He was the most famous actor in America. On the streets of New York, people stopped and stared when he walked by. When he toured the South, legislatures changed their meeting times so that everyone could see his performances. And no one played Hamlet like Edwin Booth.
Today, 120 years after his death, most people know Edwin Booth only as the brother of President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, if they know him at all. But he remains an important figure in the American theater, his onstage tragedies as great as his real-life ones. His natural, nuanced acting style was groundbreaking at a time when 19th-century thespians made a noisy career out of melodrama. He set a world record by playing Hamlet 100 nights in a row.
Booth also helped elevate the theatrical profession in the eyes of society, inspiring new respect for actors and creating an elegant gathering place for all artists. The Players, the New York social club that Booth founded in 1888, still hosts events in its Gramercy Park townhouse. And it's an honor to be chosen for the Edwin Booth Lifetime Achievement Award. Winners have included Kevin Spacey, Edward Albee, Jack Lemmon and Angela Lansbury.
The Assassin's Brother: The tragedies of Edwin Booth
I first heard of Edwin Booth while reading about the culture and arts of the Gold Rush, where he got his start as a young actor. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have spent a lot of time up in the hills and giant redwood trees of the Gold Country in eastern California. Both San Francisco and the Gold Country were rough and wild as the population exploded with hopeful miners in the 1850s – yet both areas swiftly became surprisingly cultured. Miners loved their Shakespeare, especially the tragedies. Up-and-coming actors like Booth, performing in the newly built theaters of San Francisco, saw vast opportunity in the makeshift saloon stages and tents up in the Gold Country.
I'm an arts journalist with a passion for history, so it was a joy to dig through old theater programs, photos, scripts and letters while researching this book. It's tragic that Edwin Booth's accomplishments have been so overshadowed by his brother's act of violence. Several people who have read “The Assassin's Brother” told me that they'd never heard of Edwin before. My main goal in writing the book was to help educate modern audiences about this great 19th-century artist, so that feedback is thrilling.
Now that I've gotten so immersed in the theater of the 19th century, I'm planning to write several more books about the stage stars and powerful theater owners of the time. The material is endless, and endlessly fascinating.