CHAPTER XXXV. EDWIN BOOTH.
There are many persons who remember the elder Booth, the "Great Booth," as he was called, in his palmy days, when the bare announcement of his name was sufficient to cram our old-fashioned theaters from pit to dome. He was sublime in the stormy passions which he delineated, and never failed to draw down from the gods of the gallery the uproarious yells with which they testify their approval; even the more dignified occupants of the boxes found themselves breaking into outbursts of applause which they were powerless to restrain. He was a favorite with all classes, and a deserved one, and the lovers of the drama looked forward with genuine regret to the period when he should be no longer with them. They felt that the glories of the stage would pass away with him. It was in vain that they were told that he had sons destined to the same profession. They shook their heads, and said it was impossible that the mantle of the great tragedian should rest upon any of his sons, for it was then, as now, a popular belief that great men never have great children. How very much these good people were mistaken we will see in the progress of this chapter.
One of these sons was destined in the course of time to eclipse the fame won by his father, and to endear himself to the American people as a more finished, if less stormy, actor. This was Edwin Booth. He was born on his father's farm near Baltimore, Maryland, In 1833, and after receiving a good common-school education, began his training for the stage. The elder Booth was quick to see that his boy had inherited his genius, and he took great pains to develop the growing powers of the lad, and to incline them toward those paths which his experience had taught him were the surest roads to success. He took him with him on his starring engagements, and kept him about him so constantly that the boy may be said to have grown up on the stage from his infancy. He was enthusiastically devoted to his father, and it was his delight to stand at the wings and watch the great tragedian in his personations, and the thunders of applause which proclaimed some fresh triumph were sweeter to the boy, perhaps, than to the man.
In 1849, at the age of sixteen, he made his first appearance on the stage as Tyrrell, in "Richard III.," and gave great satisfaction by his rendition of the character. From this time he continued to appear at various places with his father, and in 1851 won his first great success in the city of New York. His father was playing an engagement at the Chatham Theater at the time, and was announced for Richard III., which was his masterpiece. When the hour for performance came, he was too ill to appear. The manager was in despair, for the house was filled with a large audience, who were impatient for the appearance of the humpbacked king. In this emergency Edwin Booth offered to take his father's place, and the manager, pleased with the novelty of the proposal, accepted it. Young Booth was but eighteen years old, and had not even studied the part, and it was a perilous thing to venture before an audience in a role in which one of his name had won such great fame. But he was confident of his own powers, and he had so often hung with delight upon his father's rendition of the part, that he needed but a hasty reference to the book to perfect him in the text. He won a decided triumph, and the public promptly acknowledged that he gave promise of being an unusually fine actor.
In 1852 Mr. Booth went to California, and engaged for the "utility business." He spent two years in careful and patient study in the humbler walks of his profession, learning its details, and doing much of the drudgery essential to a thorough knowledge of his art. In 1854, he went to Australia, and played a successful engagement there, stopping on his way at several of the Pacific islands. On his return, he played an engagement, with marked success, at the Sandwich Islands, and then went back to California.
In 1857 he returned to New York, and, on the 4th of May, appeared at Burton's Theater, in the character of Richard III. A writer who witnessed his performance on that occasion thus speaks of him: "The company was not strong in tragedy; the young actor came without reputation; the season was late. But he conquered his place. His Richard was intellectual, brilliant, rapid, handsome, picturesque, villainous. But the villainy was servant to the ambition—not master of it, as a coarse player makes it. The action was original; the dress was perfect—the smirched gauntlets and flung-on mantle of the scheming, busy duke, the splendid vestments of the anointed king, the glittering armor of the monarch in the field. His clear beauty, his wonderful voice—which he had not learned to use—his grace, his fine artistic sense, made all triumphs seem possible to this young man. Evidently there was great power in the new actor—power untrained, vigor ill directed. But what was plainest to be seen, was the nervous, impulsive temperament, which would leave him no rest save in achievement. He might come back to us a robustious, periwig-pated fellow, the delight and wonder of the galleries. He might come back the thorough artist, great in repose as in action. But it was clear enough that what he was then in Richard, in Richelieu, in Sir Edward Mortimer, he would never be again."
He followed this appearance by a general tour through the country, and returned to New York in 1858, where he won fresh laurels. In 1860 he reappeared at Burton's Theater, then called the Winter Garden, and added Hamlet to his role. He had improved greatly during the time that had elapsed since his last appearance at this theater, and had gained very much in power and artistic finish. The most critical audiences in the country received him with delight, crowded his houses, and hailed his efforts with thunders of applause. This season silenced all the critics, and placed him among the great actors of the American stage. He bore his honors modestly, and though he was proud of the triumphs he had won, they did not satisfy him. There were still greater successes to be achieved before the highest honors of his profession could be his, and it was upon these that his eye was fixed from the first. The applause which greeted him in every city in which he appeared only served to stimulate him to fresh exertions.
In the summer of 1861, he visited England, and played an engagement at the Haymarket Theater in London, where he was favorably received by the British playgoers. At the close of this engagement, he spent a year on the continent, in travel and in the study of his profession. He also made careful studies of the scenes of the great historic dramas of the English stage, both in England and on the continent, and of the dresses and other appointments needed for them. By thoroughly familiarizing himself with these details, he has been able to produce his plays with entire fidelity to history.
Returning once more to New York, he appeared at the Winter Garden, in the winter of 1863-64, in a series of Shakespearean revivals. He played Hamlet for over one hundred nights, and followed it during that season and the next with "Merchant of Venice" and "Othello" (in the latter playing the parts of Othello and Iago on alternate nights). During the same seasons he appeared also in "Richelieu," "Ruy Blas," "The Fool's Revenge," and "Don Cæsar de Bazan." These performances were extended into the season of 1866-67, when they were suddenly cut short by the total destruction of the Winter Garden Theater by fire on the night of the 23d of March, 1867. In this fire Mr. Booth lost his entire wardrobe, including many relics of his father, Kemble, and Mrs. Siddons.
The destruction of a theater has seldom drawn forth a more universal expression of regret than that which poured in upon Mr. Booth from all parts of the country. It was feared that the loss of his valuable wardrobe would be irremediable, as indeed it was in a certain sense. All over the Union a general wish was expressed that the great actor should have a new theater in some of our large cities, and one which should be worthy of his genius. Mr. Booth had chosen the city of New York for his permanent home, and after the destruction of the Winter Garden Theater began to arrange his plans for the erection of a new building of his own, which he was resolved should be the most magnificent and the best appointed theater in the world. The site chosen was the south-eastern corner of the Sixth Avenue and Twenty-third Street in New York, and in the summer of 1867 the work of clearing away the old buildings and digging the foundations of the new theater was begun. It was carried forward steadily, and the building was completed and opened to the public in January, 1869.
It is in the Rennaissance style of architecture, and stands seventy feet high from the sidewalk to the main cornice, crowning which is a Mansard roof of twenty-four feet. "The theater proper fronts one hundred and forty-nine feet on Twenty-third Street, and is divided into three parts, so combined as to form an almost perfect whole, with arched entrances at either extremity on the side, for the admission of the public, and on the other for another entrance, and the use of the actors and those employed in the house. On either side of these main entrances are broad and lofty windows; and above them, forming a part of the second story, are niches for statues, surrounded by coupled columns resting on finely sculptured pedestals. The central or main niche is flanked on either side by quaintly contrived blank windows; and between the columns, at the depth of the recesses, are simple pilasters sustaining the elliptic arches, which serve to top and span the niches, the latter to be occupied by statues of the great creators and interpreters of the drama in every age and country. The finest Concord granite, from the best quarries in New Hampshire, is the material used in the entire façade, as well as in the Sixth Avenue side.... The glittering granite mass, exquisitely poised, adorned with rich and appropriate carving, statuary, columns, pilasters, and arches, and capped by the springing French roof, fringed with its shapely balustrades, offers an imposing and majestic aspect, and forms one of the architectural jewels of the city."
In its internal arrangements the theater is in keeping with its external magnificence. Entering through a sumptuous vestibule, the visitor passes into the magnificent auditorium, which is in itself a rare piece of decorative art. The seats are admirably arranged, each one commanding a view of the stage. The floor is richly carpeted, and the seats are luxuriously upholstered. Three elegant light galleries rise above the parquet. The walls and ceiling are exquisitely frescoed, and ornamented with bas reliefs in plaster. The proscenium is beautifully frescoed and carved, and is adorned with busts of the elder Booth and the proprietor of the theater; and in the sides before the curtain are arranged six sumptuous private boxes. The curtain is a beautiful landscape. The decoration of the house is not done in the rough scenic style so common in the most of the theaters of the country, but is the perfection of frescoe painting, and is capable of bearing the closest examination. The stage is very large, and slopes gradually from the rear to the footlights. The orchestra pen is sunk below the level of the stage, so that the heads of the musicians do not cut off the view of the audience. The dressing of the stage is novel. The side scenes or wings, instead of being placed at right angles to the spectator as in most theaters, are so arranged that the scene appears to extend to the right and left as well as to the rear. In this way the spectator is saved the annoyance of often looking through the wings, a defect which in most theaters completely dispels the illusion of the play. The scenery here is not set by hand, but is moved by machinery, and with such regularity and precision that these changes have very much the effect of "dissolving views." The scenes themselves are the works of highly educated artists, and never degenerate into the rough daubs with which most playgoers are familiar. The building is fire-proof, and is warmed and ventilated in a peculiar manner. The great central chandelier and the lights around the cornice of the auditorium are lighted by electricity.
The plays presented here are superbly put on the stage. The scenery is strictly accurate when meant to represent some historic locality, and is the finest to be found in America. Perhaps the grandest stage picture ever given to an audience was the grave-yard scene in "Hamlet," which "held the boards" for over one hundred nights last winter. The dresses, equipments, and general "make up" of the actors are in keeping with the scenery. Even the minutest detail is carefully attended to. Nothing is so unimportant as to be overlooked in this establishment.
It is Mr. Booth's custom to open the season with engagements of other distinguished actors, and to follow them himself about the beginning of the winter, and to continue his performances until the approach of spring, when he again gives way to others. When he is performing, it is impossible to procure a seat after the rising of the curtain. Every available place is filled, and thousands come from all parts of the country to see him. Sometimes it is necessary to secure seats a week in advance.
Mr. Booth is still a young man, being now thirty-seven years old. In person he is over the medium height, and is well built. His hair is black and is worn long, and his dark eyes are large and dreamy. His face is that of a poet, strikingly handsome, with an expression of mingled sweetness and sadness playing over it. He wears neither beard nor moustache. He dresses simply and without ornament, and is grave and retiring in his demeanor. He is exceedingly amiable in disposition, and is the center of a large circle of devoted friends. He has been married twice, and has one child, a daughter, by his first wife. He is a man of irreproachable life, and in every thing a high-toned gentleman, and it is the high character he bears not less than his genius that has enabled him to do such honor to his profession. He is very wealthy, and is in a fair way to become a millionaire.
As an actor Mr. Booth is without an equal. His impersonations are marked by rare genius and by the most careful study. His Hamlet is perhaps his most finished part, as his Richelieu is the most popular with the masses. It has been said that his Hamlet is not Shakespeare's Hamlet, and this may be true: but it is so exquisite, so perfect, that whether it be the conception of Shakespeare or Edwin Booth, it is the most powerful, the most life-like counterfeit of "the melancholy Dane" ever seen on any stage, and leaves nothing to be desired. His personation of the grim old cardinal, whose decrepit body is alone sustained by his indomitable will, is masterly, and we see before us, not Edwin Booth, the actor of to-day, but the crafty, unscrupulous, witty, determined prime minister of France, who bends kings and princes to his will. It is absolutely life-like, and to those who have seen the portraits of the old cardinal in the museums of France, the accuracy with which Booth has counterfeited the personal appearance of Richelieu is positively startling. The plays are so superbly set upon the stage that we lose sight of the little space they occupy, and seem to be gazing upon a real world. His Richard has such a strong humanity in it, that it more than half vindicates the humpbacked tyrant's memory, and the death scene of this play, as given by Booth, is simply appalling.
It is in vain, however, that we select special characters or attempt descriptions of them. No one can truly understand Edwin Booth's acting without seeing it. He has studied his heroes so profoundly, analyzed their characters so subtly, and entered so heartily into sympathy with them, that he has, become able, by the aid of his wonderful genius, to entirely discard his own personality, and assume theirs at will.
Mr. Booth has steadily risen in power and finish as an actor, for his labors have been unceasing. Great as his triumphs have been, he does not regard himself as freed from the necessity of study. His studies have become more intelligent than in former years, but not the less faithful. He has the true artist's aspiration after the rarest perfection in his art, though to those of us without the charmed circle it is difficult to see how he can excel his present excellence. Yet that he does so we have undoubted proof, for we see him rising higher in the admiration and esteem of the world every year, and each year we gather fresh laurels to twine around his brows.
He has steadily educated his audiences, and has elevated the standard of his art among his countrymen. He has shown them what fine acting really is, and has taught them to enjoy it. He has kept them true to the legitimate drama, and has done more than any other man to rescue the American stage from the insignificance with which it was threatened. It speaks volumes for him as an actor and a manager, that when New York seemed wholly given up to ballet, burlesque, and opera bouffe, he was able to make the almost forgotten masterpieces of Shakespeare the most popular and most profitable dramatic ventures of the year.