"-- we are all complicit and we all carry a certain responsibility for America's original sin: racism." -- David Bedrick, The Huffington Post, 10 April 2015
"Half-breed”, “Mulatto”, “Octoroon.” All of these terms at one point served to describe individuals of mixed race, particularly African and Caucasian. The controversy of interracialism has transcended generations, as well as cultures. It is a subject that, historically, has held the potential to incite savage racial discrimination, loathing, and violence. Indeed, even in today’s significantly more enlightened and politically correct views on race, interracial relationships and individuals still possess the potential to make many uncomfortable.
Two historical periods in which racial topics, including interracialism, were the source of much social unrest are the eras of the pre-Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance. During these times voices were raised in protest from all sides of racial debates. These voices were in the forms of organized protests, speeches, writings in books and periodicals, as well as violent acts of rioting, burning, and lynching. In addition to these, a very important medium through which beliefs on racial topics were expressed was art.
It has been said by many scholars that the arts of a society can serve as a social barometer. Popular, influential, and controversial theatrical pieces offer a window through which one can observe aspects of a culture, including values, virtues, and ideas on a particular subject. Hence, in looking at and comparing the eras of the pre-Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance, in regard to the ideas held on mixed race relationships and individuals, one needs to consider theatrical pieces of the times.
The Octoroon , written by Dion Boucicault in 1859, and Mulatto, written by Langston Hughes in 1935, both deal with topics of interracialism. Despite their controversial nature and subject matter, both achieved wide success and popularity. The two plays were also manipulated in pre-production to better suit their audiences and produce a more “box-office friendly” show.
In analysis of the texts of these plays, it becomes evident that both periods and cultures suffered from similar types of problems with interracialism, though to a slightly greater and more violent extent in the latter piece of Hughes’s. However, merely analyzing the texts sketches an often incomplete picture, as these plays were, to a large extent, created for the purpose of protesting and attempting to manipulate the very attitudes they presented. Therefore, in order to truly consider how the nature and extent of attitudes towards interracialism had evolved from the pre-Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance, one must look not only at the texts of the plays, but also to their critical commentaries, manipulation in pre-production, and audience responses. These sources outside of the texts greatly contribute to the conclusion...