Tragic vs. Happy Ending?

Upon reading The Octoroon, I was struck by how Dion Boucicault felt the need to write two different endings – the American, tragic ending, and the British, happy ending. One ending contains the death of Zoe, and one ending leads to George and Zoe getting married. I wanted to think about just what the changing of the ending does for the play, since the change is a major one. I feel as though taking away Zoe’s death and allowing the play to have a happy ending (with justice served, a marriage, and Zoe being set free) takes away the message of the play. Zoe’s suicide serves as an important event, and it places her tale among one tradition of slave narratives. The trope of committing suicide or homicide in order to prevent the pain that comes from slavery is a common one (for example, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved). Placing Zoe, a woman who looks white, into this category of slave literature is probably meant to make audiences at that time uncomfortable. First because the idea of a white woman being subjected to slavery is uncomfortable in general for a white audience, and second because she ends up dying for no reason in the end. This uncomfortable feeling is necessary to the story. Without it, it is harder to pass on a message. The British ending downplays the seriousness of the issue of the “drop of blood” rule, because in the end everything works out alright. I think that changing the ending was not the best decision to make, even if the British audience was unhappy with it.

Trapped

Bodies bear history. This is the idea that stuck with me the most this week. In “The Octoroon”, Zoe’s body bears the history of sexual abuse and racial encounter. She is the manifestation of crisis, violence, and liminality. Viewing Zoe from this lens is trapping. We are born with one body – Zoe cannot change the circumstances around her birth or the history that her body represents. Her body bears a story that cannot be simply erased.

Zoe feels trapped in her body, in her state as “The Octoroon”. She is disgusted by the impurity in her blood. She feels liminality in her identity, and to have power over her body she commits suicide. Zoe feels no other option.

This past semester I took a course in human genetics. We studied the concept of epigenetics, or how our DNA changes after we are born based on our environment. For example, identical twins, whose genetic makeup comes from the same egg, can have differences in their genome later in life based on their environment. This poses an interesting question to how the octoroon would be perceived today in the context of new innovations in science. We are learning so much about how to control and change our DNA, which Zoe feels so trapped by.

Another concept in epigenetics that focuses on bodies carrying history is how changes in our parent’s DNA can be passed down to us. It was long thought that changes in DNA throughout someone life were not passed onto children. But, it was found through studies of a famine in Holland during World War II, that changes in DNA caused by malnutrition were passed onto successive generations. I think epigenetics is interesting to look at concerning “The Octoroon”, which is so focused on the makeup of Zoe’s DNA and how it defines her status.

Boucicault’s Altering “The Octoroon”

In his creation of two separate versions of The Octoroon, Dion Boucicault creates a rift in his attempted transatlantic nature of his work; while using his work to bring broader global issues, such as American slavery,  to England, his changing of the ending for the British edition hurts the impact of the work in favor of financial success.  Despite many problematic issues at hand in his original American script for The Octoroon, such as the stereotypical language of the black characters, as well as the casting of his white wife in the place of Zoe as a sort of faux blackface, Boucicault’s ending clearly shows some social critique of American racial perception.  Because Zoe must face slavery because of her ancestors is black despite her apparent “whiteness,” she chooses to kill herself, refusing to place herself within one of the two racial binaries available in the American South.  This ending suggests that Boucicault had some hope for the work to start a broader conversation about the roles of race and identity, which were ahead of his time, even in the North.  Yet, this version of the play is still problematic, featuring racist caricatures and speech patterns for many of the non-white characters.  This issue is prominent and possibily undercuts Boucicault’s subtext of identity and belonging at the heart of the play, personified in Zoe’s struggle for acceptance and eventual suicide.  However, this American adaptation of the play shows some realistic recognition of racial problems, unlike the British edition, which glosses over the dramatic conclusion and chooses to wrap up the story on a cheap and artificial high note.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Boucicault drastically changed the ending for the British performances of The Octoroon, although the dramatic first three acts remain intact, creating a messy, confused conclusion which does a disservice to its subject matter by oversimplifying the intensely complex question of slavery and the owning of bodies throughout the American South.  These significant changes seem to support the claim that Boucicault uses the play primarily as a means of financial gain, with the controversial issue of the titular octoroon’s representation as a sort of bait to get people to buy tickets and see his play.  However, the subtext of The Octoroon, with Boucicault suggesting the triviality of Zoe’s one eighth as evidence for her subsequent purchase and owning, seems to go against the ease with which the English version of the play ends, with her marrying George.  While this ending offers a small glimmer of hope, its over-romanticization of racial struggle in America acts as if these important issues of representation and equality are not a concern for English audiences, despite the major issues with Ireland at this time which are a major feature in mid-century transatlantic thought.  By altering the conclusion and as a result, diminishing the apparent thesis of the play, Boucicault turns a potentially thought-provoking play into a safer, more accessible piece of entertainment, without challenging the world views of the British or highlighting their own racial prejudices, primarily against the Irish.

A Smart Transition

After reading Daphne Brooks’ Bodies in Dissent, I initially couldn’t make the connection between the Irish and the introduction of blackface. However, after our discussion, I not only have a better understanding of that, but a better understanding of Boucicault’s The Octoroon. I knew the Irish were integrating into American culture, thus taking advantage of any opportunity that would ease their transition into “whiteness”, but I didn’t know the full extent of their involvement. Not only was blackface a major success in the U.S, but it transformed the art of theater. And of course this comes shortly after the civil war. After learning about the vast number of Irish participating in the art, I began to question the legitimacy of the hate that was thrown towards them. It was as if the world was too broken up about the fallout of the civil war that they ceased to care about the silly notion of Irish not being “white”. Not to say that the success of blackface allowed the Irish to fully immerse themselves within American society without any hostility.  But White Americans could definitely appreciate a friend to help them mock the blacks. 

 

If you ask me, I would say that the Irish chose the perfect time to capitalize on the vulnerability of the country. Whether it was because they genuinely adored the art form, or because they knew they could benefit from it, the Irish managed to ally themselves with the majority of the US. What better time to integrate yourself within American culture when tensions are high and the focus is on this idea of “Black vs. White”. The timing was almost perfect. 

 

With that being said, now we can begin to question the intent behind Boucicault’s The Octoroon. Even with the many controversial aspects of the play, I was impressed with Boucicault’s ability to produce a play that was both entertaining and accurate at the same time. In my opinion, even when certain scenes seemed to be absurd, they only highlighted the contradicting logic behind the concept of slavery etc. However, the big question is, did he write this play for a love of the art or for profit? I think that regardless of his intent, the bulk of the play would have represented the society during that time. But, as we alluded to in class, motive would seem to affect the way we read the play. I think it would affect his choice in language, character synopsis, etc. This idea can be supported in his altering of the play for different countries/cultures. 

A Glimmer of Hope in a Troublesome Text

Throughout this week, I have had some difficulty trying to discover key takeaways from Boucicault’s The Octoroon. From my first reading of the work, I was disgusted by Boucicault’s attempts to mimic African-American language in the text and his portrayal of the savage, barely able to speak Native American (played by himself). By the end, I was ashamed of my interest in the plotline despite the blackface presented throughout the play. Yet Daphne Brooks’ reading of the text changed my views and one specific point opened my eyes to the way this text could be viewed in a somewhat more positive moral light. Brooks describes Zoe, the title character, as a representation of disunion, a “manifestation of the crisis that miscegenation law sought to police,” and “impossible” (Brooks 34). In other words, Zoe was a tragic mulatta whose color-mixed existence disrupted order in the universe of the play. In order to restore order, the tragic mulatta must die (either socially or physically), which Boucicault adheres to in this work. Yet he does this with a sharp provocation of the racist society, as Brooks describes through Zoe’s death scene: “With her eyes changing color as well, Zoe is at once ‘cleansed’ of her blackness and blackened by the act of suffering as a horrified array of onlookers watch her rapidly transmuting body (41).” As this quote asserts, Boucicault grants the audience’s wish to restore order but ensures that Zoe’s whiteness is restored as she dies. George describes her features as white as she passes away. Thus, the audience sees a white woman lying dead on the stage, a victim of the slave society. It is a powerful critique of an oppressive system. While I am not sure this point absolves Boucicault of the other troublesome aspects of this reading, Brooks shows that, within this troubling presentation, there exists at least a hint of resistance to the oppressive slave society and racial hierarchy well-known to his audience.

The Melting Pot vs. The Salad Bowl

The Melting Pot is a theory of American culture that grade schools have been teaching for numerous years. Metaphors usually don’t translate as well as they should, but I’ll try my best to work through the ideas. I propose that America is a cultural “Melting Pot.” I do not, however, think that it is a melting pot in a positive sense and it is certainly not one of cultural acceptance and inclusion. The Melting Pot was a welcoming place for those of European descent. They were the broth (or the base) that constituted what everyone else had to conform to. It would be easy for one to distinguish between a broth and a non-broth item. If you wanted to fit in and be a full member of American culture, you hoped to become the broth. This can be seen within the Irish. The Irish were initially big pieces, out of place in this melting pot. As time went on, however, the Irish were faced with an enticing offer. If they chose to align with the Democratic party and assimilate, they would be allowed to melt into the pot fully and be treated as equals and “white.” Their assimilation into this pot would end their oppression in America and allow them to claim a sense of belonging in the society. The blacks, on the other hand, were chunks that could not be melted into this pot at all. They were bones perhaps, something that one did not want in the pot to begin with. They were not meant to fit into society, just to be used as slaves and considered to be property. 

Gulliver from Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is one example of a character whose travels take him to societies that also conform to the melting pot model. Like the Irish, he chooses to assimilate with the people that he comes across in his travels (or at least attempts to as much as possible.) This can be seen in the adoption of the customs of the foreign land he sets foot on and the rejection of his English identity in the process. In Zion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, however, Zoe refuses to assimilate into the melting pot of the society. Zoe is a peculiar character in the context of the melting pot—she could pass as part of the broth because of her white ancestry, but she feels as though her one-eighth black heritage completely isolates and separates her from them. Zoe refuses to leave behind her black heritage and bloodline, even when offered the opportunity to assimilate into society through marriage. Despite the other character’s insistence that she could assimilate or the idea that she could “pass” as white, Zoe seems to subscribe to the “one-drop rule.” This is an ideology that even a small percentage of black heritage makes one’s identity black, or non-white. Zoe breaks societal norms by adopting this rule, rather than the usual situation of whites using it as a tool for oppression and justification for the separation of the other. In the Melting Pot, Zoe appears as though she could be broth (white), but she sees herself as the bone (black) that does not belong. This complicates the audience’s understanding of the melting pot and race in the play, calling into question the structure of both and their legitimacy.  

When I was in middle school, they also introduced the theory of a cultural “Salad Bowl”, suggesting that it might be a more inclusive and accurate representation of how America’s culture developed. Unlike the Melting Pot, which is homogenous, the Salad Bowl is a heterogeneous mixture. This heterogeneous mixture was something that we were taught to promote diversity, as it allows one to recognize the individual identities that contributed to the whole of American culture. This concept, however, was more optimistic or idealistic than they realized. Perhaps the Melting Pot theory is historically accurate because of how its problematic nature reflects the problematic way in which American culture developed. Upon its analysis, it more accurately and frankly addresses the injustices of the time, instead of sugar coating it in the way that the Salad Bowl attempts.

Minstrelsy and Ritual

Zoe is a fascinating figure to weave into our tapestry of placeless figures, further nuancing the developing concepts of identity and place. Interestingly, Zoe is the first racially liminal body to be a focal point in our texts.  Douglass and Gulliver, though inbetweens in their own respect, both fit more or less squarely into established racial categories. Zoe further complicates these identities by socially and and physically conflating black and white.  As Brooks points out with more overt forms of minstrelsy, the simultaneous performance of these two, ostensibly very disparate identities, forces the interactions of these identities in a way that minstrelsy’s perpetrators didn’t anticipate.  The Octoroon lands squarely on this narrative, forcing audience members to confront what happens when black and white aren’t distinct and yet still tragically irreconcilable. It is this social Catch-22 that pulls Zoe’s character out of the shadow of pure minstrelsy, embodying instead the transatlantic existence. 

It is interesting to think about the activation of the word liminal in the context of these bodies.  Liminality or the liminal space is used in the context of rites of passage as the time after separation, when the individual goes off on their own to undergo the ritualistic change and before reincorporation or integration into society — it is the time of transition.  In a sense Zoe’s change over the course of the play can be read as a failed rite of passage. Her body tells the story of the generational rape of the back female. As she is forced to share her shameful secret at being “the octoroon,” she begins the process of separation from her known white identity and community.  The ritual of the slave auction is the culmination of this stripping of her identity, attempting to place her instead back within the narrative of black females. However, rather than completing the change and reincorporating into society as another black woman to become a possession, Zoe remains liminal, rejecting the description of either identity and taking her fate instead into her own hands and allowing her identity to be read fluidly rather than concretely. She won’t be defined or confined, but the cycle of violence will end with her.

Descriptions of the Body

One thing I noticed while reading McCann’s TransAtlantic was the way that Douglass referred to and/or described bodies of different people – specifically, the contrast between how he describes Lily’s body versus how he describes his wife’s body and his own body. Every time Douglass describes Lily, there is an implied grace and beauty in his word choice. He describes her skin as “so very pale”; her wrists as “cool” and “light”; her face “ledged with freckles” and her hair “sandy-colored”. All dainty words. He even describes her was “pretty”, though at the time he did not know that it was Lily he was describing. In contrast, Douglass doesn’t ever describe the way his wife’s body looks. His descriptions of her are limited to her emotional state (such as when he was imagining how excited she would look upon receiving a letter from him) and to what clothing she wore (such as when he describes her red scarf). We, as readers, have no idea what Anna might look like, other than the fact that she is black. Similarly, the only description we get of Douglass is a fleeting moment when he catches himself in the mirror and decides to leave his hair in the more “Negro style”. There are no descriptions of black bodies here; or, at least, not nearly of the same caliber as the descriptions of white bodies. Douglass has moments in the text where he realizes, as time goes on, that in Ireland there seems to be far less care about his skin color. He is surprised every time he realizes it again. I wonder if the lack of description of black bodies is simply because Douglass never felt as though it was appropriate to praise them as beautiful or graceful. Obviously he knew it – this was one of the rights that he was fighting for his people to have. But old habits are hard to break. Is this an intentional choice on McCann’s part, I wonder?

Douglass’s Barbells and Irish Prejudice

Douglass’s barbells in Transatlantic are clearly a representation of the emotional weight of slavery that he takes with him wherever he travels. But, I think the secrecy of the barbells to the outside world is representative of McCann’s belief that Douglass is prejudiced against the Irish and unwilling to fully unify behind their cause. Douglass is known for stressing self-reliance above many other virtues, so it is not surprising that McCann portrays him as hesitant when Webb and the driver offer to help carry his luggage containing the barbells. This shows that the history of slavery is something Douglass is unwilling to share with any other people, and furthers his sentiment that there is no analogy between the Irish and black systems of oppression.  But McCann’s depiction not only claims Douglass’s inability to connect with the Irish is due to a difference in political systems, but also Douglass’s own prejudices towards the Irish.

When the driver offers to load Douglass’s luggage onto the carriage, Douglass describes him as a “small man, sparely built, with the emaciated face of a serious drinker.” While Douglass’s statement does contain a touch of sympathy for the plight of Irish hunger, it also clearly contains prejudice for the Irish stereotype of drunkenness. I believe that Douglass thought the lack of connection between the Irish and black populations was mainly due to a difference in the social and political systems of their respective countries, but one cannot ignore that Douglass was an advocate for temperance and clearly looked down upon people who drink exorbitant amounts. The way McCann portrays Douglass implies that he believes Douglass thinks the sharing of the barbells with the Irish would taint their symbolism of slavery due to his skewed image of the Irish as a drunken people who brought themselves down to an oppressed state.

When Language Fails, What Are We Left With?

The idea of language failing to effectively communicate one’s feelings and experiences is something that fascinates me. As an English major, the idea that words can fail should seem unfathomable. Yet, being unable to articulate a feeling or traumatic experience is something that is a reality to those such as the Irish, who struggle with how to explain their sense of self. This week, in relation to both the Douglass and McCann pieces, we talked a lot about the referencing of the “other” group when trying to explain one’s own experience. 

Specifically, I want to address the way in which the word “slave” or “slavery” is used in connection to the experiences of both the Blacks and the Irish. The Irish and Blacks are two groups of people being told, “You are this.”  In the quest for liberty from these labels, they must ask, “If I’m not what they have been saying I am, who am I?” In the case of the Irish, as we discussed earlier in the semester, the Irish were referred to as white n******. This connection to the Blacks was ingrained into the ways that they viewed themselves. Perhaps this is where the Irish’s feelings and metaphors of being a “wage” slave or like a slave stems from. 

In Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom, he writes about how the Irish’s use of “slave” is an unfair comparison that shouldn’t be drawn (Douglass). McCann’s TransAtlantic, however, is not as outright in his condemnation. One gets the sense that McCann’s Douglass is uneasy with the shared use of the terms, but he is not as confrontational about it as the real Douglass was in his piece. Both the Irish and Blacks underwent awful oppression but their circumstances were far from the same. The Irish are poor and hungry, but they are free and can grow food. The Irish Americans were also not oppressed in the same manner as the Blacks and are given chances to be the oppressor in America. The Blacks, however, were always the oppressed and never the oppressor. 

While perhaps not accurate, I do not think that this adoption or comparison is ill-intentioned. I do not think that the language itself is malicious, but the mindset behind it can become problematic. Phrases such as the “Black O’Connell” take away from Douglass’ own merits and individual identity. He can’t just be Douglass because of his race, even in Ireland. All of this is a very important discussion, as Prof. Kinyon pointed out, remains a very relevant topic even in today’s political sphere, where it unfortunately remains a problem. This raises even further questions: If words fail people, such as the Irish, who just want their experiences and flights to be recognized, what do we do? Do we forgive their missteps in language? What can we do to correct them? Certainly, there are no clear cut answers to these questions, but they are ones that individuals and society must consider as we move forward in history.