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Edwin Booth

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Edwin Booth

"his impersonation of Hamlet was vital with all the old fire, and beautiful with new beauties of elaboration. Surely the stage, at least in our time, has never offered a more impressive and affecting combination than Mr. Booth’s Hamlet of princely dignity, intellectual stateliness, glowing imagination, fine sensitiveness to all that is most sacred in human life and all that is most thrilling and sublime in the weird atmosphere of ‘supernatural solicitings,’ which enwraps the highest mood of the man’s genius!" William Winter

Booth, Edwin [Thomas] (1833-1893) American actor/manager and second son of the elder Junius Brutus Booth. He was born on November 13th on the Booth family farm in Belair, Maryland, and is best remembered as one of the greatest performers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He was a member of a famous family of actors. His father Junius Brutus (1796-1852) achieved popularity second only to that of Edwin Forrest. His two brothers were Junius Brutus, Jr. (1821-1883) and John Wilkes (1839-1865), the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. Edwin however out shown all of them and is universally recognized as the greatest tragedian of the 19th century American stage.

At the age of 13 he accompanied and chaperoned his eccentric father on his acting tours where he endeavored to keep him sane and sober, at the same time absorbing the rudiments of acting. On September 10, 1849 at the age of 16, he made his acting debut at the Boston Museum playing Tressel to his father’s Richard in Colley Cibber’s version of Richard III. His performance met with his father’s disappointment and members of the theatrical professional, who holding Junius Brutus in great reverence, agreed that his genius had not been passed onto the son. A year later Edwin made an unobtrusive New York appearance as Wilford in The Iron Chest at the National Theatre in Chatham Street. It was not until the following year that he received any attention when at the last minute he filled in for his ailing father as Richard III. In 1852, under the management of Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., Edwin accompanied his father on a tour to California. It was when his father left to return to Maryland and died on route later that year that he began to establish an unassailable position for himself on the stage. He remained on in California playing San Francisco, Sacramento and barnstorming through the California mining towns. In 1854-55, he toured Australia and the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). It was on these tours that he mastered virtually all of the roles for which he would become famous, notably Hamlet, Cardinal Richelieu, and Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts. Those who had known him back East were surprised when news came that he had captivated his audiences with his brilliant acting. On his return to New York in 1857 he was billed as "the hope of the living Drama." His season not only included Hamlet, Richelieu and Sir Giles Overreach, but also King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, The Lady from Lyons and Othello (in which he played Iago to Charles Fisher’s Moor) as well as several now forgotten works. From this time forward his dramatic triumphs were warmly acknowledged. His Hamlet, Richard III, and Richelieu were pronounced to be superior to the performances of Edwin Forrest and his success as Sir Giles Overreach surpassed his father. But for all his praise, Booth had not yet overcome the unruly temperament inherited from his father. His acting was occasionally fuddled by drink, leading critics to say that even as fine as his acting may be in one scene there is no guarantee that he will not walk feeble through the next, and let it go by as if by default. In 1860, he married the actress Mary Devlin, by whom he had his one surviving child, a daughter, Edwina. It was the double shock of Mary’s untimely death in 1863 and his failure to be at her side because he was too drunk to respond to the summons of friends that henceforth made him abstemious.

By 1862, when he took over management of the Winter Garden Theatre his acting had improved, although the critics still complained about the unevenness of his performances. While at the Winter Garden he mounted many highly praised Shakespearean productions at the house. In all cases Booth used the true text of Shakespeare, thus antedating by many years a similar reform in England. On November 25, 1864, all three Booth brothers (Edwin as Brutus, Junius Brutus as Cassius and John Wilkes as Marc Antony) appeared together for the only time in their careers in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar. 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. The following night on November 26th, Edwin began a 100-consecutive nights performance as Hamlet, the longest run the play had ever had until that time. He was thereafter identified with the part for which his extraordinary grace and beauty and his eloquent sensibility peculiarly suited him. Less than a month later, when John Wilkes assassinated President Lincoln, Edwin went into retirement and did not appear on the stage for nearly a year. The incident was a blow from which Edwin’s spirit never recovered. When on January 1866, he reappeared as Hamlet at the Winter Garden Theatre, the audience showed by unstinted applause their conviction that the glory of the one brother would never be imperiled by the infamy of the other.

When the Winter Garden Theatre was destroyed by fire, Booth built his own theatre (Booth's Theatre) on the southwest corner of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street, opening it on February 3, 1896, with Romeo and Juliet. That same year, his Juliet, Mary McVicker became his second wife. But her nervous instability made for an unhappy marriage. With an excellent stock company, Booth mounted many successful Shakespearean and other productions including Romeo and Juliet, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Much Ado About Nothing. Unfortunately, with the playhouse sitting on the edge of the main theatre district combined with a lack of business acumen and a generous and confiding nature, his ventures were unsuccessful and he lost the theatre in 1873. With the raising of the grand dramatic structure in 1874, Booth lost everything and at the age of 40, declared bankruptcy.

Ultimately by hard work he recovered from his loses and again accumulated wealth. He toured the country and from 1880 to 1882 performed successfully in England and Germany. Booth first acted in London in 1861 and when he returned in 1880, his appearances at the Princess Theatre were near failures until Henry Irving, star and manager of the much superior Lyceum Theatre, invited him to costar at the theatre in what proved to be a memorable engagement with the two actors alternating Othello and Iago. In 1882, Booth played England again and the next year toured Germany where the acclaim given his Hamlet, Iago and King Lear (considered, after Hamlet, his finest roles) made the German engagement the peak of his career.

On his return from Europe, his financial affairs improved permanently when, in 1886, he formed partnerships with the Helena Modjeska, Madame Ristori and Tommaso Salvini. But it was several extensive US tour in association with business and acting partner Lawrence Barrett from 1886-91 that is the most noteworthy. In 1888, his generous nature was exemplified when he converted his spacious residence on Grammercy Park into a Club (The Players) for actors and eminent men in other professions. He retained an apartment there until his death. His  farewell stage performance was as Hamlet in 1891 at the Academy of Music in Brooklyn. He died on June 7, 1893. A statue of Edwin Booth was erected in 1918 in Grammercy Park opposite the Players, making Booth one of the rare actors so honored. Booth stood about five feet six inches tall. His black hair, dark complexion, brown eyes, and sad mouth gave him a slightly Latin or Semitic appearance. Among the roles that he played over the course of his career were Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Iago, Shylock, Wolsey, Richard II, Richard III, Benedick, Petruccio, Richelieu, Sir Giles Overreach, Brutus (Payne’s), Bertuccio (in Tom Tyler’s The Fool’s Revenge), Ruy Blas, Don Cesar de Bazan and his most famous part, Hamlet.

Booth’s personal life was as plagued by tragedy as any of the characters he portrayed. His father and several other close family members died insane; both his wives died young; his brother’s murder of Lincoln gave him his blackest moment; and financial and drinking problems often beset him. Quite possibly it was the daunting distractions of his personal life that determined his conservative approach to acting. His acting style was quieter than his father’s has been and became increasingly more sensitive and subdued. Unlike Edwin Forrest, he never sought to promote native plays; unlike Barrett, he never risked reviving obscure or neglected masterpieces. From early on he recognized that he had only small ability in comic or in basically romantic plays. Tragedy was his forte, and he remained content with his reasonably large but relatively safe repertory.

(click on photo to enlarge)

Edwin Booth's Birthplace in Belair, Maryland-Illustration-B&W-Resized.jpg (271853 bytes)

Junius Brutus Booth from photo by Sarony-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (126437 bytes)

Junius Brutus & Edwin Thomas Booth-1849-Photo 2-B&W-Resized.jpg (150974 bytes)

Birthplace in Belair, MD Booth's father
Junius Brutus Booth
father & son, age 13
Junius Brutus Booth-Resized.jpg (137794 bytes) Junius Brutus Booth-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (114434 bytes) John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865)-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (67542 bytes)
Junius Brutus Booth Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. John Wilkes Booth
Edwin Booth at 19, from a painting by A. Andrews-Resized.jpg (120856 bytes) Edwin Booth in 1852, age 19-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (133740 bytes) Edwin Booth in 1854, age 21-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (102600 bytes)
Painting, age 19 1852, age 19 1854, age 21
Edwin Booth after his return from California, 1857-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (141878 bytes) Mary Devlin Booth-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (133003 bytes) Edwin Booth at the time of his marriage to Mary Devlin,1860-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (140493 bytes)
After his return from CA, 1857, age 24 Mary Devlin 1860, at the time of his marriage to Mary Devlin
Mary Devlin Booth with Edwina in London, 1862-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (125644 bytes) Edwin Booth (1833-1893) sketch-B&W-cropped&resized.jpg (279974 bytes) Edwin Booth with Edwina, about 1864-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (121700 bytes)
Mary Devlin Booth & daughter Edwin, London 1862 Edwin & daughter Edwina, 1864
Edwin Booth-Portrait-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (132168 bytes) Edwin Booth in 1864, age 31-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (102320 bytes) Edwin Booth in 1864_Age 32-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (126798 bytes)
1864, age 32
Edwin Booth (1833-1893) sketch in overcoat-B&W-cropped&resized.jpg (232082 bytes) Edwin Booth-Portrait in suit sitting-B&W-Resized.jpg (189602 bytes)
with daughter Edwina sketch Portrait
Edwin Booth-sitting in chair smoking pipe-Engraving-B&W-Resized.jpg (117943 bytes) Edwin Booth_Hamlet_head sketch-B&W-Resized.jpg (56964 bytes) Edwin Booth as Hamlet-Sketch-B&W-Resized.jpg (138528 bytes)
Ewin Booth as Hamlet-postcard-Resized.jpg (203762 bytes) 100-consecutive Performance of Hamlet Program by Booth-Resized.jpg (77061 bytes) Ewin Booth as Hamlet holding chain-postcard-Cropped & Resized.jpg (144401 bytes)
Edwin Booth as Hamlet-later in life-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (130825 bytes) Edwin Booth Cameo as Hamlet-tinted-Cropped&Resized.jpg (225506 bytes) Edwin Booth as Hamlet-Sketch-B&W-Resized.jpg (138528 bytes)
Edwin Booth (1833-1893) as Hamlet in chair-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (141686 bytes) Edwin Booth as Hamlet,Standing-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (117893 bytes) Edwin Booth (1833-1893) as Hamlet in chair-better-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (124428 bytes)

as Hamlet

Winter Garden Theatre-Sketch-B&W.jpg (246044 bytes)