Booth family

Definition

Theater

  • A distinguished US theatrical family - father, threesons, and a grandson - whose contribution to serious 19th-centurydrama was overshadowed by John Wilkes booth's assassination of PresidentAbraham Lincoln.

    The founder of the dynasty, Junius Brutus Booth (1796 - 1852),was born in London, the son of a lawyer, and joined a group of strollingplayers while still in his teens. Despite a poor physical appearance, he beganto play Shakespearean roles on the London stage from 1817, becoming a rival ofEdmund Kean, who usually bested him. He led a tempestuous love life,fathering two illegitimate children before he was 17. In 1821 he left his wifeand emigrated to America with a flower-seller, by whom he had 10 children. Herepeated his London successes with US audiences, becoming especially celebratedfor his Richard III and Shylock. He later suffered from bouts of madness andonce yelled at a shocked Boston audience, "Take me to a lunatic asylum!"He continued to tour successfully with his sons, however. He died from a virusafter drinking water from the Mississippi.

    Junius Brutus Booth Junior (1821 - 82) began acting in hisfather's productions in 1835 and subsequently joined the Bowery Theatre stockcompany. After his brother assassinated Lincoln, Junius was arrested as apossible conspirator. He eventually went to California to become a theatricalimpresario. His son Sydney Barton Booth (1873 - 1937) was also an actor andvaudeville star.

    Edwin Thomas Booth (1833 - 93), another son of Junius BrutusBooth senior, won an international reputation for his performances inShakespearean tragedy. He first appeared on stage in 1849 at the Boston Museum,playing Tressel to his father's Richard III. In 1851 his father refused toperform one evening and Edwin took his place, playing Richard III at the ageof 18. After his father's death, Edwin played many of Booth senior's classicroles before finally coming into his own in Boston and New York. His mostacclaimed roles included Hamlet (which he once played for 100 consecutive nights)and Shylock.

    Although he had a long-standing drink problem, which sometimescost him jobs, he became manager of New York's Winter Garden Theatrein 1863 and appeared there with his brothers, Junius and John Wilkes,in Julius Caesar (ironically, about the assassination of anational leader). When his brother assassinated Lincoln and was shotin turn, Edwin was devastated and retired for nine months.

    Edwin built Booth's Theatre at 23rd Street and Sixth Avenuein New York, opening it in 1869 playing Romeo to the Juliet of hissecond wife, Mary McVicker. His poor business sense, however, ledto bankruptcy in 1873 and the loss of the theater. He recouped hisfortune by touring internationally. In 1882 he and Irving alternatedin the parts of Othello and Iago at the Lyceum Theatre, London. Possiblyhis most successful appearances were made in Germany in 1883. In 1888he founded the Players' Club in New York and became its first president.

    John Wilkes Booth (1838 - 65) was the most handsome andvivacious of the Booth brothers. "I must have fame" hehad declared as a youth. He made his debut as Richmond in RichardIII in 1855 and achieved his first triumph in The Apostate(1860), in which his acting was so reminiscent of his father thatspiritualists suggested that Junius Booth's spirit had returned. Hisintense style of acting caused a sensation when he played RichardIII in 1882 in New York; he also broke all records at the Boston Museumplaying Pescara in The Apostate.

    He was, however, constantly in trouble for his Southern sympathiesduring the American Civil War; he was frequently threatened with dismissaland once had to swear allegiance to the Union after cursing the governmentwhile playing in St Louis. He assassinated President Lincoln on 14April 1865, during a production of Our American Cousin in Ford'sTheatre. Twelve days later he was cornered in a burning barnand shot.

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