On this day in 1833, the great actor Edwin Booth was born. He is sadly most remembered as the brother of John Wilkes Booth — the assassin of President Lincoln. But that was an issue on which the two greatly disagreed. In fact, Edwin was very much a unionist. So as the Civil War continued on, tensions increased. I recall reading some time ago that John wasn’t even allowed in Edwin’s house by the time of the assassination.
The radicalization of John is not hard to understand. It happens today. People don’t commit acts of terrorism on a lark. They normally are at the end of a long process, during which the radical moves further and further away from his traditional friends and family and toward an insular group. It must have been sad for Edwin and the rest of the family to watch.
Interestingly, Edwin Booth saved Lincoln’s oldest son Robert shortly before John assassinated the president. A large crowd on a train platform pushed Robert off into the well between it and the departing train. He might have been crushed, but Edwin grabbed him by the collar. Robert discussed the event years later; he seemed to remember it primarily because Edwin was a star. It would be as if George Clooney pulled you out of the way of a speeding car. But even better: George Clooney pulled you out of the way of a speeding car and then his sister Ada killed your father. Such an event might stand out in your mind.
Edwin Booth was extremely important in the history of American theater. He was one of the leaders of the change toward a more naturalistic performance of Shakespeare. In addition to acting technique, that meant a change in the canon. While his father Junius was known for his lead in Richard III, Edwin’s signature play was Hamlet — a part he repeated into his late fifties.
Booth died young, like most of his family. But despite his death in 1893, we have a recording of him. It is less than 50 seconds long, and much of it is unintelligible. It is a speech by Othello when he is describing how he and Desdemona fell in love. I’ll present the lines first and then the recording:
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
I don’t know about you, but it sounds to me quite a bit like Boris Karloff. That’s probably just because people tend to perform Shakespeare with a British accent. It is also true that Booth did a lot of touring throughout the English speaking world. And Karloff wasn’t that much later than Booth, and so was probably influenced by the same acting trends that Booth was setting.
Happy birthday Edwin Booth!