Spirit of the Times
New York: 17 December 1859


A disgrace to the North, a Libel on the South.

  It is a significant fact, that while at one end of the La Farge House a few gentlemen were discussing the propriety of getting up a meeting in this city to prove that the North was not entirely abolitionized, the other end of the same building was occupied by the rehearsal of a five-act play, the effect of which is to misrepresent and villify the South; and it is also a significant fact, that while the object discussed by the "conservative," has been treated by the public with singular indifference, a gross libel upon the social relations of the South has been hailed, by part of the press, and a gaping multitude, with "an unparalleled enthusiasm."

  "The Winter Garden"—a very appropriate name for this dreary theatre, for there has never been a really green spot in its history—has been struggling, under the management of Dion Bourcicault, all the season to sustain itself by the representation of Cockney plays. The legitimate attractions of the house, it seems, finally proved abortive, and as a last resource, Bourcicault has taken advantage of the existing anti-Southern excitement, for it is no longer aimed at the slave, but at the citizens of the South, to bring out a play, which, for all practical purposes, is more pernicious than anything which has heretofore been conceived in the spirit of sectional hate. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" aspired to no higher aim than to represent that plausible thing, a heavenly old negro! and an impossibly bad white man. The hero of the play, however, was "a darkie," the legitimate representative of the American slave; but Bourcicault is not content with this, his Exeter Hall training has carried him further; he has been made familier with white slaves in his own country, so he dares to represent them in this. As false as the incidents of the play are in fact and in sentiment, as a literary composition it is wretchedly bad, judged even by the low standard applied to all the modern trash of the Bourcicault school, the materials that were worth attending to being miserably managed, the plot and the dramatic effect implying a total want of ingenuity; all the author has evidently relied upon being the excitement and inflammatory effect that its representations would produce, rather than any really theatrical merit. The scene, says the elaborate play-bill advertised in the daily papers, "is laid in the Delta of the Mississippi, on the plantation of Terrbonne;" the name of the planter is "Peyton," the place itself is "Sunnyside." All Louisiana names certainly, which would naturally be made familiar with Bourcicault, while acting as a New Orleans theatrical manager, the recipient of Southern hospitality and witness of Southern city life, but with the names, all correctness and truthful localization ceases. The natural representations are always false, and the characters are, with one exception, libellous. In the first scene, an alluvial plantation, which is as free from pebbles even as a cup-custard, is faced in the foreground with huge piles of rocks that would be formidable even in New England, while a tall palm waves over them, which is as unknown in Louisiana as in Labrador.

  To give our readers a slight idea of the gross exaggeration, we will notice that the play opens with Jacob McCloskey, "half owner of the Terrebonne estate," say worth a hundred thousand dollars; with Salem Scudder, the overseer of Terrebonne estate; and George Peyton, a Southern young man, "educated in Europe, and just returned home," all in love with Zoe, the octoroon, and all severally making love to her, and offering their hand in marriage! In rude language, in the first act, three white men, two of independent fortune, and one with character enough to be an overseer on a large estate, seriously propose to "marry a nigger." This is Bourcicault's idea of Southern institutions, and this idea is the English and the Wendall Phillips idea, to endeavor, by false sympathy, to break down caste, and elevate the negro to the same level with the whites.

  To accomplish this object, Miss Agnes Robertson, who is a pretty Scotch woman of a singularly pure complexion, dressed in snowy muslin, and overflowing with sentiment and sensitiveness, is the octoroon. To render the thing still more offensive, her parentage is freely discussed by the ladies of the household, her free papers talked about, while, meantime, instead of acting the part of a servant, this Bourcicault heroine is receiving, as we have already intimated, serious proposals of marriage from the gentlemen, and being enveloped in the arms of Mrs. Judge Peyton, who is familiar with her origin and her mixed blood. Dora Sunnyside is held up as a Southern belle, and here Mrs. Allen, a very handsome delicate beauty, comes on the stage, slatternly dressed, and so inanimate, so overcome by lassitude, that she can scarcely keep from "dissolving away." This caricature upon Southern young ladies thus moves along, only to be awakened from her lethargy to make love to George Peyton, who had previously sworn to sacrifice fortune and all for love of the octoroon! and who frankly tells the "Southern belle" that his heart is already engaged by what seems to us to be "the yaller gal." If offensive caricature of the South, and of the most sacred ties of life can go further than this, we do not recollect the example. Among the male characters we have prominently "Jules Thibodeaux, a young Creole planter," bearing one of the most honored names among the old French population, answering to our Livingtons and Lees, of the North; this "young planter" is personated by Miss H. Secor, who has the manners of a "Dead Rabbit," and is in the meanwhile persistently smoking an execrable segar, the offensive odor of which sickens the audience located in the remotest parts of the house.

  Wah-no-tee is an Indian "of the Lepan tribe," an aborigine, as far as dress is concerned, such as you see in lady book illustrations. Now the Lepans were a terrible flat-headed tribe originated in Grub-street, London; the natives natural to the vicinity of Terrebonne, La., have been exterminated at least one hundred and fifty years, and were known as the Houmas and the Attakapas. Wah-no-tee, however, is a wonderful creation, written expressly to display the acting dramatic power of Bourcicault, who has nothing to do but drink whiskey and flourish a large club; not understanding English, he despairs of conversation, and naturally confines himself to gutteral sounds, a large "whew!" such as a bear makes when suddenly come upon by a pack of dogs, is all he has to say, but his head-dress and tail-feathers are immense.

  Salem Scudder is a Yankee from Massachusotte, and holds the position of an overseer, whose slang about "civilization" and "human rights," joined with his nasal twang, would cause him to be run out of any decent community in Louisiana as a disagreeable associate for Southern gentlemen, and an exemplar of bad manners before the negroes.

  Now the above is a fair representation of the prominent persons in this play, announced as representing "American character, American scenes, and Southern homes!" the minor parts being filled up with vilgarisms of all sorts, miserable white men, women, and children, blackened up to represent field hands and house servants.

  The dialogue of the play opens with McClosky, a fine example of the Baltimore "Blood Tub," announcing his intention to "degrade the pride of the first families," a sentiment thoroughly sympathized in by the Yankee, who has his fling at "the chivalry." McClosky, in the course of the piece, meets with Zoe, announces the ruin of the Southern family, makes love to her, and "being despised by that interesting creature," very naturally decides "he will buy her at the sale." By a series of ridiculous and puerile "actions and plots," he manages to bring the estate to the hammer, thereby introducing the "negro sale," which our city papers, even those which try to be very fair to the South, with one or two honorable exceptions, pronounce "wonderfully life-like." Here is a chance for broad misrepresentation. White women, men, and children, are artfully dressed to produce effective groups—husbands are sold, and there spring up discussions among the buyers about separating them from their wives and children; the auctioneer "diversifying "the bids" with asking for tobacco and "brandy smashes;" quarrels ensue, and bowies and pistols are most awkwardly drawn, the Yankee flourishing a big jack-knife and "cavorting about," until it seemed to us strange that the beings who were enacting this outrage upon a section of the the Union, had not thrown the fellow out of the window in sheer and seriously felt disgust. Finally comes the climax; Miss Agnes Robertson, for it was her the audience saw, was put on the block for sale. That such an exhibition was offensive, there cannot be a doubt, but that it should be for a moment taken as a representation of Southern life is disgusting, and those who desire it should be so understood are guilty of the worst kind of treason.

  The ignorant and degraded beings who are trafficked in by the South have none of the sentiments and feelings accorded to Zoe; in that country, if such a being as Zoe ever existed in person, her mind and the taint of her blood would create a gulf between her and the whites that would be wider than the poles asunder, and all the sympathy, and sentiment the incendiary author of this piece creates, is founded upon the false idea, that there is an equality in the races, an idea that is preposterous, unnatural and profane.

  Starting from the theatre after the sale of Miss Robertson, and reflecting upon the fact, how miserably cheap the crowded audience was also "sold," as exhibited by their expressions of sympathy, we ran against a multitude of the poor victims of Northern society, who were driven by the lash of neccessity along the standing for sale at every corner.

  These victims of oppression, of bad laws, and of "the inhumanity of man to man," were pure-blooded whites, and in their veins coursed the purest fountains of blood. Their fathers and mothers are free, and in many instances, possibly, people of consideration and estate. These wretched Zoes of the North have no negro taint; they are often full of womanly tenderness, of refined natures, have been in many instances nursed as the pets of the Christian family circle, have read and appreciated Milton and Shakspeare, have hung with rapture over the productions of the inspired pencil—are, in fact, white women doomed to inevitable servitude and degradation, compared with which the sufferings of the Southern Zoe, even of the worst possible estate, would be heavenly in comparison. And yet these Northern slaves, to say nothing of the thousands of children of infirm women, of aged men, who fill our almshouses, and crowd our walks, have not a tear dropped on their condition, every one of whom would be happy, could they enjoy the daily comforts which are at the command of the least favored of the Southern slaves. Nay, worse than this, white women, without protest or sympathy, are not only heartlessly and openly sold in the streets of our Northern towns, but whole families of high respectability are bid off at prices which would hardly pay in Charleston or New Orleans for a likely-looking coachman, three thousand dollars being deemed by a Boston jury quite enough for a seducer to pay for the crushed hopes and honest affections of a kind husband, the disgrace of innocent children, and a mother's blasted fame, the whole family circle, according to Bourcicault's play, going for thirty-seven thousand dollars less than the single physically and mentally degraded Octoroon brought at a Southern auction mart.

  We have no disposition to pursue this disgusting subject further; the fact is patent that the play is nightly greeted by a crowded audience, and the basest attack that has yet been made upon the South is likely not only to do its damaging work in poisoning the minds of our people, but will possess the additional sin of putting money in the pockets of the base creatures who have clubbed together their mercenary brains to produce this outrage.

  For this the press is much to blame; the criticisms which have been written on this play, even in the best quarters, have been characterized by a secret desire to sustain it, or have been the result of wilful and besotted ignorance. As an abstract dramatic representation, it would not live a second night, but when the papers applaud, or, feebly denouncing, always add, it is a true picture of the South, they give it the only endorsement that carries weight and makes it "draw." So entirely reprehensible, and so consistent is this hypocritical course, that the "Times" of Tuesday last, although it had several editorials denouncing the fanatics of the North, and deploring sectional agitation, and seemingly ambitious to be very fair and conservative, yet in its notice, in another column, of the "Octoroon," it is careful to say, that the play is a "MODERATE and truthful picture of Southern life," thus, in a line, showing its real sentiments of the South and Southern people.

  We pronounce again the whole play a libel; it is more false than if a Southern theatrical manager should bring out at New Orleans, or Charleston, a play in which the degraded men and women, and the associations of the vilest stews of New York city, were produced, and called a "moderate and truthful picture of the best Northern life." This representation would be true, at least, of much Northern life, but the "Octoroon" has not a glimpse, if we except old Uncle "Pete," that can with truth be termed characteristic of Southern life and Southern homes.