the most conspicuous English dramatist of the nineteenth century.”

The problem may not lie so much with the writer as with his theatre.  “One of the most popular and prolific of Victorian playwrights,” Krause tells us, “Boucicault wrote or adapted over 150 plays” during over 50 years of writing.  “Performances often ran for five hours, from seven o’clock to midnight. Hence it is not surprising that the theatre became something of a marathon variety show and three-ring circus. The common practice was to present a triple-bill programme, in the apparent hope of offering something for everybody, usually consisting of a curtain-raising farce, followed by the main attraction, a sensational melodrama or a cut version of a Shakespearean play, often no more than a virtuoso display by a star actor, and concluding with a pantomime or ballet.”  The “patent theatres” of the time, Drury Lane and Covent Garden seated over 3,000 people; Charles Dickens described the uproar as follows, “It was a bear-garden, resounding with foul language, oaths, cat-calls, shrieks, yells, blasphemy, obscenity: a truly diabolical clamour.”  This is why it would be unfair of me to criticize The Shaughraun for being too long, overly contrived, and lacking depth of character—all the responses I had watching it.  Better is to say that you’re getting a popular show, as written by a successful theatre artist, authentic to its time, performed, today, in an intimate space.  Although it doesn’t really belong in such a context, among an attentive audience and such lovely Irish music (this is one theatre you actually feel you can relax in), it does help us connect the dots from melodrama to the birth of the Abbey Theatre (1904) and Eugene O’Neill’s masterpieces, whose moody, funny, alcoholic, freedom-chasing characters might find prototypes in The Shaughraun. 

The cast for the Irish Repertory Theatre is mostly young, spirited and generous to the play’s apparent flaws—Patrick Fitzgerald plays a sly Conn, the Shaughraun, Boucicault’s “distinctly Irish yet universal character.”  According to Krause, Conn is an “Irish Huckleberry Finn [who] cheerfully refuses to be “civilized”; and he convinces us that he is, like the unreconstructed Huck, a better man in his primitive freedom than the proper Christians who behave prudently.  There is an instinctive nobility in him, for there are no limits to which he will not go to save someone from tyranny . . .”  Terry Donnelly is Conn’s earthy mother, Kevin O’Donnell is a winning ex-con, Allison Jean White and Mark Shanahan play would-be lovers, one from Ireland, one from England; Sean Gormley is rotten to the bone as the villain—but let me mention everyone because you’ll see them climbing over the revolving set (by Klara Zieglerova), wailing at a wake, playing multiple parts, or being put into some spinning plot point announced at a moment’s notice:  Rory Duffy, Katie Fabel, Laurence Lowry, Emma O’Donnell, Tim Ruddy, Gwenfair Vaughan, and Jake Zachry are their names—there’s even a dog!

Because Krause brings up Huckleberry Finn, too, it’s impossible not to recall the hilarity of Twain’s novel where a sham “king” and “duke” conspire to put on an evening of Shakespeare—“The first good town we come to, we’ll hire a hall and do the sword-fight in Richard III and the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.” Of course, even the townspeople, along the Mississippi at the time, recognize how bad the acting is—and maybe that’s one of the few, well-known,  identifying factors we actually have of  nineteenth-century American theatre, whether it’s entirely true or not.  Boucicault himself wrote in the North American Review in 1889, “There is only one stern question and true test  that can be applied to the dramatist or to the actor, if we  would determine the quality of his talents: what characters has he left as heirlooms to the stage and to dramatic literature?  He can materialize to the future in that way alone.”  What’s exciting about Charlotte Moore’s production of The Shaughraun is the fact that Conn does live on, as artistically compelling as a boy from the rough-and-tumble world of Twain or even a girl in a fantasy by L. Frank Baum.  The Shaughraun asks us to consider whether there’s more from this dramatist, and this era, which can be reclaimed.

© 2011 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Photograph: Terry Donnelly (Mrs. O'Kelly, Conn's mother) and Patrick Fitzgerald (Conn, The Shaughraun)  in Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun at Irish Repertory Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

By Dion Boucicault

APRIL 21 – JUNE 12, 2011


Against a background ripe with the intrigue of the secret Fenian Uprising in Ireland in 1866, Dion Boucicault, the undisputed master of melodrama, unravels his comic masterpiece, THE SHAUGHRAUN, which springs to life once again on The Irish Repertory Theatre's stage.

Desperate forbidden passions! Beautiful damsels in distress! Swashbuckling swordplay! Mustachioed villains! Lots of kissing, and a charismatic hero whose fiddle is the soul of every fair and the life of every funeral…also a dog. Caution: Gaelic spoken here!

Performance Schedule:

Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm
Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday at 3pm

Approx. Running Time: 120 min, including intermission



Terry Donnelly (original 1998 cast)

Mrs. O'Kelly

Rory Duffy

Sullivan, Irish Prison Officer

Katie Fabel

Arte O'Neal

Patrick Fitzgerald (original 1998 cast)


Sean Gormley

Corry Kinchela

Laurence Lowry


Emma O'Donnell


Kevin O'Donnell

Robert Ffolliett

Tim Ruddy

Harvey Duff

Mark Shanahan

Captain Molineux

Geddeth Smith (original 1998 cast)

Father Dolan 

Gwenfair Vaughan

Biddie Madigan

Allison Jean White

Claire Ffolliott

Jake Zachry

Mangan, English Sergeant


Tatters, the dog


Artistic Team:



Charlotte Moore

Set Design

Klara Zieglerova

Co-Costume Design

Linda Fisher

Co-Costume Design

Jessica Barrios Wright

Lighting Design

Brian Nason

Sound Design

Zachary Williamson

Associate Set Design

Sonoka Fukuma Gozelski

Hair and Wig Design

Robert-Charles Vallance

Dialect Coach

Stephen Gabis


Barry McNabb

Casting Director

Deborah Brown


Ciaran O'Reilly

Associate Producer

Alexis Doyle

Production Stage Manager

Elis C. Arroyo

Assistant Stage Manager

Arthur Atkinson


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