EDWIN BOOTH

This article was originally published in Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, Volume IV. Anonymous. Cambridge: University Press, 1910. p. 239.

BOOTH, EDWIN [THOMAS] (1833-1893), American actor, was the second son of Junius Brutus Booth, and was born in Belair, Maryland, on the 13th of November 1833. His father (1796-1852) was born in London on the 1st of May 1796, and, after trying printing, law, painting and the sea, made his first appearance on the stage in 1813, and appeared in London at Covent Garden in 1815. He became almost at once a great favourite, and a rival of Kean, whom he was thought to resemble. To Kean's Othello nevertheless he played Iago on several occasions. Richard III, Hamlet, King Lear, Shylock and Sir Giles Overreach were his best parts, and in America, whither he removed in 1821, they brought him great popularity. His eccentricities sometimes bordered on insanity, and his excited and furious fencing as Richard III and as Hamlet frequently compelled the Richmond and Laertes to fight for their lives in deadly earnest.

Edwin Booth's first regular appearance was at the Boston Museum on the 10th of September 1849, as Tressel to his father's Richard, in Colley Cibber's version of Richard III. He was lithe and graceful in figure, buoyant in spirits; his dark hair fell in waving curls across his brow, and his eyes were soft, luminous and most expressive. His father watched him with great interest, but with evident disappointment, and the members of the theatrical profession, who held the acting of the elder Booth in great reverence, seemed to agree that the genius of the father had not descended to the son. Edwin Booth's first appearance in New York was in the character of Wilford in The Iron Chest, which he played at the National theatre in Chatham Street, on the 27th of September 1850. A year later, on the illness of the father, the son took his place in the character of Richard III. It was not until after his parents' death that the son conquered for himself an unassailable position on the stage. Between 1852 and 1856 he played in California, Australia and the Sandwich Islands, and those who had known him in the east were surprised when the news came that he had captivated his audiences with his brilliant acting. From this time forward his dramatic triumphs were warmly acknowledged. His Hamlet, Richard and Richelieu were pronounced to be superior to the performances of Edwin Forest; his success as Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts surpassed his father's. In 1862 he became manager of the Winter Garden theatre, New York, where he gave a series of Shakespearian productions of then unexampled magnificence (1864-1867), including Hamlet, Othello and The Merchant of Venice. The splendour of this period in his career was dashed for many months when in 1865 his brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Lincoln. The three Booth brothers, Junius Brutus (1821-1883), Edwin and John Wilkes (1839-1865), had played together in Julius Caesar in the autumn of the previous year--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. Edwin Booth did not reappear on the stage until the 3rd of January 1866, when he played Hamlet at the Winter Garden theatre, the audience showing by unstinted applause their conviction that the glory of the one brother would never be imperilled by the infamy of the other.

In 1868-1869 Edwin Booth built a theatre of his own--Booth's theatre, at the corner of 23rd Street and 6th Avenue, New York--and organized an excellent stock company, which produced Romeo and Juliet, The Winter's Tale, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Much Ado about Nothing, The Merchant of Venice and other plays. In all cases Booth used the true text of Shakespeare, thus antedating by many years a similar reform in England. Amost invariably his ventures were successful, but he was of a generous and confiding nature, and his management was not economical. In 1874 the grand dramatic structure he had raised was taken away from him, and with it went his entire fortune. By arduous toil, however, he again accumulated wealth, in the use of which his generous nature was shown. He converted his spacious residence in Gramercy Park, New York, into a club--The Players'--for the elect of his profession, and for such members of other professions as they might choose. The house, with all his books and works of art, and many invaluable momentos of the stage, became the property of the club. A single apartment he kept for himself. In this he died on the 7th of June 1893. Among his parts were Macbeth, Lear, Othello, Iago, Shylock, Wolsey, Richard II, Richard III, Benedick, Petruccio, Richelieu, Sir Giles Overreach, Brutus (Payne's), Bertuccio (in Tom Taylor's The Fool's Revenge), Ruy Blas, Don Cesar de Bazan, and many more. His most famous part was Hamlet, for which his extraordinary grace and beauty and his eloquent sensibility peculiarly fitted him. He probably played the part more often than any other actor before or since. He visited London in 1851, and again in 1880 and in 1882, playing at the Haymarket theatre with brilliant success. In the last year he also visited Germany, where his acting was received with the highest enthusiasm. His last appearance was in Brooklyn as Hamlet in 1891. Booth was twice married: in 1860 to Mary Devlin (d. 1863), and in 1869 to Mary F. McVicker (d. 1881). He left by his first wife one daughter, Edwina Booth Grossman, who published Edwin Booth: Recollections (New York, 1894).

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