You are here

Edwin Booth



The greatest tragedian of the American stage in the 19th century, Booth was heir to legacy of a great acting family. His father Junius Brutus Booth rivaled Edwin Forrest as the the finest Shakespearean to emerge in the United States before the Civil War. Booth's brother, John Wilkes Booth, the actor-assasin of Abraham Lincoln, cast a shadow over his brother's work in the wake of the war imbuing it with great psychology profundity. While Booth became the definitive Hamlet of the last half of the century, his beginnings did not foretell this eminence.

Brought on the stage at the age of sixteen to work with his father in "Richard III," Edwin Booth did not impress. He came into his own as a performer only after his father's death and an 1855 tour in the Australian provinces gave him time to internalize his roles. On the eve of the war he won critical plaudits for his impersonation of Iago, Richard III, Sir Giles Overreach, and Hamlet, yet a penchant for drink made performances inconsistent. He would quit the bottle in 1863 upon the death of his wife. The year before he had become manager of the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City and made it the central house in the performance of classic repertory in the country. Booth's ability as a financial overseer, however, were limited and he would lose the theater and bankrupt himself in 1874.

Incessant touring repaired Booth's personal fortune, and the support of professional colleagues from Europe, Henry Irving, Tomasio Salvini, Helen Modjeska, Adelaide Ristori made him the greatest and bested supported tragedian to be seen in New York (at Booth's Theatre) and by provincial audiences in North America and Britain. In the twilight of his career he founded The Players Club and provided its accommodation in his own Manhattan property. He retired from the stage two years before he died. David S. Shields/ALS