Edwin Booth: 19th Century Tragic Actor
Edwin Booth was one of the most highly acclaimed Shakespearian actors of all time and the most famous actor in 19th century America. He achieved his fame through tragedy — his interpretations of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. But the irony of his life is that a great American tragedy, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, threatened to undermine his achievements because the assassin was his younger brother and fellow actor, John Wilkes Booth.
Destined for Fame
Born on a farm in Maryland on November 13, 1833, Edwin Thomas Booth seems to have been destined for fame from the beginning. According to a story told by his sister Asia Booth Clarke,1 on the night of his birth there was a brilliant meteor shower, which the family interpreted as a sign that the boy would be bestowed with luck and special gifts. And it is not surprising that Edwin’s fame was gained in the acting profession. His father was the prominent Anglo-American tragedian Junius Brutus Booth, and Edwin was named after two of Junius Brutus’s actor friends: Edwin Forrest, an American, and Thomas Flynn, an Irishman.
The elder Booth did not press Edwin into becoming an actor. On the contrary, he urged that Edwin become a cabinetmaker or enter some other trade. But Edwin did follow in his father’s footsteps — as did two of his brothers, Junius Brutus, Jr., and John Wilkes — and Edwin eventually built a reputation for himself that surpassed his father’s. Together they formed an acting "dynasty" that dominated the American stage for more than 70 years, from Junius Brutus’s appearance in the United States in 1821 to Edwin’s death in 1893.
In Love with the Theater
Despite the elder Mr. Booth’s advice to his son to become a tradesman, he himself introduced Edwin to the acting profession. Edwin was his father’s traveling companion, and he fell in love with the theater and the applause of the audience.
Edwin got his first small taste of this applause on September 10, 1849, when he was given the insignificant role of Tressel in a production of Richard III at the Boston Museum. His father played the leading role, and he seems to have encouraged Edwin somewhat, in his customary gruff manner. Although Junius Brutus remained reluctant to have Edwin take up acting full-time, Edwin’s name began to appear more and more often on the playbill in his father’s productions, and within a year Edwin was being billed regularly in supporting roles.
Leading Roles and Independence
Edwin’s debut in a leading role came at the age of 17 in April 1851. One afternoon Junius Brutus, who could often be arbitrary and irascible, simply announced that he would not take the stage that evening as scheduled to play Gloucester in Richard III. He suggested that Edwin play the part instead. Edwin did so with little preparation and much apprehension, but his performance was favorably received.
After this, Edwin began appearing independently of his father, as well as touring with him. Edwin was deeply attached to his father, but Junius Brutus offered little overt encouragement of his acting ambitions. However, in San Francisco in 1852, during what would be their last tour together, when Junius Brutus was asked which of his three actor sons would carry on his great name in the theater, he simply put his arm around Edwin. Junius Brutus died later the same year, and Edwin was on his own.
Edwin continued acting in California for a while, then traveled with an acting company to Australia, and even to the Sandwich Islands, where he performed Hamlet for an appreciative audience. After returning to the United States, he appeared in numerous cities before opening in New York on May 4, 1857, in the leading role in Richard III. Although much of Edwin’s reputation up to this point was a reflection of his father’s fame, he now began to be appreciated for his own talent.
The Best Hamlet of the American Stage
Edwin continued to build his reputation in the following years, with many engagements in New York as well as a trip to London in 1861. His fame was firmly established when, from November 1864 to February 1865, he starred in a production of Hamlet that ran for 100 consecutive nights at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York. With this performance, Edwin Booth became recognized as a leading contemporary tragedian and “the Hamlet par excellence of the American stage.”2
Applause with His Brothers
One of the most personally memorable nights of Booth’s career occurred on November 25, 1864, the night before he began his 100 nights of Hamlet. On this night Edwin and his brothers Junius Brutus, Jr., and John Wilkes, appeared together in Julius Caesar, with Junius Brutus, Jr., as Cassius, Edwin as Brutus, and John Wilkes as Marc Antony. The theater was standing room only, and the brothers received tremendous applause from the audience.
Aftermath of Assassination
Unfortunately, less than 5 months later, on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth took on a far different role, when he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Edwin withdrew from the theater in shame and humiliation, thinking his career was over. But buoyed by the encouragement of many friends and admirers throughout the nation, Edwin returned to the Winter Garden Theatre as Hamlet on January 3, 1866. He received a rousing welcome that night, as well as in subsequent performances in New York and other cities. His career again began to flourish and would continue to do so for 25 years.
On February 3, 1869, Edwin opened his own Booth’s Theatre in New York with a production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he starred as Romeo. The magnificent building cost over a million dollars and was the culmination of Booth’s ambition to build a modern, artistically and aesthetically superior theatre that would do justice to his art. Booth staged and performed in many Shakespearian plays in the theatre. His productions were based on Shakespeare’s original texts, an innovation for the time. Unfortunately, although the theatre was an artistic success, it was a financial failure for Booth. He was forced to resign from the management of the theatre after several years.
The rest of Edwin’s life was filled with success. He was widely recognized as the leading American tragedian of his time. His renown was broadened by engagements in London in 1880-1881 and on the Continent in 1883. In London he appeared with Henry Irving, the reigning English tragedian, and the two developed a relationship of mutual admiration. In Germany he was praised extensively as the best Hamlet ever seen on the stage.
Despite his fame, however, personal tragedy followed Edwin. His first wife, the former actress Mary Devlin, had died in 1863 after only 3 years of marriage. In 1869 Edwin was married again, to Mary McVicker, also an actress, who had appeared with him as Juliet in the Booth Theatre’s opening night production of Romeo and Juliet. In 1870 she gave birth to a son who lived only a few hours. Mary then began to suffer from fits of rage, bordering on insanity. While accompanying Edwin on his trip to London in 1881, Mary’s condition worsened, and she died in November of that year.
To many observers Edwin Booth was the true tragedian: a tragic figure in his own right. To the outside world he often seemed melancholy. But he possessed a spiritual faith that allowed him to bear the personal tragedies of his life with patience and self-control. And those who knew him well testified to his joie de vivre, which was masked by shyness.
Becoming the Character
Some critics, admirers of Junius Brutus Booth, said that Edwin’s great reputation as an actor was largely inherited from his father, and due only in small measure to his own talents. Edwin himself acknowledged his debt to his father. But Edwin Booth was an actor of a new generation, and the distinction between father and son was not a difference in ability but a difference in style.
His father’s style, like that of other actors of his generation such as Edmund Kean and Edwin Forrest, was bold and bombastic. Edwin made a break with that style: he approached his roles with more thoughtfulness and sensibility, striving to become the characters he played, to creep into their skin. Not all critics appreciated Edwin’s approach. His performances were sometimes criticized for being too intellectual and not emotional enough.
The Perfect Hamlet
Even among critics who praised Edwin’s performances, there was disagreement as to which of his roles was his best. But to the public, Edwin Booth was Hamlet. Theatergoers associated Edwin’s outwardly melancholic nature with the same characteristic of Shakespeare’s Danish prince. Even Edwin’s physical appearance fit the popular conception of Hamlet:
“His light and graceful figure, his pale face bordered with dark and clinging hair, his features well chiseled and mobile with expression, his large and handsome eyes – all these personal attractions are commonly known and recognized as fitting him peculiarly for the character of Hamlet.”3
Edwin Booth seemed to be Hamlet.
Innovator and Celebrity
Edwin Booth was an innovator in American theater. As a theatrical entrepreneur, he built Booth’s Theatre, a modern artistic and aesthetic achievement. His productions were characterized by sumptuous sets, realistic “stage business,” and the return to original texts. As an actor, he introduced a more modern, natural style of acting to the stage.
Even more significantly, Edwin Booth was a very popular American figure, a celebrity, in the second half of the 19th century. He captured America’s imagination by bringing the glory of Shakespeare to the stage during the otherwise grim period of the Civil War and Reconstruction — despite his own intimate connection with the single most shocking and tragic event of that tragic time for America. Ironically, through his mastery of the art of dramatic tragedy, he surmounted his own private tragedies and helped to heal America’s public tragedy.
1 Asia Booth Clarke, The Elder and the Younger Booth. Boston, 1882.
2 Brander Matthews and Laurence Hutton, The Life and Art of Edwin Booth and His Contemporaries. Boston, 1886.
3 [O. B. Bunce,] "Mr. Booth's Hamlet," Appleton's Journal, November 20, 1875.
© 2011 Brian Lokker