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Jefferson, Joseph (1829-1905)

Actor, Playwright

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”).