As in his early comedies, in Dot Dion Boucicault balances a plot more complex than that of Dickens's original novella with skilfully sketched-in characters and brilliant use of opening scenery. As in his adaptation of The Corsican Brothers he sharpens dialogue and sweeps the audience along with stunning visual effects. Aside from his penchant for scenic transformations (for example, the opening of the wood to reveal Edward Plummer "asleep on Mast of Ship" [p. 7]), the manuscript reveals Boucicault's social argument in the opening debate between Oberon (who acts as a conservative dramatic critic by demanding a setting in ancient Greece or Rome, and aristocratic characters) and Home (who acts as the proponent of Victorian domestic drama centred, as Tennyson remarks in "Ulysses," in "the sphere of common duties" [line 40]). Titania prophesies that Peerybingle's having taken a young wife will lead to his re-enacting the role of Othello, but the fairy Cricket is convinced that this "peasant" will reveal a heart nobler than that of Shakespeare's jealous Moor. The spirit of domestic felicity, of hearth and home, will triumph over the perversity of a jealous husband's anguished spirit.
Boucicault's giving Oberon a parting line from Cibber's much-criticized adaptation in 1700 of Richard the Third may be a subtle knock at those who would rather see "revivals" of classics than productions of contemporary works (even though Boucicault is himself updating and refining Albert Smith's 1845 adaptation of Dickens's novella, itself something of a minor contemporary classic by the late 1850s). Certainly he reveals that Oberon is not the critic he fancies himself to be, and thereby undermines the Elizabethan fairy's conservative dramaturgical case.
Title page, Albert Smith's adaptation of The Cricket on the Hearth. Click on image for larger picture and additional information.
Whereas Albert Smith begins his version of The Cricket on the Hearth (which opened at London's Lyceum on the same day that the novella was published: 20 December 1845) with a complicated, literal transforming of Dickens's narrative into business and much dialogue, Boucicault more economically has his fairies establish the relationship between Dot and her older husband as the basis for the main plot, introducing the subplot of the return of Edward Plummer in Scene One, but adding to it in Scene Two the marriage of May Fielding to the misanthropic Tackleton. However, in using Home as a prologue and in revealing Edward sleep, Boucicault introduces the possibility of Edward's homecoming more dramatically than had either the novel or the Smith adaptation.
Whereas Smith's play had faithfully translated Dickens' words to the stage, Boucicault sought to clarify and strengthen the relationships upon which the plot depends. Consequently he must provide some plausible explanation behind May's agreeing to marry Tackleton. The creation of a "note" which Tackleton holds against Mrs. Fielding leads Boucicault into caricaturing her as "Mrs. Indigo," always harping on a grander, more aristocratic past (like Mrs. Sparsit in Hard Times). An interesting piece of plot manipulation is having Edward's disguise penetrated by the fool, Tilly, who babbling to the baby reveals her insight to John. Thus, Boucicault deftly lays the groundwork for his plot, preparing John and us for the discovery scene.
In both stage versions, John's discovery -- through the agency of the Iago-like Tackleton–of Dot's supposed adultery with the young stranger occurs at the end of the second act. However, Boucicault juxtaposes Tackleton's knavery with Caleb's fortune-telling, so that by implication malcontented Tackleton becomes a devilish, "black knave." Boucicault has placed a loaded gun in the tempter's hands to create a moment of genuine terror, as John grapples with his passion, his ego, and his conscience. Had John acted on his impulse to use brute force to oust his rival in Smith's version, he would have recognized Edward when he drew closer. To have his protagonist able to strike down his rival from afar in a moment of anguish Boucicault provides a very American touch; the weapon is not an English fowling piece, but presumably a rifle. John's breaking down, then, is all the more melodramatic in Dot, for he drops the weapon and (again, suggestive of an American setting) falls in the snow (not merely "on the ground" as in Smith's play).
Whereas Smith opened the third act with John's soliloquizing and the appearance of the Fairy Cricket, Boucicault cuts to the arrival of Tackleton. The malevolent toy-maker has come to see if, prompted by jealousy, John has done "[any]thing rash in the night" (p. 22) in the Smith adaptation. In the later adaptation, Tackleton's motives for calling are not so clearly malignant; however, he is equally incredulous that John should feel it necessary to make his young wife some sort of "reparation." Having intensified Tackleton's role as Iago in the previous scene, Boucicault makes his antagonist much more human here in order to facilitate his spiritual and social rehabilitation.
Boucicault invents the business of Edward's having usurped Tackleton's place at the wedding that the toymaker has arranged, although, of course, the whole action at the church upon reflection would become highly improbable. An interesting slip on Boucicault's part is that he has Tackleton ask Tilly Slowboy to throw "this wedding into the fire" (p. 61), instead of the ring, as indicated by Smith in his stage directions: "looks at ring, scratches his ear, he takes a little parcel containing a ring from his pocket" (p. 29). Presumably, this slip was corrected in rehearsal, but it is yet another indication of the unpolished nature of the manuscript. Spelling is occasionally incorrect ("to" for "too" and "say's" for "says" being obvious examples), and punctuation reduced to commas, no matter what punctuation would be appropriate. An oddity of mid-nineteenth-century usage is Boucicault's ending rhetorical questions with periods rather than question marks -- the same usage is evident in Wilkie Collins's sensation novel No Name (1862). However, Boucicault's failure to include the lyrics to Dot's song on page 43 ("Old Robin Gray") cannot be considered further evidence of the manuscript's roughness since even the printed text of Mark Lemon and Gilbert Abbott á Beckett's adaptation of Dickens's The Chimes (1844) does not supply the lyrics to "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls," probably because the Balfe song was so popular at the time that the dramatists assumed audience and actors alike would be familiar with it.
Both Smith and Boucicault conclude their adaptations with a dance, but whereas "one or two neighbours" (p. 30) drop by the Peerybingles' in Smith's Cricket in Boucicault's "the Village is empty, and all the folks are flocking here" (p. 62). In Smith's play, Edward calls for a dance for which his sister will provide the harp music. In Boucicault's, Caleb, rejuvenated and spry, calls for a dance in which he will be the principal. Dot's character, too, is stronger in the Boucicault version. Representing the concept of order rather like Rosalind in the epilogue to Shakespeare's As You Like It, Dot forgives Tackleton on behalf of the community and receives the curtain line, "And don't forget the cricket on the hearth" (p. 62).
There is little doubt, then, that Dion Boucicault's adaptation of The Cricket on the Hearth is better suited to the stage than Albert Smith's earlier adaptation, which tended to adhere too closely to Dickens's novella. Boucicault has excised a considerable amount of undramatic verbiage, concentrated on effect, and emphasized the relationships of the various characters. He has also brought to the fore the theme of an older man's taking a younger wife. However, his handling is less like that of Chaucer in "The Merchant's Tale," the traditional satirizing of a January/May match, and more like that of Wilkie Collins with the concluding match of Magdalen and Captain Kirk in No Name (1862) or Charles Dickens's pairing of John Jarndyce and Esther in Bleak House(1852-3). The marriage of John and Dot is more than the friendly companionship of Joe Gargery and Biddy in Great Expectations (1861): the presence of a baby suggests that the relationship has a physical component. To John his "little wife" Dot is not a mere status symbol as Louisa Gradgrind is for Bounderby in Hard Times (1854), but rather a developing individual whose right to a mature and appropriate choice of a mate he may in an almost paternal fondness have violated. Boucicault's sympathy for the old husband may be a reflection of his own second marriage (he being some thirteen years older than Agnes), but the dramatist recreates the characters of both John and Dot for the stage with all the sensitivity of Dickens in the original 1845 Christmas Book.
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Last modified 13 December 2001