Edwin Booth

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Edwin Booth

Edwin Booth (1833-1893) was one of America's greatest tragic actors, introducing into his characterizations an artistic sensitivity and completeness that replaced the bombast of earlier times.

Edwin Booth had little schooling. Instead, he accompanied his actor father, Junius Brutus Booth, on the theatrical circuits, ostensibly to attend him but really to control the elder genius's drinking and erratic behavior, a problem Edwin himself later had. Edwin first took up drama in 1849 and thereafter played minor roles, until in New York, in 1851, his father's illness (real or feigned) permitted him to substitute as Richard III. Edwin was an immediate success.

Booth modestly continued his training in a variety of major and minor roles, first in California and later in the South. In Richmond, Va., he fell in love with Mary Devlin, who became his wife. Returning to New York in 1857, he was acclaimed for his brilliant and forceful portrayals of Richard III, Shylock, Romeo, and other Shakespearean characters. Booth surpassed the critical praise given to Edwin Forrest, who emerged from retirement in 1860 to challenge the young man.

At 31 Booth was America's foremost actor. His wife's death, however, caused him deep sorrow that exaggerated his already melancholy nature. He left the stage saying, "The beauty of my art is gone—it is hateful to me."

But acting was so deeply a part of the man that by 1864 Booth was back as star and manager of the Winter Garden Theater in New York. It was there that the three Booth brothers—Edwin, Junius, and John Wilkes—gave their memorable performance of Julius Caesar. (This staged political assassination was soon to be followed by a real one.) While Edwin was at the zenith of his fame, having acted Hamlet for more than a hundred consecutive nights, he heard of his brother John Wilkes's murder of President Lincoln. Once more he retired from the stage in sorrow.

Assured that the public did not hold him responsible for his brother's action, Booth returned to acting in 1866 and was greeted by a tremendous and sympathetic ovation. At the Booth Theater in New York City he managed and acted in the most elaborate and artistic productions of Shakespeare America had ever known. Bankruptcy in 1873 made him renounce managership forever, and he thereafter concentrated on becoming what many critics insisted was the greatest actor of his time. His performances were sensitive, integrated in tone, gesture, and setting, and full of poetic power. He did not think of himself as an entertainer but as an artist who revealed the beauty and wisdom of great dramatic poetry.

Booth had earlier made a gift of his home to the acting profession, and it was there, at the Players Club in New York City, that he died.

Further Reading

Eleanor Ruggles, Prince of Players: Edwin Booth (1953), is a popular portrait of the actor. William Winter, The Life and Art of Edwin Booth (1894; rev. ed. 1906), is a deeply appreciative analysis of Booth's technique and temperament. Asia B. Clarke, The Elder and Younger Booth (1882), is still an interesting study of the professional and personal lives of the Booth acting family. A good brief account of Booth and other tragedians of his time is in Garff B. Wilson, A History of American Acting (1966).

Additional Sources

Oggel, L. Terry, Edwin Booth: a bio-bibliography, New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Players (Club), Edwin Booth's legacy: treasures from the Hampden-Booth theatre collection at the Players, New York: Hampden-Booth Theatre Library, 1989.

Smith, Gene, American gothic: the story of America's legendary theatrical family, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Tebbel, John William, A certain club: one hundred years of The Players, New York: Wieser & Wieser, 1988. □

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