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Edwin Booth as Hamlet, in the position on the throne where Booth is said to have begun the monologue: "To be or not to be, that is the question."
(Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, line 64).
Edwin Thomas Booth (13 November 1833 – 7 June 1893) was a famous 19th century Americanmarker actor. He was born near Bel Air, Marylandmarker into the English American theatrical Booth family. Booth toured throughout America and to the major capitals of Europe, performing Shakespeare; in 1869 he founded Booth's Theatre in New York, a spectacular theatre that was quite modern for its time. Some theatre historians consider him the greatest American actor and Hamlet of the 19th century.

Early life

Booth was the son of another famous actor, Junius Brutus Booth, an Englishman, who named Edwin and his brother, Thomas, after Edwin Forrest and Thomas Flynn, two of Junius's colleagues. John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, was Edwin's younger brother and was also an actor.


Edwin Booth as Iago, c.1870
1870 engraving of Booth as Hamlet
In his early appearances he usually performed alongside his father, making his stage debut as Tressel in Richard III in Boston, Massachusettsmarker in 1849. Two years later, Edwin had his first starring role, standing in for his supposedly ailing father as Richard.

After his father's death in 1852, Booth went on a worldwide tour, visiting Australia and Hawaiimarker, and finally gaining acclaim of his own during an engagement in Sacramento, Californiamarker in 1856.

Before his brother assassinated the president, Edwin had appeared with his two brothers John Wilkes and Junius Brutus Booth Jr. in Julius Caesar in 1864. John Wilkes played Marc Antony, Edwin played Brutus, and Junius played Cassius. It was a benefit show and the only time that the brothers would appear together on the same stage. The funds were used to erect a statue of William Shakespeare that still stands in Central Parkmarker just south of the Promenade. Immediately following the brothers Booth appearance in Julius Caesar, Edwin Booth commenced a production of Hamlet on the same stage that came to be known as the "hundred nights Hamlet", setting a record that lasted until John Barrymore infamously broke the record in 1922, playing the title character for 101 performances.

From 1863 to 1867, Booth managed the Winter Garden Theater in New York Citymarker, mostly staging Shakespearean tragedies. In 1865, Booth purchased the Walnut Street Theatremarker in Philadelphiamarker.

After Lincoln's assassinationmarker in April 1865, the infamy associated with the Booth name forced Booth to abandon the stage for many months, a period dramatized in the 1955 Richard Burton movie Prince of Players, which was adapted from the biography of the same name by Eleanor Ruggles (ISBN 0-8371-6529-6). Edwin, who had been feuding with his brother for a period before Lincoln's assassination, disowned him afterward, refusing to have John's name spoken in his house.

He made his return to the stage at the The Winter Garden Theatre in January 1866, playing the title role in Hamlet. Hamlet would eventually become Booth's signature role.

In 1867, a fire damaged The Winter Garden Theatre, resulting in the building's subsequent demolition.

Booth's Theatre

After the fire at The Winter Garden Theatre, Booth built his own theatre, an elaborate structure called Booth's Theatre in Manhattanmarker, which opened on February 3, 1869 with a production of Romeo and Juliet starring Booth as Romeo, and Mary McVicker as Juliet. Elaborate productions in Booth's Theatre followed, but the theatre never became a profitable or even stable financial venture. The panic of 1873 caused the final bankruptcy of Booth's Theatre in 1874. After the bankruptcy, Booth went on another worldwide tour, eventually regaining his fortune.

Later life

Booth was married to Mary Devlin from 1860 to 1863, the year of her death. He and Mary Devlin had one daughter, Edwina, born in 1862. He later remarried, wedding his acting partner, Mary McVicker in 1869, and becoming a widower again in 1881.

In 1869, Edwin acquired his brother John's body after repeatedly writing to President Andrew Johnson begging for it. Johnson finally released the remains, and Edwin had them buried, unmarked, in the family plot at Green Mount Cemeterymarker in Baltimoremarker.

In 1888 Booth founded the Playersmarker in New York Citymarker, a club for actors and others associated with the arts, and dedicated his home to it. His final performance was, fittingly, in his signature role of Hamlet, in 1891 at the Brooklyn Academymarker. He died in 1893 at the Players, and was buried next to his first wife at Mount Auburn Cemeterymarker in Cambridge, Massachusettsmarker.

Edwin Booth and Robert Lincoln

In an interesting coincidence, Edwin Booth saved Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert, from serious injury or even death. The incident occurred on a train platform in Jersey Citymarker, New Jerseymarker. The exact date of the incident is uncertain, but it is believed to have taken place in late 1864 or early 1865, shortly before Edwin's brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Lincoln.

Robert Lincoln recalled the incident in a 1909 letter to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine.

Booth did not know the identity of the man whose life he had saved until some months later, when he received a letter from a friend, Colonel Adam Badeau, who was an officer on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant. Badeau had heard the story from Robert Lincoln, who had since joined the Union Army and was also serving on Grant's staff. In the letter, Badeau gave his compliments to Booth for the heroic deed. The fact that he had saved the life of Abraham Lincoln's son was said to have been of some comfort to Edwin Booth following his brother's assassination of the president.


Grave of Edwin Booth
The Players' Club still exists at his home, at 16 Gramercy Park South.

There is a chamber in Mammoth Cavemarker in Kentuckymarker called "Booth's Amphitheatre" - so called because Booth actually entertained visitors there.

Booth left a few recordings of his voice preserved on wax cylinder. One of them can be heard on the Naxos Records set Great Historical Shakespeare Recordings and Other Miscellany. Booth's voice is barely audible with all the surface noise, but what can be deciphered reveals it to have been rich and deep.

Memories of Booth can still be found around Bel Air, Marylandmarker. In front of the court house is a fountain dedicated to his memory. Inside the post office there is a portrait of him. Also, his family's home, Tudor Hall, still stands and was bought in 2006 by Harford County, Maryland, to become a museum. A statue of him stands in Gramercy Parkmarker in New York Citymarker near his mansion.

Influence on acting

Edwin's acting style was a reaction against that of his father's. While the senior Booth was, like his contemporaries Edmund Kean and William Charles Macready, strong and bombastic, favoring characters such as Richard III, Edwin played more naturalistically, with a quiet, more thoughtful delivery, tailored to roles like Hamlet.

Modern dramatizations of Booth's life

There have been several modern dramatizations of the life of Edwin Booth, on both stage and screen. One of the most famous was the film The Prince of Players of 1955, with a screenplay by Moss Hart based loosely on the popular book of that name by Eleanor Ruggles, directed by Philip Dunn, starring Richard Burton and Raymond Massey as Edwin and Junius Brutus Booth, Senior, and also featuring Charles Bickford and Eva Le Gallienne (in a cameo playing Gertrude to Burton's Hamlet); the script depicted events in Booth's life surrounding the assassination of Lincoln by Booth's younger brother. Austin Pendleton's play, Booth - which depicted the early years of the brothers Edwin, Junius, and John Wilkes Booth and their father - was produced Off Broadway at the York Theatre, starring Frank Langella as Junius Brutus Booth, Senior, called "a psychodrama about the legendary theatrical family of the 19th century" by the New York Times; Pendleton had adapted this version from his earlier work, Booth Is Back, produced at Long Wharf Theatremarker, New Haven, CT, 1991-1992.

The Brothers BOOTH!, by W. Stuart McDowell, which focused on the relation of the three Booth brothers leading up to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was workshopped with David Strathairn, David Dukes, Angela Goethals, Maryann Plunkett, and Stephen Lang at The New Harmony Project,, and at The Guthrie Theatremarker Lab in Minneapolis, and presented in New York at Booth's former home on Grammercy Parkmarker, The Players and at the Second Stage Theatre in New York; and was premiered at the Bristol Riverside Theatre outside Philadelphia in 1992. A second play by the same name, The brothers Booth, which focuses on "the world of the 1860s theatre and its leading family" was written by Marshell Bradley and staged in New York at the Perry Street Theatre in 2004.

The Tragedian, by playwright and actor Rodney Lee Rogers, is a one-man show about Booth that was produced by PURE Theater of Charleston, SCmarker, in 2007. It was revived for inclusion in the Piccolo Spoleto Arts Festival in May and June 2008.

See also


  1. Based on the description in the Library of Congress for this photo, labeled: "Edwin Booth [as] Hamlet 'to be or not to be, that is the question', CALL NUMBER: LOT 13714, no. 125 (H) [P&P]."
  2. William Winter. Life and Art of Edwin Booth. MacMillan and Co., New York. 1893) pp. 48-49.
  3. Morrison, Michael A. 2002. "Shakespeare in North America". In Wells and Stanton (2002, 230–258). p.235-237
  4. Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man In His Own Right by John S. Goff, p. 70-71
  6. Charles H. Shattuck. "Shakespeare on the American Stage: From the Hallams to Edwin Booth." Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 29, No. 4 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Dec., 1977), p. 579.
  7. Ben Brantley, "Acting Up a Storm As a Stormy Actor Known for Acting Up," The New York Times, 24 January 1994.
  9. "The Brothers Booth is one of Riverside's Best Premieres," John J. Buettler, The Bristol Pilot, 19 March 1992.
  10. "Brothers Booth! is a Play with Merit at the Riverside," Ken Bolinsky, Philadelphia Courier Times, 15 March 1992.
  11. History of the Bristol Riverside Theatre, at
  12. Dr. Clive Swansbourne, quoted on the cover of The brothers Booth by Marshal Bradley. (Authorhouse, 2004).
  13. "Theatre Review: The Tragedian", William Bryan, Charleston City Paper, 30 January 2009.

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