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Booth-Barrett Combine

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Booth / Barrett Combine

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Edwin Booth

Lawrence Barrett

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Edwin Booth-as Brutus after the Bust by J.C. Hartley-Resized.jpg (86064 bytes)

Lawrence Barrett (1838-1891) as Cassius-Illustration-B&W-Resized.jpg (80657 bytes)

Edwin Booth as Brutus after the bust by J.C. Hartley  Lawrence Barrett as Cassius

Edwin Booth_Hamlet_head sketch-B&W-Resized.jpg (56964 bytes)

Lawrence Barrett as Ghost in Hamlet-Engraving-B&W-Resized.jpg (64254 bytes)

as Hamlet as the Ghost of Hamlet's father

Booth / Barrett Combine

In the 1880’s, Edwin Booth’s career was experiencing a downturn. The closing of Booth’s Theatre on April 30, 1883 was the result of profligate spending artistically and poor business management. Although Mr. Booth continued to draw large crowds on tour and in New York, critics often called his methods old fashioned when compared to the mercurial Henry Irving. Booth was also criticized for shabby production values and weak supporting actors.

Yet Booth remained America’s acknowledged leading actor, his closest rival being the superb Lawrence Barrett. Just five years younger than Booth, Barrett had a huge following and devoted partisans, but there was only room at the top for one great American actor of the classic school. To Barrett’s frustration, he was never able to overtake Edwin Booth’s leadership.

In August 1885, Booth visited Barrett at his home in Cohasset, MA. At a social gathering one afternoon, Barrett exclaimed that he would be willing to work for fifty years without making any money if he could be considered the head of his profession. Booth asked: "Well Larry, after you get this leadership, what do you think it’s worth?"

"You ought to know. You have it," was Barrett’s retort.

"Leadership has its thorns," Booth replied shaking his head.

Remarkably, during the same visit Larry Barrett suggested that he and Booth tour together. An excellent businessman, Barrett offered to handle all the management details that Booth found so difficult. Further, Barrett suggested that the best actors available be recruited for the supporting players. As for himself, Larry Barrett volunteered to play secondary roles to Booth’s leads. It was profound gesture, almost unprecedented in the history of great acting rivalries.

They set off on tour together in September of 1887. Barrett risked everything by doubling the ticket prices for this unique theatrical event, but the unprecedented three-dollar top was gladly paid. The success of the Booth Barrett Combine had the effect of depressing business for all other theatrical events that season. When a full length portrait of Booth’s Richelieu gesturing with three fingers was hung in the Players, Maurice Barrymore quipped: "It’s the old man raising the ticket price to three dollars."

Barrett took on all of the day-to-day tasks of running the tour. Clara Morris stated that Larry Barrett became "agent, stage-manager, friend, co-worker, and dramatic guardian angel" to Edwin Booth, and "all he asked of him in return was to act." It should be noted that Barrett gave luminous performances night after night, alternating the roles of Othello and Iago with Booth, and supplying a commanding Ghost to Mr. Booth’s Hamlet, among others.

The partnership continued until shortly before Barrett’s death in 1891. In an extraordinary act of self-effacement, Barrett had rekindled Booth’s fading powers and reawakened his genius. American theatergoers were treated to a last burst of brilliance from the century’s greatest actor. Barrett’s final role on stage was as de Mauprat opposite Booth’s Richelieu. It was a performance that Larry Barrett was unable to finish.

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