More semantic drift?

James Harbeck jharbeck at SYMPATICO.CA
Thu Feb 28 05:08:01 UTC 2008

Ah, octoroon... memories of my BFA in drama. We read Dion
Boucicault's play _The Octoroon_, written in 1859. The passage I'll
quote below might, by itself, seem to paint the playwright as a
bigot, but actually the thrust of the play was more the injustice of
this line of thinking.

Thanks to
for saving me the retyping:

Zoe: George, you cannot marry me; the laws forbid it!

George. Forbid it?

Zoe. There is a gulf between us, as wide as your love--as deep as my
despair; but, oh, tell me, say you will pity me! That you will not
throw me from you like a poisoned thing!

George. Zoe, explain yourself--your language fills me with shapeless fears.

Zoe. And what shall I say? I--my mother was--no, no--not her! Why
should I refer the blame to her? George, do you see that hand you
hold? Look at these fingers; do you see the nails are of a bluish

George. Yes, near the quick there is a faint blue mark.

Zoe. Look in my eyes; is not the same color in the white?

George. It is their beauty.

Zoe. Could you see the roots of my hair you would see the same dark,
fatal mark. Do you know what that is?

George. No.

Zoe. That--that is the ineffaceable curse of Cain. Of the blood that
feeds my heart, one drop in eight is black--bright red as the rest
may be, that one drop poisons all the flood; those seven bright drops
give me love like yours--hope like yours--ambition like yours--life
hung with passions like dewdrops on the morning flowers; but the one
black drop gives me despair, for I'm an unclean thing--forbidden by
the laws--I'm an Octoroon!

The play also features an early use of technology as a plot tool -- a
camera catching an incriminating image of a murder, but even back
then the playwright wasn't very technologically astute (shades of Law
& Order's use of digital image analysis): the whole scene is played
out in front of the open shutter, the camera is smashed, and then the
photographic evidence is recovered from the plate.

James Harbeck.

The American Dialect Society -

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