ONE hundred years ago no one in the English-speaking world who frequented the theater, read the newspaper, or trafficked in gossip would have failed to recognize the name of Dion Boucicault.
An actor of unprecedented popularity, the author of the century's most sensational and successful melodramas, a producer who shaped the careers of dozens of prominent actors, and a man who lived his flamboyant and troubled life very much in the public eye, Boucicault built a legend around himself that makes the public image perpetuated by Norman Mailer seem tepid and pale by comparison. And yet Dion Boucicault is remembered today by only a handful of scholars and theater historians.
The reason for this has much to do with the ephemeral nature of most of his work. It is estimated that Boucicault wrote or adapted for the stage more than 200 plays during a career that spanned half a century, beginning with the astonishing London success of his drawing-room comedy, ''London Assurance,'' first staged in 1841, when he was just 20 years old. Boucicault acted in and produced many of these plays, and many drew record-breaking crowds to theaters in England, Ireland, and especially America.
But very few of these plays - written with tremendous speed to satisfy Boucicault's insatiable need for money and his largely middle-class audiences' insatiable thirst for melodrama - had any lasting literary merit. Most were frankly potboilers constructed around sensational scenes calculated to make the theatergoer gasp in wonder - the on-stage burning of a house, the explosion of a riverboat, the rescue of a heroine from drowning or an oncoming freight train.
Boucicault did, however, write three plays, all set in his native Ireland - ''The Colleen Bawn'' (1860), ''Arrah-na-Pogue'' (1864), and ''The Shaughraun'' ( 1874) - that not only proved to be the most popular and lucrative of his works when he was alive, but assured him a secure place in the history of Irish drama. Moreover, Boucicault is credited with several important contributions to the history of the theater, including the practice of paying playwrights royalties rather than flat fees, the creation of the touring company, and the concept of the author-director.
The life of this man who achieved so much was as sensational and frenzied as his melodramatic plots. His childhood, spent shuffling between Dublin and London , was troubled by reports, almost certainly true, that he was illegitimate. He married three times, and his last marriage, which took place when he was 64 and his bride 21, was bigamous. He lived extravagantly - making and losing at least three fortunes in his lifetime - and publicly, often using his quarrels with critics, theater managers, actors, and even his second wife (an actress named Anna Robertson who won extraordinary acclaim in America in the 1850s) to generate publicity. Although he is said to have earned $5 million in his lifetime, when he died in 1890 he was almost penniless and already beginning to fall out of favor in a theatrical world being turned upside down by playwrights like Ibsen and Chekhov.
Richard Fawkes's biography, the first since a 1915 study to which it is copiously indebted, works its way through the tangle of Boucicault's life with considerable accuracy and sobriety. But for all its detailed reporting of the scores of plays written, acted in, and produced, it falls disappointingly short in exploring Boucicault's inner life. By making no attempt to understand Boucicault's imagination or to analyze his art, Fawkes leaves the reader in the dark concerning the central question any biography of a writer should raise: How does the artist transform the reality of his experience and his age into the aesthetic form and substance of his art?
Although Fawkes maintains that Boucicault was the most eminent dramatist of his times - a comment that surely reflects on the paucity of serious literary drama in the 19th century - he does readily recognize the limitations of most of Boucicault's plays, something that Boucicault himself was quick to concede. ''I can spin out these rough-and-tumble dramas as a hen lays eggs,'' he once said. ''It's a degrading occupation, but more money has been made out of guano than out of poetry.'' It is a characteristically clever and candid defense, but also, given the obvious talent visible in the best of Boucicault's work, one that can only make us regret its accuracy.