Saturday, August 28, 2021

Used Up

The Irish dramatist Dion Boucicault had his first big hit in 1841 with London Assurance, which opened at Covent Garden, managed at that time by Lucia Elizabeth Vestris and her husband Charles Mathews.

Though the play was a success, Vestris spent lavishly on the production, as well as on subsequent plays, including Boucicault's own The Irish Heiress. In 1842, only a year after the triumph of London Assurance, Vestris and Mathews lost their lease on the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden.

In 1844, Vestris and Mathews opened a new Boucicault comedy, Used Up, at the Haymarket Theatre. The piece was based on a French farce by Félix Auguste Duvert and Augustin-Théodore de Lauzanne. Mathews, who played the leading role of Sir Charles Coldstream, contributed much of the dialogue, and his acting was largely responsible for the play's success.

Sir Charles is a wonderful role, and the novelist Charles Dickens later performed it in an amateur production. Dickens's friend, the artist Augustus Egg, even painted a portrait of the writer in the part, which you can see here, courtesy of ArtUK and the Charles Dickens Museum. Boucicault himself played the role in the U.S., first in New York in 1854, and later in New Orleans.

In the play, the spoiled Sir Charles is so bored with life that he resolves to propose marriage to the next woman he meets. That woman ends up being his neighbor, Lady Clutterbuck, who in a rather unlikely turn of events, was previously married to a blacksmith hired to install a balcony outside a window in Sir Charles's house. Even the prospect of marriage doesn't relieve the young aristocrat's boredom, but he begins to feel alive again as he fights the blacksmith, and the two topple out of the window and into a river.

In the second act, both Sir Charles and the blacksmith are presumed dead. Both, however, are alive but in hiding, fearing they'll be charged with one another's murder. While disguised as a simple plough-boy, Sir Charles falls in love with Mary Wurzel, the niece of one of his tenant farmers. Eventually, he learns his lesson, which he sums up for the audience in true Boucicault fashion:

...a man's happiness, after all, lies within himself--with employment for the mind, exercise for the body, a domestic hearth, and a mind at ease...

Even if that sentiment feels a little trite today, the play is a great deal of fun, and it helped Boucicault learn his craft so he could go on to pen better plays, including The Poor of New York.