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Joseph Jefferson

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Joseph Jefferson

"In Rip Van Winkle he evinces all his abilities and sounds the gamut of all quiet and natural emotions. He is no doubt the best comedian American has yet to produce, and probably unsurpassed in England, that nidus of comedians. His face and body were formed to inspire mirth, and this lends additional force to his rendering of pathetic parts. In Rip, for instance, the smile excited by his scarecrow figure actually forces more quickly the tear we bestow on his misery" Times, 1867

"In many important respects it more nearly approaches positive perfection than any single piece of acting now before the public." Times, a year later

"The magical charm of his acting was the deepest human sympathy and the liveliness and individuality by which it was irradiated Ė an exquisite blending of humor, pathos, grace and beauty." William Winter

Jefferson, Joseph (1829-1905) Beyond question the most popular and respected American comedian of the 19th century and the greatest of the Jeffersons, a famous Anglo-American family of actors who can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson (1732-1807), an actor with David Garrick and occasional manager of provincial English theatres. Joseph was born on February 20, 1829, in Philadelphia while his father was attempting, unsuccessfully, to manage a theatre there. Because of his lineage, the youngster was destined to become an actor, and did not wait long before making his debut at the age of four, performing alongside and mimicking the celebrated Thomas D. "Daddy" Rice, a comedian and the creator of the blackface form of comedy of the 1800s and early 1900s. His act included the song and dance "Jump Jim Crow".

He had little schooling and after his father died, when Joseph was thirteen, he toured the theatrical backwater with his actress mother. Within a few years he was playing major roles, in support to some of the greatest actors of the day, including Marrall to the Sir Giles Overreach of Junius Brutus Booth.

In 1853, he became stage manager of the Baltimore Museum, and a year later was hired by John T. Ford to manage a theatre in Richmond, VA. There he played with Edwin Forrest and other noted performers.

The turning point n his career came after his return in 1857 from a visit to London, when he was hired by Laura Keene as a member of her company. Under her aegis he scored notable successes as Dr. Pangloss in The Heir-at-Law and as Asa Trenchard in Our American Cousin. Moving to the Winter Garden, he consolidated his reputation when he played Caleb Plummer in Dot, Dion Boucicaultís dramatization of The Cricket on the Hearth, and Salem Scudder in Boucicaultís The Octoroon.

In 1859 he produced his own version of Washington Irvingís Rip Van Winkle, but it was unsuccessful. During a second trip to London he prevailed on Boucicault to give him a revised version. He played the new four-act adaptation with great success in London in 1865 for 170 nights in a row, and a year later in New York. The performance brought him fame and fortune, and for many years he played nothing else. A morality play, the story involves a man who drinks himself into a magical 20 year sleep and wakes to find that he has slumbered through the Revolutionary War. He is recognized neither by his wife nor his daughter in the changed world. The play end with Rip promising to stay sober and his wife Gretchen, promising she will be a better spouse. Not all the critics were pleased at first, but within a year his performances had been so refined and honed that even the Times. Which had been among the dissenters, were brought around.

In 1880 he produced his version of The Rivals, playing Bob Acres to the Mrs. Malaprop of Mrs. John Drew. While some critics condemned his rewriting of William Brinsely Sheridan, his performance was universally hailed and added one final portrait to his theatrical canon.

In 1893 he succeeded his friend Edwin Booth, as president of the Players. He made his last appearance, as Caleb Plummer, in 1904, ending a stage career of 71 years.

Jefferson was a man of slightly over average height. With a noticeably smallish head and long brown hair. Evan as a relatively young man his quizzical face was wizened. He had a prominent nose and chin, and described himself as presenting "a classical contour, neither Greek nor Roman, but of the pure Nut-cracker type. His beguiling Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson (1890) is filled with superb pictures of the theatre of his day and remains one of the landmarks in American theatrical writing.

Of his children, four went on the stage, the most distinguished being Charles Burke Jefferson (1851-1908), who served for a time as his fatherís manager.

(click on photo to enlarge)

Jefferson & Florence in "The Rivals"

as Bob Acres
in "The Rivals"

as Bob Acres
 in "The Rivals"

as Dr. Pangloss with daughter Joseph Jefferson & John S. Clark as Dr. Pangloss & Zekiel Homespun
in "Rip van Winkle"
in "Rip van Winkle"
in "Rip van Winkle"
"Rip Van Winkle"
Script jacket
in "Rip Van Winkle" "Rip Van Winkle"
script by John Kerr
title page
Tintype cameo portrait with signature unidentified character
Portrait Portrait as older man Portrait
Portrait Portrait Portrait
Joseph Jefferson before canvass Untitled color monotype by Joseph Jefferson Joseph Jefferson in old age

"Rip Van Winkle"

(To listen to Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle, clip on the gramophone)

A scene from "Rip Van Winkle", in the mountains, by Joseph Jefferson.

"Hey, Nada, Nada.
Whatís the matter with that dog?
Look at him there, he goes head over heels down the hill.
Something must scare that dog.
Aye, you pug!
Something mustíve scared him.
I never saw him do anything like that before. Huh.
Well, heíll find me again.

Well, here I was in the mountain.
Another night, hey.
These old trees begin to know me I reckon.
How are you old fellows?
Well, I like Ďem.
I like them trees, they keep you from the wind and the rain.
ĎCause they never froze me up.
When I laid me down falled on the flat of my back, I think they bowed their heads to me and said: "Go to sleep, Rip, go to sleep."

Ah, thereís a flash of lightening.
Old Hendrik Hudson is a lightening his pipe in the mountains tonight.
Now we hear him roll the big balls along the hill.
There they goes.
I was mighty on the other side of that old fella.
Now, I donít believe in him.
I hear the old women say that whenever thereís a storm in the mountain, old Hendrik Hudson and his crew are playing ten-pin along the mountain tops.
Rolling the balls along in the valley.
Ha, ha, I donít believe it.

Huh, whatís that?
Somethingís coming up the hill there.
What a queer looking thing is that.
All rolled up like a ball.
What a queer old man.
Hi. Hi, old fella.
Sit down. Whatís the matter with ya?
What? Donít you speak, old fella?
All right, I donít want to speak to you neither.
Who do you think you are that I want to speak to you anymore that what you want to speak to me.
What have you got in that keg?
Huh? I donít believe it.
Is it good sauce?
All right. You wan t me to help you off with that mountain, with that bottle? Then I donít do it.
Why would I help you. I never saw you before.
No, I donít want to see you again neither.
Have you got good sauce in there?
All, right, I help you off with it. All right, pick up my gun, pick up my gun and Iíll follow you along the mountain.
Get along old bull dog. Iíll follow you.
Ha, ha, what a queer lookiní old man.
There he goes.
All right, Iím coming, Iím coming."

Joseph Haworth & Joseph Jefferson

Throughout Joseph Haworthís career, Joseph Jefferson was an elder statesman in the American Theatre. Haworth was a leading man and a star in his own right, and consequently never acted with Joseph Jefferson. But Jefferson influenced an entire generation in the interpretation of contemporary American material, and in vehicles like Ye Earlie Trouble, Sue, and Shenandoah, Haworth borrowed from Jeffersonís naturalistic techniques.

Otherwise, Jefferson exemplified the one-part actor career that Haworth pointedly avoided. Jefferson played Rip Van Winkle throughout his professional life. It was a role the public expected to see Jefferson perform, and they were disappointed to see him in other characterizations. Similarly, Haworth easily could have made Paul Kauvar or Rosedale his signature plays, but he consistently elected to abandon these vehicles and return to the great challenge of roles like Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, Cassius, and Richelieu.

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