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."
Edwin Thomas Booth (13
November 1833 – 7 June 1893) was a famous 19th century American actor. He was born near
Maryland into the English
American theatrical Booth
(Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, line 64).
Booth toured throughout America and to the major
capitals of Europe, performing Shakespeare; in 1869 he founded
in New York, a
spectacular theatre that was quite modern for its time. Some
theatre historians consider him the greatest American actor and
of the 19th century.
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
, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln
, was Edwin's younger brother
and was also an actor.
Edwin Booth as Iago, c.1870
early appearances he usually performed alongside his father, making
his stage debut as Tressel in Richard III in Boston,
Massachusetts in 1849.
1870 engraving of Booth as
Two years later, Edwin had his
first starring role, standing in for his supposedly ailing father
father's death in 1852, Booth went on a worldwide tour, visiting
Australia and Hawaii, and finally
gaining acclaim of his own during an engagement in Sacramento,
California in 1856.
Before his brother assassinated the president, Edwin had appeared
with his two brothers John Wilkes and Junius Brutus Booth Jr. in
John Wilkes played Marc Antony
, and Junius
. 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
Park just south of the Promenade.
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.
to 1867, Booth managed the Winter Garden Theater in
City, mostly staging Shakespearean tragedies. In 1865, Booth purchased the Walnut Street
Theatre in Philadelphia.
assassination 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
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
In 1867, a fire damaged The Winter Garden Theatre, resulting in the
building's subsequent demolition.
fire at The Winter Garden Theatre, Booth built his own theatre, an
elaborate structure called Booth's
Theatre in Manhattan, which opened on February 3, 1869 with a production
of Romeo and Juliet
starring Booth as Romeo, and Mary
McVicker as Juliet.
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
Theatre in 1874. After the bankruptcy, Booth went on another
worldwide tour, eventually regaining his fortune.
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
Cemetery in Baltimore.
Booth founded the
Players in New York
City, 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
Academy. He died in 1893 at the Players, and was
buried next to his first wife at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Edwin Booth and Robert Lincoln
In an interesting coincidence, Edwin Booth saved Abraham Lincoln's
, from serious injury
or even death. The incident occurred on a train platform in
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
a chamber in Mammoth
Cave in Kentucky 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
. Booth's voice is barely audible with all the
surface noise, but what can be deciphered reveals it to have been
rich and deep.
of Booth can still be found around Bel Air,
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
, still stands and was bought in 2006 by Harford County,
Maryland, to become a museum. A statue of him stands in Gramercy Park in New York
City 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
and bombastic, favoring characters such as Richard III
, Edwin played more
, 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
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
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
Theatre, 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 Theatre Lab in Minneapolis, and presented in New York at
Booth's former home on Grammercy Park, 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
Tragedian, by playwright and actor Rodney Lee Rogers, is a one-man show about
Booth that was produced by PURE Theater
SC, in 2007.
It was revived for inclusion in
the Piccolo Spoleto
Arts Festival in
May and June 2008.
- 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]."
- William Winter. Life and Art of Edwin Booth. MacMillan
and Co., New York. 1893) pp. 48-49.
- Morrison, Michael A. 2002. "Shakespeare in North America". In
Wells and Stanton (2002, 230–258). p.235-237
- Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man In His Own Right by John S. Goff, p.
- 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.
- Ben Brantley, "Acting Up a Storm As a Stormy Actor Known for
Acting Up," The New York Times, 24 January 1994.
- "The Brothers Booth is one of Riverside's Best
Premieres," John J. Buettler, The Bristol Pilot, 19 March
- "Brothers Booth! is a Play with Merit at the
Riverside," Ken Bolinsky, Philadelphia Courier Times, 15
- History of the Bristol Riverside Theatre, at
- Dr. Clive Swansbourne, quoted on the cover of The brothers
Booth by Marshal Bradley. (Authorhouse, 2004).
- "Theatre Review: The Tragedian", William Bryan,
Charleston City Paper, 30 January 2009.