Best know for his portrayal of Asa Trenchard in Our American Cousin and Rip Van Winkle in Rip Van Winkle, Joseph Jefferson was one of the most popular comedians of his time. Born February 20, 1829 in Philadelphia, Jefferson was the son of actors and was introduced to the stage as a child. Jefferson made his adult debut in New York in 1849 at the age of twenty. His early New York successes led to a tour of the South and theatrical engagements in Baltimore and Philadelphia. In November 1856, Jefferson became a member of Laura Keene’s company, where he starred in several successful performances, including the "hit" Our American Cousin in October 1858 as Asa Trenchard (W. Eaton, “Joseph Jefferson”). Jefferson would often resume the role of Asa Trenchard and revive Our American Cousin throughout his career (Odell 7:128-129).
Jefferson’s wife died in March 1861, which appears to have prompted Jefferson to make his 1861 world tour. He spent four years in Australia acting and recovering from the loss of his wife. In 1865, Jefferson traveled to London where he acted in the new version of Rip Van Winkle that he had asked Dion Boucicault to write for him. The show debuted September 4, 1865 at the Adelphi Theatre in London "and Jefferson’s performance was immediately recognized as one of those rare and precious things which come only once in a generation" (W. Eaton, “Joseph Jefferson”). Jefferson debuted as "Rip Van Winkle" in New York on September 3, 1866 at the Olympic Theatre. Odell explains that "the opening of the Olympic on September 3, 1866, presented the New York Public a figure that was to dominate our comedy stage for nearly forty years - Joseph Jefferson’s impersonation of Rip Van Winkle, in the Boucicault version of the story" (8:138). Jefferson’s success in this role allowed him to regain his prominence on the New York stage despite his long absence and the debut of younger, new actors during this period. According to Odell, "posterity has no doubt as to who was the greatest American comedian of the second half of the Nineteenth Century" (8:138). That same season, Jefferson resumed the role of Asa Trenchard in Our American Cousin and received positive reviews from critics such as William Winter (Odell 8:139). At this stage of his career, Jefferson principally performed as Rip Van Winkle, becoming "the one-part actor par excellence" (Odell 8:279). In this role, he received positive reviews of his acting from papers like the New York Times, which stated that Jefferson’s Rip Van Winkle "holds high rank among the purest, the truest, and noblest illustrations of human nature and human sentiment that the present stage affords. In many important respects it more nearly approaches positive perfection than any single piece of acting now before the public" (qtd. in Odell 8:428). After 1866, Jefferson was often credited as "Joe Jefferson" as the American public "characteristically expressed their affection by refusing to ever call him Joseph" (W. Eaton, “Joseph Jefferson”).
Jefferson’s contemporaries had varying opinions of his talent and theatrical choices. Henry Clapp felt that Jefferson was one of "the finest actors in their lines" and "ranked Jefferson as having no equal as an eccentric low comedian: ’Genuine humor he has very little of; but he has a fine sense of the ludicrous, and in grotesque parts, whether in comedy, farce, or extravaganza, is really great’" (qtd. in T. Miller 36, 37). Stephen Rider Fiske, for whom Jefferson had played Rip Van Winkle in the 1878-1879 season, later criticized both Jefferson and Edwin Booth for "neglecting their profession," stating, "They come to New York, year after year, and expect people to go see them without ever presenting anything to attract the public...No playwright devises new comedies for Mr. Jefferson. He bought up Boucicault’s dramatizations of Rip Van Winkle and The Cricket on the Hearth years ago, and for such old farces as Lend Me Five Shillings he pays no royalties" (qtd. in T. Miller 120). Fiske leveled this criticism at Jefferson and Booth because he believed that their prominence in their profession should have prompted them "to establish an American school of acting or to develop the native drama" (120). Despite criticisms about his leadership of the American stage, when prompted by Oliver Wendell Holmes "to name the greatest, in [his] judgment, of American actors then prominent," William Winter responded that he "thought Comedy more exacting than Tragedy, and named the comedian Jefferson, then at the zenith of his wonderful career" (Winter, Old Friends 126).
Jefferson starred in over one hundred roles before performing consistently as Rip Van Winkle. Some of Jefferson’s performances and productions included Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickelby, Caleb Plummer in Boucicault’s Dot (an adaptation of Dickens’s Cricket on the Hearth), Twelfth Night, Salem Scudder in The Octoroon, Hans in Somebody Else, Dr. Pangloss in The Heir at Law, Mr. Golightly in Lend Me Five Shillings, and Bob Acres in The Rivals. Jefferson’s Autobiography remains one of the most prominent sources about Jefferson’s life, career, and the stage in the nineteenth century.
After seventy-one years on the stage, Jefferson ended his acting career in Patterson, NJ on May 7, 1904 in the role of Caleb Plummer in Lend Me Five Shillings. Jefferson became ill at his home in Palm Springs in the winter of 1904-1905 and died April 23, 1905. He was buried on Cape Cod (W. Eaton, “Joseph Jefferson”).
Belphegor compares Clarke's current performance in the Octoroon to Jefferson's potrayal of Salem Scudder (281).[pages:281]
Clare calls Jefferson the "mainspring" of the most recent production of the play Smike. Clare claims that when she sees Jefferson perform she "regret[s] deeply that I ever to have seen him disgrace himself as Asa Trenchard" (2).[pages:2]
Dodo writes in his review of Jefferson's performance in Our American Cousin that the "highest praise" is "to say that he made so utterly worthless and conventional a piece pleasing to the audience" (2).[pages:2]
Figaro reports that Jefferson is at the Adelphi in London, performing in a version of Rip Van Winkle written by himself and Boucicault (73).[pages:73]
Figaro reports that Mr. Duff was hoping to re-open the Olympic with Jefferson in the fall, but Jefferson is engaged at the Adelphi in London until mid-winter (9).[pages:9]
"When 'Nicholas Nickelby' was first acted in America, Joseph Jefferson made a great impression as Newman Noggs" (139).
"Dion Boucicault's version [of 'Dot', an adaptation of Dickens's Cricket on the Hearth] was done afterwards [after 1866] in New York at the Winter Garden Theatre, with . . . Joseph Jefferson (later to be famous as Rip Van Winkle) as Caleb Plummer" (204).
"Joseph Jefferson, in his 'Autobiography', says: 'The production [of Dombey and Son] at Burton's Theatre of 'Dombey and Son', by Mr. Brougham, was a curious combination of failure and success. Much was expected of Burton's Captain Cuttle, and to the surprise of the expectant critics and of Burton himself he did nothing with it'. . . .[Burton] went to work to study the part properly and made a magnificent hit, and according to Jefferson he was 'perfect' in a new version which he and Brougham concocted together. This version, published by French, soon got to London, and was acted 'everywhere'" (226).
Jefferson did the best Rip Van Winkle until 1884, when Fred Storey surpassed him (242).[pages:139,204,226,242]
Aldrich quotes Jefferson in a letter to W.H. Mabie in which he inquires about a dinner at The Aldine Club. Aldrich writes, "As dear old Joe Jefferson says, 'I want to know where I am at'" (172).[pages:172]
Identified as one of Pfaff's "guests" and referred to as one of the "luminaries of the stage" (61).[pages:61]
Jefferson is noted as a famous actor who was present at Pfaff's.[pages:60]
In 1857, Laura Keene starred in The Siam Light Guard as Mrs. Catchmug; Jefferson played her husband (55).[pages:36-37, 55, 96, 99, 112, 120]
Jefferson resumed his role as Asa Trenchard in Our American Cousin on Oct. 4, 1866. This performance received good reviews from William Winter (139). Jefferson continued to play the Olympic Theater for a good portion of that season (139).
The Olympic began the 1867-68 season under the direction of Mrs. John Wood with Jefferson in Rip Van Winkle (279). Odell reprints reviews of this season from the Times on p.279-80.
Jefferson also plays Rip van Winkle at Booth's during the 1868-69 season. Odell mentions that Jefferson's retirement ended the first season at Booth's (it is unclear is this statement means that Jefferson planned to retire completely or for the summer). Jefferson played Rip Van Winkle at the Brooklyn Academy in the 1869-70 season after having a successful run at Booth's (666).[pages:17,34,562(ill), 138-139,140,179,279-80,428,565,666]
As an actor, Odell refers to Jefferson as a "bright feature" at the National Theater in 1850-51(34). Jefferson is called an "admirable comedian." He is frequently on stage with Mrs. Jefferson during 1850-51 season. Jefferson left the National during the 1850-51 season when Lafayette Fox (Christopher Strap) came to the theater. Odell simply says that a theater couldn't expect to keep both of them (37).
Odell uses Jefferson as a source and refers to Jefferson's description of the performance of "Sir William Don" on the stage in 1850-51 season (5).
Odell also uses exerpts from Jefferson's Autobiography to discuss his 1851-52 performance of Twelfth Night. According to Jefferson, the revival at Burton's displayed performances that have not been so skillful since Shakespeare first wrote and performed the play. was Burton's first Shakespearean endeavor and was done on a highly elaborate scale (128).
Jefferson returned to the New York stage after an absence of several years in the 1856-57 season, Laura Keene's second season in her new theater(544).[pages:5,34,37,54,57,128,129,240,546]
Odell discusses his return to the stage with Keene's company for the 1857-1858 season. Jefferson had spent several years wandering in provencial theaters. Along with Booth, Odell describes Jefferson as one of the two most famous America actors; both appeared for the first time on the New York stage in the same year.
Jefferson's biography/autobiography describes the first production of Our American Cousin with Laura Keene. Odell often relies on Jefferon's own reflections about the theater and the people and shows he was part of for his information.
Jefferson claimed to have adaped Blanche of Brandywine with J.G. Burnett and also acted in the play. Jefferson was a part of the theatrical "frivolity" that accompanied the arrival of the Japanese ambassadors (1859-1860). The benefits he participated in indicate that he knew others who frequented Pfaff's.
Jefferson starred in Rip Van Winkle, "arranged by himself." Odell cites Jefferson's own account of the play at the Winter Garden and his struggles adapting the play on his PA farm.
Odell also makes comparisons between Jefferson and other actors. Odell makes mention of Jefferson's dramatic society. Jefferson's wife's death (March 1861) may have prompted his world tour in 1861; Jefferson does not return to the New York stage until 1866.[pages:30,37, 39,127,128(ill),129,152,210, 211, 214,217,222,223,262,309,315,317, 318-319, 321,345,386,388,617]
Personne discusses his performance in Ivanhoe at the Winter Garden (3).[pages:3]
Personne reprints Jefferson's announcement of Heron's performance in Oliver Twist at the Winter Garden (3).[pages:3]
Personne notes that there will be a benefit for Mr. Jefferson that evening (2).[pages:2]
Personne notes that as of the 124th performance of Our American Cousin, "Jefferson has some new gags" (2).[pages:2]
Personne mentions that Jefferson will soon be taking over Keene's theater for the summer (3).[pages:3]
Personne writes that Jefferson has made "a fairish play" not "entirely replusive to common humanity" (2).[pages:2]
Personne notes that "Awful" Jefferson's Summer season at Laura Keene's Theatre begins May 14 (3).[pages:3]
Personne comments on the plays Jefferson has chosen for Mrs. Wood's last evening at the Winter Garden (3).[pages:3]
Personne mentions him as a member of the new company at the Winter Garden (2).[pages:2]
Personne makes a reference to "Jefferson's Summer season" at Laura Keene's Theatre (3).[pages:3]
Personne mentions that there is a benefit for Jefferson that evening at Niblo's and encourages his readers to attend (2).[pages:2]
Personne reports Jefferson's failure to perform at H. Pearson's benefit after booking another engagement (2).[pages:2]
Jefferson's acting is one of the things Personne likes about The Octoroon (2). Personne also reports that "Awful" Jefferson has left the Winter Garden over a "difficulty" with Bourcicault and has been "reengaged" by Keene (3).[pages:2,3]
Jefferson is mentioned in Personne's review of Keene's company's performance of She Stoops to Conquer (2).[pages:2]
Personne notes that Jefferson is missing from Laura Keene's "stock-list" for the next season (3).[pages:3]
Personne mentions that he plays "a Yankee of an inventive turn of mind" in Bourcicault's The Octoroon (3).[pages:3]
Personne notes that Jefferson is playing "Newman Noggs" in the Winter Garden production of Nicholas Nickelby (3).[pages:3]
Personne reports that one of the "decrees" made at the Winter Garden to settle various disputes has been to make "Awful" Jefferson Stage Director (3).[pages:3]
Personne refers to him as "Awful Jefferson" (2).[pages:2]
Jefferson is mentioned as part of the cast in the last scene of the sketch of The Dark Hour Before the Dawn (3).[pages:3]
Personne reviews Jefferson's performance in Bourcicault's Chamouni III (3).[pages:3]
Personne mentions Jefferson's performance in Dot at the Winter Garden (2).[pages:2]
Personne claims that "Awful" Jefferson needs to give the public something better than Lesbia (3).[pages:3]
Personne writes that Jefferson will be at the Theatre Francais for the Summer season and he has been engaged for the next year at Mr. Stuart's theater (3).[pages:3]
Personne reviews Jefferson in Retained for the Defense, a farce produced at the Winter Garden for him (2).[pages:2]
Personne mentions "Awful" Jefferson in his discussion of the events at the Winter Garden. Personne also reports that he has "given out parts for Miss Heron's Lesbia" (3).[pages:3]
This article refers to a Jefferson who recently left Laura Keene's company.[pages:2]
Personne notes that Jefferson's benefit is tonight; his report was erroneous last week (2). Personne reports that Jefferson has been mentioned to as the new manager of a new theater that is yet to be founded (3).[pages:2,3]
Quelqu'un reports that at Laura Keene's Theatre "Jefferson is making so much money that he don't speak anymore to common people, but walks dreamily up and down Broadway, diligently engaged in not solving the great problem of life, and crying out, at intervals, as he jingles the coin in his pocket, 'Come on my Duff,/And damned be he who first cries "Hold, enough!"'" (3).[pages:3]
Quelqu'un reports that the Tycoon has had a "brilliant run at Jefferson's (3). He also reports that Our American Cousin will be performed next with the original cast (3). Quelqu'un mentions Jefferson's upcoming benefit and that he will debut his character "Paul Pry" (3).[pages:3]
Quelqu'un discusses the General's behavior at "one of the Jefferson-Wood soirees" (3).[pages:3]
Reports that Jo Jefferson has had a benefit. Also reports that he will be bringing out The American Cousin with "nearly the original cast" (3).[pages:3]
Makes a reference to "Awful's American Cousin," but refuses to say more (3).[pages:3]
Quelqu'un mentions that he has just seen Jefferson and Sothern in the new production of Our American Cousin (3).[pages:3]
Quelqu'un expresses a preference for Jefferson's comedic style (3). Quelqu'un mentions that Laura Keene's Theatre is now under Jefferson's direction and will soon produce O'Brien's Tycoon, or Young America in Japan (3).[pages:3]
Quelqu'un makes a passing reference to the "Awful Jefferson" and Dot (2).[pages:2]
Joseph Jefferson III made his chidlhood stage debut at the age of three in "Pizzaro,, or the Death of Rolls."[pages:414, 415(ill.)]
Of both Jefferson and Holmes, Winter writes: "There are some men whose minds pass quickly from solemnity to a kind of wistful playfulness. The comedian Jefferson was such a man. Holmes possessed the same sensitive, mercurial temperment, the same capability of instantaneous perception of the humorous side of serious things" (127-128).
In discussing Dickens' theatrical tastes and the author's preference for melodrama, Winter writes that Dickens ranked John H. Owen's performance in Solomon Shingle, a reality, above Jefferson's Rip Van Winkle. According to Winter, Jefferson's Rip Van Winkle, "in that actor's treatment of it, was poetry" (184).[pages:126,127-128,184]
The Vault at Pfaff's
27 Memorial Drive West, Bethlehem, PA 18015