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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) Playbill for the performance of the three Booth brothers in Julius Caesar-Photo-B&W.jpg (120545 bytes) Junius, Edwin & John Wilkes Booth in Othello-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (129465 bytes)
Winter Garden Theatre Julius Caesar Playbill The three brothers in 
Julius Caesar
Booth Theatre-Engraving-B&W-Resized.jpg (251274 bytes) First Playbill at Booth's Theatre.jpg (318081 bytes) Charles Witham's scene painting for Booth's 1869 Hamlet-color-Resized.jpg (656178 bytes)
Booth Theatre First Playbill at
Booth's Theater
Witham's set design for Hamlet at Booth Theatre
Articles belonging to Edwin Booth 2.jpg (344945 bytes) Edwin Booth's dressing-room, Broadway Theatre, December, 1889 by Arthur Jules Goodman-Resized.jpg (164998 bytes) Articles belonging to Edwin Booth 1.jpg (313486 bytes)
Articles belonging to Edwin Booth Booth's dressing room
Broadway Theatre
December 1889
Articles belonging to Edwin Booth

Edwin Booth as Benedict-Engraving-B&W-Resized.jpg (154965 bytes)

Edwin Booth studio shot sitting in chair with hand in coat-photo-tinted-Resized.jpg (273576 bytes)

Edwin Booth as Hamlet in 1887, age 54-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (105962 bytes)

as Benedick as Hamlet in 1887, 
age 54
Edwin Booth as Richard III-Illustration-B&W-Resized.jpg (140415 bytes) Edwin Booth as Bertuccio-Engraving-B&W-Resized.jpg (174773 bytes) Edwin Booth as King Lear-Illustration-B&W-Resized.jpg (153641 bytes)
as Richard III as Betuccio in
The Fool's Revenge
as King Lear
Edwin Booth as Iago-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (109240 bytes) Ewin Booth as Iago-postcard-Resized.jpg (235562 bytes) Edwin Booth as Iago-Photo 2-B&W-Resized.jpg (140989 bytes)

as Iago

Edwin Booth-Portrait 2-B&W-Resized.jpg (150519 bytes) Edwin Booth's portrait by Sargent-Resized.jpg (128086 bytes) Edwin Booth as older man_Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (130680 bytes)
Sargent portrait that hangs in The Players
Edwin Booth-as Brutus after the Bust by J.C. Hartley-Resized.jpg (146479 bytes) Edwin Booth as Richard III sketch_during assasination attempt-B&W-Resized.jpg (236530 bytes) Launt Thompson bust of Edwin Booth as Hamlet-Resized.jpg (106815 bytes)

bust as Brutus

sketch of assasination attempt bust as Hamlet
Ewin Booth as Richelieu,Painting by John Collier-Resized.jpg (90477 bytes) Ewin Booth as Richelieu-postcard-Resized.jpg (198357 bytes) Edwin Booth as Richelieu-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (147884 bytes)

as Richelieu

Edwin Booth in 1889, age 56-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (118654 bytes) Edwin Booth in long coat-Portrait-B&W-Resized.jpg (123643 bytes) Edwin Booth (1833-1893) Portrait as older man-B&W-Resized.jpg (120090 bytes)
Ewin Booth with grandgaughter in 1887, age 54-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (249129 bytes) Edwin Booth in his last years-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (242158 bytes) Booth Family Tombstone, Greenmount Cemetery, Baltimore, MD-Color-Resized.jpg (109722 bytes)
with granddaughter in his last days Booth family tombstone
Unveiling of Edwin Booth's Statue in Grammarcy Park-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (320650 bytes) Interior of the Players Club-Photo-Color-Resized.jpg (330764 bytes) Edwin Booth Statue in Grammercy Park-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (229510 bytes)
Unveiling of Booth's statue in 
Grammercy Park
inside The Players Club Booth's Statue in Grammercy Park

(click on the gramophone to hear Edwin Booth's recording of his Othello)

Othello, Act I Scene 3

Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors,
My very noble and approved good masters,

That I have ta'en away this old man's daughter,
It is most true; true, I have married her:
The very head and front of my offending
Hath this extent, no more. Rude am I in my speech,
And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace:
For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak,
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle,
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic,
For such proceeding I am charged withal,
I won his daughter.

Joseph Haworth & Edwin Booth

Edwin Booth played Ellsler’s theatre several times while Joe was working there. Joe played Laertes in Booth’s Hamlet, Cassio in Othello, and Edward IV in Richard III. Ellsler was sharing productions with a theatre in Pennsylvania at this time, so Joe and Edwin Booth toured there together and  became very close friends.

Here are three quotes from Joseph Haworth regarding Edwin Booth:

"I had the honor while still in my teens of supporting our own idol and ideal actor, Edwin Booth. I appeared in Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Macbeth; also in The Fool’s Revenge and Richelieu. My first meeting with Mr. Booth was while playing in John Ellsler’s stock company at the Euclid Avenue Opera House, Cleveland. To this latter gentleman I am indebted for my earliest years upon the stage and probably my most pleasant results since achieved.

"I had read of the tragedy that cast a mantle of blackness around our hero of the stage for a brief period and left the stamp of everlasting sorrow on his pale, intellectual brow and in his luminous eyes, and that served to create in our own imaginations the ideal Hamlet, Iago, and Lear. Naturally, when the announcement came that the great artist was coming to play at ‘our theater,’ I was much exercised and grew frightfully nervous---having been cast (for the first time) for Laertes, Cassio, and Edward IV in Richard III. Henry Flohr was Mr. Booth’s stage director, and he came two weeks in advance to lighten the labor of the master by drilling supernumeraries and giving the principals the stage business of the various plays. What troubled me was my anxiety to please in the foiling bout in the last act of Hamlet. I played the part with all the nervous force I possessed, and perhaps a little more; and---reaching the final scene---I met on the boards for the first time Edwin Booth, as Hamlet, face to face. There was something indescribable in that look; I was unnerved, and looked my discomfiture. My heart seemed to come up into my throat, but, as some one has said, I had "presence of mind to swallow it." Trembling visibly (Mr. Booth noted it), I tried to fence, but was too frightened. Mr. Booth smiled and said, "You’re all right my boy; begin. The encouragement of those sotto voce arguments was all I needed. I fought well, and when the final curtain was lowered Mr. Booth came, assisted me to rise, and said: "Young man, that is the first time the fight has gone perfectly the opening night." "I thank you," I choked in earnest, went to my room, disrobed, and shot home to my dear old mother to tell what Mr. Booth had said."

"Having in play accompanied him to Venice, Padua, Denmark, France, Verona, and England, at the conclusion of one performance he asked me with all his princely grace, to accompany him in person to supper. Hastily dressing I knocked on the door of Mr. Booth’s dressing room. Thrilling with varied emotions I announced modestly that I was ready to go.

" ‘Go?’ he asked. ‘Here’---and he produced a bag of peanuts and a pitcher of beer. This was not the ‘Feast of Lucullus,’ but by way of dessert he informed me, after a feast of reason and flow of bowl, I mean soul, that I was destined to become a genius.

"Elated beyond expression I bade him goodnight and hurried home, only to meet another disappointment, for on asking my mother the real meaning of genius she, with her usual frankness, quaintly replied: "It’s a very bad thing to have around the house."

"(Mr. Booth) was simplicity itself off the stage; quiet and retiring; deeply, not showily, intellectual; and at our club---The Players,’ which he gave us in his later years---he loved to conjure up memories of his youth and early struggles. Once, when I complained that the classic drama has gone to sleep (and as my aim had always been to excel in that line of endeavor I felt discouraged), he replied:

‘Look at the years I had accounted lost while in California. I could act then; I had all the enthusiasm of youth---rosy hopes, great ambitions, etc; yet I could not convince the people I was a good actor. But, you see, it was a foundation I was laying upon which to build my future temple. I am now old and they are paying five and ten dollars a seat, and I cannot act at all. Yet it sometimes occurs to me that art should be encouraged more heartily in its budding infancy.’"

"Booth’s Iago was subtle and thoroughly Venetian in tone; his Richelieu the most finished I had ever seen; his Lear a masterpiece; The Fool’s Revenge perhaps his greatest performance. Brutus, in The Fall of Tarquin, was also a superb performance when he was minded to enact it."

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