Edwin Booth as Hamlet, in the position on the throne where Booth is said to have begun the monologue: "To be or not to be, that is the question." (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, line 64).
|Born||Edwin Thomas Booth
November 13th, 1833
near Bel Air, Maryland
|Died||June 7, 1893 (aged 59)
Edwin Thomas Booth (13 November 1833 – 7 June 1893) was a famous 19th century American actor. He was born near Bel Air, Maryland into the English American theatrical Booth family. Booth toured throughout America and to the major capitals of Europe, performing Shakespeare; in 1869 he founded Booth's Theatre in New York, a spectacular theatre that was quite modern for its time. Some theatre historians consider him the greatest American actor and Hamlet of the 19th century.
Booth was the son of another famous actor, Junius Brutus Booth, an Englishman, who named Edwin and his brother, Thomas, after Edwin Forrest and Thomas Flynn, two of Junius's colleagues. John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, was Edwin's younger brother and was also an actor.
In his early appearances he usually performed alongside his father, making his stage debut as Tressel in Richard III in Boston, Massachusetts in 1849. Two years later, Edwin had his first starring role, standing in for his supposedly ailing father as Richard.
Before his brother assassinated the president, Edwin had appeared with his two brothers John Wilkes and Junius Brutus Booth Jr. in Julius Caesar in 1864. John Wilkes played Marc Antony, Edwin played Brutus, and Junius played Cassius. It was a benefit show and the only time that the brothers would appear together on the same stage. The funds were used to erect a statue of William Shakespeare that still stands in Central Park just south of the Promenade. Immediately following the brothers Booth appearance in Julius Caesar, Edwin Booth commenced a production of Hamlet on the same stage that came to be known as the "hundred nights Hamlet", setting a record that lasted until John Barrymore infamously broke the record in 1922, playing the title character for 101 performances.
After Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, the infamy associated with the Booth name forced Booth to abandon the stage for many months, a period dramatized in the 1955 Richard Burton movie Prince of Players, which was adapted from the biography of the same name by Eleanor Ruggles (ISBN 0-8371-6529-6). Edwin, who had been feuding with his brother for a period before Lincoln's assassination, disowned him afterward, refusing to have John's name spoken in his house.
He made his return to the stage at the The Winter Garden Theatre in January 1866, playing the title role in Hamlet. Hamlet would eventually become Booth's signature role.
In 1867, a fire damaged The Winter Garden Theatre, resulting in the building's subsequent demolition.
After the fire at The Winter Garden Theatre, Booth built his own theatre, an elaborate structure called Booth's Theatre in Manhattan, which opened on February 3, 1869 with a production of Romeo and Juliet starring Booth as Romeo, and Mary McVicker as Juliet. Elaborate productions in Booth's Theatre followed, but the theatre never became a profitable or even stable financial venture. The panic of 1873 caused the final bankruptcy of Booth's Theatre in 1874. After the bankruptcy, Booth went on another worldwide tour, eventually regaining his fortune.
Booth was married to Mary Devlin from 1860 to 1863, the year of her death. He and Mary Devlin had one daughter, Edwina, born in 1862. He later remarried, wedding his acting partner, Mary McVicker in 1869, and becoming a widower again in 1881.
In 1869, Edwin acquired his brother John's body after repeatedly writing to President Andrew Johnson begging for it. Johnson finally released the remains, and Edwin had them buried, unmarked, in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.
In 1888 Booth founded the Players in New York City, a club for actors and others associated with the arts, and dedicated his home to it. His final performance was, fittingly, in his signature role of Hamlet, in 1891 at the Brooklyn Academy. He died in 1893 at the Players, and was buried next to his first wife at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In an interesting coincidence, Edwin Booth saved Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert, from serious injury or even death. The incident occurred on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey. The exact date of the incident is uncertain, but it is believed to have taken place in late 1864 or early 1865, shortly before Edwin's brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Lincoln.
Robert Lincoln recalled the incident in a 1909 letter to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine.
|“||The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.||”|
Booth did not know the identity of the man whose life he had saved until some months later, when he received a letter from a friend, Colonel Adam Badeau, who was an officer on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant. Badeau had heard the story from Robert Lincoln, who had since joined the Union Army and was also serving on Grant's staff. In the letter, Badeau gave his compliments to Booth for the heroic deed. The fact that he had saved the life of Abraham Lincoln's son was said to have been of some comfort to Edwin Booth following his brother's assassination of the president.
The Players' Club still exists at his home, at 16 Gramercy Park South.
Booth left a few recordings of his voice preserved on wax cylinder. One of them can be heard on the Naxos Records set Great Historical Shakespeare Recordings and Other Miscellany. Booth's voice is barely audible with all the surface noise, but what can be deciphered reveals it to have been rich and deep.
Memories of Booth can still be found around Bel Air, Maryland. In front of the court house is a fountain dedicated to his memory. Inside the post office there is a portrait of him. Also, his family's home, Tudor Hall, still stands and was bought in 2006 by Harford County, Maryland, to become a museum. A statue of him stands in Gramercy Park in New York City near his mansion.
Edwin's acting style was a reaction against that of his father's. While the senior Booth was, like his contemporaries Edmund Kean and William Charles Macready, strong and bombastic, favoring characters such as Richard III, Edwin played more naturalistically, with a quiet, more thoughtful delivery, tailored to roles like Hamlet.
There have been several modern dramatizations of the life of Edwin Booth, on both stage and screen. One of the most famous was the film The Prince of Players of 1955, with a screenplay by Moss Hart based loosely on the popular book of that name by Eleanor Ruggles, directed by Philip Dunn, starring Richard Burton and Raymond Massey as Edwin and Junius Brutus Booth, Senior, and also featuring Charles Bickford and Eva Le Gallienne (in a cameo playing Gertrude to Burton's Hamlet); the script depicted events in Booth's life surrounding the assassination of Lincoln by Booth's younger brother. Austin Pendleton's play, Booth - which depicted the early years of the brothers Edwin, Junius, and John Wilkes Booth and their father - was produced Off Broadway at the York Theatre, starring Frank Langella as Junius Brutus Booth, Senior, called "a psychodrama about the legendary theatrical family of the 19th century" by the New York Times; Pendleton had adapted this version from his earlier work, Booth Is Back, produced at Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, CT, 1991-1992.
The Brothers BOOTH!, by W. Stuart McDowell, which focused on the relation of the three Booth brothers leading up to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was workshopped with David Strathairn, David Dukes, Angela Goethals, Maryann Plunkett, and Stephen Lang at The New Harmony Project,, and at The Guthrie Theatre Lab in Minneapolis, and presented in New York at Booth's former home on Grammercy Park, The Players and at the Second Stage Theatre in New York; and was premiered at the Bristol Riverside Theatre outside Philadelphia in 1992. A second play by the same name, The brothers Booth, which focuses on "the world of the 1860s theatre and its leading family" was written by Marshell Bradley and staged in New York at the Perry Street Theatre in 2004.
The Tragedian, by playwright and actor Rodney Lee Rogers, is a one-man show about Booth that was produced by PURE Theater of Charleston, SC, in 2007. It was revived for inclusion in the Piccolo Spoleto Arts Festival in May and June 2008.
EDWIN [THOMAS] BOOTH (1833-1893), American actor, was the second son of the actor Junius Brutus Booth, and was born in Belair, Maryland, on the 13th of November 1833. His father (1796-1852) was born in London on the 1st of May 1796, and, after trying printing, law, painting and the sea, made his first appearance on the stage in 1813, and appeared in London at Covent Garden in 1815. He became almost at once a great favourite, and a rival of Kean, whom he was thought to resemble. To Kean's Othello nevertheless he played Iago on several occasions. Richard III., Hamlet, King Lear, Shylock and Sir Giles Overreach were his best parts, and in America, whither he removed in 1821, they brought him great popularity. His eccentricities sometimes bordered on insanity, and his excited and furious fencing as Richard III. and as Hamlet frequently compelled the Richmond and Laertes to fight for their lives in deadly earnest.
Edwin Booth's first regular appearance was at the Boston Museum on the 10th of September 1849, as Tressel to his father's Richard, in Colley Cibber's version of Richard III. He was lithe and graceful in figure, buoyant in spirits; his dark hair fell in waving curls across his brow, and his eyes were soft, luminous and most expressive. His father watched him with great interest, but with evident disappointment, and the members of the theatrical profession, who held the acting of the elder Booth in great reverence, seemed to agree that the genius of the father had not descended to the son. Edwin Booth's first appearance in New York was in the character of Wilford in The Iron Chest, which he played at the National theatre in Chatham Street, on the 27th of September 1850. A year later, on the illness of the father, the son took his place in the character of Richard III. It was not until after his parent's death that the son conquered for himself an unassailable position on the stage. Between 1852 and 1856 he played in California, Australia and the Sandwich Islands, and those who had known him in the east were surprised when the news came that he had captivated his audiences with his brilliant acting. From this time forward his dramatic triumphs were warmly acknowledged. His Hamlet, Richard and Richelieu were pronounced to be superior to the performances of Edwin Forrest; his success as Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts surpassed his father's. In 1862 he became manager of the Winter Garden theatre, New York, where he gave a series of Shakespearian productions of then unexampled magnificence (1864-1867), including Hamlet, Othello and The Merchant of Venice. The splendour of this period in his career was dashed for many months when in 1865 his brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Lincoln (see Lincoln, Abraham). The three Booth brothers, Junius Brutus (1821-18.83), Edwin and John Wilkes (1839-1865), had played together in Julius Caesar in the autumn of the previous year - the performance being memorable both for its own excellence, and for the tragic situation into which two of the principal performers were subsequently hurled by the crime of the third. Edwin Booth did not reappear on the stage until the 3rd of January 1866, when he played Hamlet at the Winter Garden theatre, the audience showing by unstinted applause their conviction that the glory of the one brother would never be imperilled by the infamy of the other.
In 1868-1869 Edwin Booth built a theatre of his own - Booth's theatre, at the corner of 23rd Street and 6th Avenue, New York - and organized an excellent stock company, which produced Romeo and Juliet, The Winter's Tale, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Much Ado about Nothing, The Merchant of Venice and other plays. In all cases Booth used the true text of Shakespeare, thus antedating by many years a similar reform in England. Almost invariably his ventures were successful, but he was of a generous and confiding nature, and his management was not economical. In 1874 the grand dramatic structure he had raised was taken from him, and with it went his entire fortune. By arduous toil, however, he again accumulated wealth, in the use of which his generous nature was shown. He converted his spacious residence in Gramercy Park, New York, into a club - The Players' - for the elect of his profession, and for such members of other professions as they might choose. The house, with all his books and works of art, and many invaluable mementos of the stage, became the property of the club. A single apartment he kept for himself. In this he died on the 7th of June 1893. Among his parts were Macbeth, Lear, Othello, Iago, Shylock, Wolsey, Richard II., Richard III., Benedick, Petruccio, Richelieu, Sir Giles Overreach, Brutus (Payne's), Bertuccio (in Tom Taylor's The Fool's Revenge), Ruy Blas, Don Cesar de Bazan, and many more. His most famous part was Hamlet,, for which his extraordinary grace and beauty and his eloquent sensibility peculiarly fitted him. He probably played the part oftener than any other actor before or since. He visited London in 1851, and again in 1880 and in 1882, playing at the Haymarket theatre with brilliant success. In the last year he also visited Germany, where his acting was received with the highest enthusiasm. His last appearance was in Brooklyn as Hamlet in 1891. Booth was twice married: in 1860 to Mary Devlin (d. 1863), and in 1869 to Mary F. McVicker (d. 1881). He left by his first wife one daughter, Edwina Booth Grossman, who published Edwin Booth: Recollections (New York, 1894).
Edwin Booth's prompt-books were edited by William Winter (1878). In a series of volumes, Actors and Actresses of Great Britain and America, edited by Lawrence Hutton and Brander Matthews, Edwin Booth contributed recollections of his father, which contain much valuable autobiographic material. For the same series Lawrence Barrett contributed an article on Edwin Booth. See also William Winter, Life and Art of Edwin Booth (1893); Lawrence Hutton, Edwin Booth (1893); Henry A. Clapp, Reminiscences of a Dramatic Critic (Boston, 1 9 02); A. B. Clarke. The Elder and the Younger Booth (Boston, 1882). (J. J.*)