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Booth, Edwin (1833-1893)


Born November 13th, 1833 in Maryland, Edwin Booth had an affinity for the acting world; he was named after the actors Edwin Forrest and Thomas Flynn, and his father, Junius, was a British actor who took Edwin with him on theatrical tours of the United States. Father and son developed a close relationship, although "to see to it that that erratic genius [Junius] did not break his engagements, murder someone, or commit suicide during his times of intoxication and half-insanity was a heavy responsibility for the fragile youth and made [Edwin] grave, serious, and melancholy beyond his years. His wayward father loved him deeply and would yield to the lad's suasion when deaf to the entreaties of all others" (Bates).

From 1855 to 1860 Booth performed in Boston and New York City while also touring the southeastern United States. His "triumphant" performance of Sir Giles Overreach greatly enhanced his reputation, as did various performances at Burton's Metropolitan Theatre in New York City. In 1860 he married actress Mary Devlin.In 1864, after the death of his wife, Booth became manager of the Winter Garden and bought the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. In his review of Booth's performances, Henry Clapp, Jr. asserts that Booth has "given us a series of hard, dry, woe-begone characters which (except in a few purely domestic scenes which he renders attimes with great delicacy and sweetness), are like certain under-toned pictures of mountain scenery which represent the loneliness of the scene without giving any idea of its wildness of its beauty" (Clapp "Untitled" 11 Oct. 1862). Indeed, this was not the only moment where Clapp wrote about Booth. Clapp followed the actor’s career closely “expending buckets of ink” writing articles in “exhaustive and worrying detail” (Martin 84).

While some Pfaffians found little to admire in Booth, there were others who felt he had great talent. Edward G. P. Wilkins felt that Booth had "the true fire of genius which needs but time, industry, and study to place its possessor in the very rank of living tragedians" (qtd. in T. Miller 63). Andrew C. Wheeler considered Booth to be "the greatest artist upon the American stage," although "he limited such praise to those of the actor's roles which demanded intellectual rather than physical or emotional force. Wheeler thought that to see Edwin Booth delineate Richard III and Iago was to see the best acting of which our stage was capable" (T. Miller 152). Booth floated heavily among the Pfaff’s group, being particularly close to Fitz Ludlow (Martin 59). Justin Martin counts Booth as a member of the “Bohemian set” stating that Booth “moved in this same circle and became friends [...] with Clapp, Aldrich, Winter, and others” (56). Booth and William Winter also corresponded frequently and openly (Watermeier). Booth was also “a frequent guest at receptions held at the tenth street studio” (172). Mark Lause also places Booth in Pfaff’s for Adah Isaacs Menken’s reception of Mazeppa, seated at the same table as Whitman, Ada Clare, and Fitz-James O’Brien (113).

Booth finished his hundredth night as Hamlet at the Winter Garden Theatre on March 20, 1865, but one month later he retired from the stage after his brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. He reluctantly returned to the Winter Garden stage in 1866: "[h]is sufferings had been dreadful, and it is thought that nothing but the pressure of financial obligation would have induced him to return to the stage" (Odell 8:20). Fortunately, the audience was friendly and did not hold him responsible for his brother's actions.

After the Winter Garden burned to the ground in March 1867, Booth began building what came to be known as "Booth's Theatre" in New York City. In 1869 he was married for the second time to Mary McVicker, another actress. She quit performing after their marriage and slowly went insane before finally dying on November 13, 1881. Unfortunately, Booth's professional success was not matched by financial stability and "the most artistic theatre in America met financial disaster during the panic of 1873-74" (Bates).

From that time forward, Booth never had a permanent home as an actor. His acting ability seemed to decline along with his health and by the age of forty "his acting...often seemed tired; his voice, always his weakest point, tended to become monotonous; his gestures became more formal" (Bates). In 1877 Booth, with the help of William Winter, organized a collection of his better known plays for publication. They were published in 1878 as Edwin Booth's Prompt Book . Booth continued working until two years before his death. On April 4, 1891 he stepped on stage for the last time to perform Hamlet at the Academy of Music in Brooklyn, New York.