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Showing Off

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Edwin Booth as Hamlet, his most famous role

In the summer of 1860 the family was living in Philadelphia, supported by Edwin—who was already, still short of twenty-seven, the most highly acclaimed, and perhaps the most highly paid, actor in America. John, dependent on his brother, mortified that at twenty-three he had accomplished nothing, frantic to shine, was determined to carve out his own career as a star by touring nationally in the roles in which Junius and then Edwin had triumphed. But to Edwin it seemed preposterous—and potentially bad for business—that his less talented, less experienced, and less reliable younger brother might be competing with him in the major Eastern cities, which he more or less ruled. Laying down the law, he divided the country in half—he would perform in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington; John Wilkes would be free to make his way in New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, Charleston, and the many other cities of the South and West.

Edwin felt he was being generous; John Wilkes—not surprisingly, given his sense of himself as being undervalued and patronized—was enraged by what he saw as a heavy-handed move to suppress him. It is this incident upon which Titone most heavily depends to support her theory that the “rivalry” between the brothers was central to John’s later actions—

The one thing Edwin was determined to prevent was his brother’s acting in New York; that city was Edwin’s domain, and no other Booth would be allowed to knock him from his pedestal there. The star wanted no competition from a younger, handsomer copy

—all this while acknowledging that Edwin “knew he could beat John in the realm of talent—his brother lacked a natural gift.” She doesn’t see that Edwin’s precautions made sense, and not only for himself: John badly needed more stage experience before facing East Coast audiences and critics.

Despite what Titone sees as this ingenious plot to stifle his brother, Edwin—starring in the Marshall Theatre where John was still performing as an extra—invited him to play Horatio to his own Hamlet and Othello to his Iago. Assuming as usual that Edwin’s motives were questionable, Titone suggests that “it was almost a cruel trick on Edwin’s part, to force a comparison between his own ability and his brother’s inexperience.” (Edwin can do nothing right.) But Edwin didn’t need to resort to trickery to underline John’s lack of ability.

Occasionally critics would recognize in the younger man sparks of Junius’s genius—like his father, he would explode into thrilling melodramatic moments, particularly in scenes involving swordplay. “He would have flashes, passages, I thought of real genius,” wrote Walt Whitman. And the supposedly unsympathetic Edwin, seeing John in a popular melodrama, would exclaim to a friend, “He is full of true grit. I am delighted with him.” And “when time and study rounded his rough edges, he’ll bid them all ‘stand apart.’” But John’s overwrought and limited approach, as opposed to Edwin’s revolutionary realism and profound response to poetry, doomed his future as an actor. The theater was evolving rapidly away from the old-fashioned declamation of his father’s day.

When in 1862 John defied Edwin’s proscription and, taking advantage of his brother’s absence in England, presented himself as a star in Boston and New York, the results were predictable: the critics were almost universally severe. “We have no place,” the Boston Daily Advertiser pronounced, “for a professed vocalist who should be false in intonation, wrong in accent and in rhythm, inaccurate in phrasing, imperfect in vocal method and deficient in quality of tone, though his person and action might be pleasing to the eye.” By December, he was back in Chicago, where he “was catering less to critics than to the boot-stomping hordes who enjoyed [his] swordplay.” For two years or so he was able at times to command enthusiastic audiences and large fees.

He was also indulging more and more publicly in his anti-Lincoln, anti-Union rhetoric. “What a glorious opportunity there is for a man to immortalize himself by killing Lincoln!” he was overheard saying, suggesting that his strongest impulse was less political than a desire to gain the fame and glory that by this time he must have realized would not come to him through his art.

His moods, Titone writes, “became darker and more intense,” as did his displays of belligerence. On a train in August 1864, John Sleeper Clarke, Asia’s husband and a close associate of Edwin’s, made a disparaging remark about Jefferson Davis, and John instantly grabbed him by the neck and began choking him, his face “twisted with rage,” and then cried, “Never, if you value your life…speak in that way to me again of a man and a cause I hold sacred.” It does not come as a surprise that John T. Ford, proprietor of the theater where Lincoln would be shot, remarked of John that he “was animated by a pride that contained elements of insanity.”

It was at this time, when he was allowing his acting career to peter out, that John was approached and co-opted by Confederate agents plotting against Lincoln and his administration. Fervently flinging himself into their plans, he took charge of their idea of kidnapping the President and holding him hostage. Gathering a small cadre of conspirators around himself, and clearly enjoying the cloak-and-dagger aspects of what he was planning, he came close to pulling it off, but by the time Lee surrendered at Appomattox and Richmond was captured by the Union army, kidnapping would have come too late. Swiftly, John determined on assassination, his justification being that Lincoln was planning to install himself as an American monarch, not only destroying the South but destroying American democracy itself. On April 14, 1865, he acted.

After the fatal shooting in Ford’s theater, the dramatic leap to the stage clutching a dagger to the cry of “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Ever thus to tyrants”), and throughout the agonizing twelve-day manhunt that culminated in his being shot to death by soldiers in a flaming barn on a farm in northern Virginia, John clung to the belief that he had committed a magnificent act of heroism and self-sacrifice. Almost his final words as he lay gasping his life out were “Tell my mother I die for my country.”

The world’s verdict, however, even in the defeated Confederacy, was that he was neither a hero nor a patriot but a madman and a villain. Colonel Adam Badeau, General Grant’s aide-de-camp and for decades Edwin’s closest friend, saw things from a different perspective. John, he felt, was first and foremost an actor, and this murder was first and foremost a piece of acting. “It was all so theatrical in plan and performance,” he was to write. “The conspiracy, the dagger, the selection of a theater, the cry ‘Sic semper tyrannis‘—all was exactly what a madman brought up in a theater might have been expected to conceive.”

John Wilkes Booth’s most thorough and persuasive biographer, Michael W. Kauffman, in his American Brutus (2004), summed him up succinctly:

By April 14, all he could do was sacrifice himself for the Cause, or accept the fact that his Unionist friends had been right about him all along—that he was a hotheaded loser who only talked while others gave their lives. Booth could not bear the thought of life as a former actor…or a pale shadow of his brother Edwin. His choice was made.

The Booth family was shattered by John’s act. Edwin was in Boston when he was awakened with the news and, disguising himself to avoid the rage of the populace, he rushed to New York in order to comfort his mother, who was in an anguish of grief—Johnny had always been her favorite. Now she could only pray that he would be killed on the run, to avoid the horror and disgrace of being hanged. Junius Jr. only barely escaped being lynched by a mob in Cincinnati, and was soon imprisoned for two months on suspicion of conspiring to kill the President. Asia Clarke, in the late stages of a dangerous pregnancy, was under house arrest, with a soldier assigned to follow her from room to room. Her husband, too, was held for months in prison.

These indignities were minor compared to the way scores, perhaps hundreds, of suspects were treated in the immediate wake of the assassination. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took charge of the pursuit of the murderer and determined the methods used to obtain convictions of the conspirators; to begin with, the trial was to proceed as a court-martial, not under civil law. Kauffman describes conditions aboard the warships in which many prisoners were secured, most of them held without specific charges:

The Sec’y of War requests that the prisoners on board the iron clads…shall have for better security against conversation a canvas bag put over the head of each and tied around the neck with a hole for proper breathing and eating but not seeing.

The prisoners were also constrained by wrist irons, bolted in place, so that they couldn’t use their hands. Not since 1696, Kauffman points out—and not again until 2001—would prisoners in America be treated this way.

Thanks to Edwin’s reputation and his friends in high places—he had succeeded, uniquely among actors, in gaining acceptance by America’s social elite—he was never arrested, but he was certain that he could never appear on a stage again. (The entire acting profession felt itself endangered.) Titone blames Edwin for being concerned about this: “He interpreted Lincoln’s murder as a direct attack on the celebrity he worked so hard to win.” Immediately he issued a public statement:

My detestation and abhorrence of the act in all its attributes, are inexpressible; my grief is unutterable…. I shall struggle on in my retirement, bearing a heavy heart, an oppressed memory and wounded name—heavy burdens—to my too welcome grave.

In the event, he was back on the stage in well under a year, accorded an idolatrous reception from admirers both inside and outside the Broadway theater in which he was opening as Hamlet, the role in which he had recently enjoyed an unprecedented run of one hundred consecutive performances, a record he retained until John Barrymore pointedly kept his 1922 production going for one hundred and one. Titone quotes a journalist who wrote that the enthusiasm for Booth was “so strange and unique it amounts to a positive psychological phenomenon—the niche in which his country’s heart has enshrined him was never filled before by mortal man.”

What was his quality as an actor? Never rant or fustian, but a calm intensity, a manifest identification with the characters he portrayed. He not only triumphed as Hamlet, whose melancholy temperament somewhat mirrored his own, but as Iago—baleful, conniving—and, grand and commanding, in the title role of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Richelieu. His standard repertory included Macbeth, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice; not only Richard III but Richard II, a play practically unknown in America. And despite his slight physical presence, he frequently played Othello, most famously in London, when he and England’s leading actor, Henry Irving, alternated Othello and Iago, with Ellen Terry as their Desdemona. At a time when theater was the nation’s dominant form of entertainment, he was the star of stars—treated everywhere as royalty.

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