American Tragedian: The Life of Edwin Booth. By Daniel J. Watermeier. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2015; Pp. 464.
More has been written on Edwin Booth than any other American actor. Three popular biographies lionize Booth in the late-nineteenth century. Another four in the mid-twentieth century, one of which (Prince of Players, 1955) was even made into a movie, perpetuate his tragic legacy. Charles Shattuck’s several, more scholarly, works on Booth, beginning in the late 1960s, revived interest. In the last quarter century, fascination with Booth has grown: Gene Smith’s American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Family—Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth and L. Terry Oggel’s Edwin Booth: A Bio-Bibliography (both in 1992), Nina Titone’s My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy (2010), Arthur W. Bloom’s Edwin Booth: A Biography and Performance History (2013), the more popularly focused Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth (2005) by James Cross Giblin and The Assassin’s Brother: The Tragedies of Edwin Booth (2013) by Rebecca Wallace. With Between Actor and Critic: Selected Letters of Edwin Booth and William Winter (1971), Daniel J. Watermeier established himself as a formidable archivist and an authority on Edwin Booth. American Tragedian, dedicated to the memory of his mentor Shattuck, represents the culmination of Watermeier’s lifework on Booth and the American theatre. He effectively contextualizes the period, details the events, and explores the strengths, limitations, and temperament of “the last truly great American tragedian and Shakespearean actor” (362).
Several recent works primarily and reductively view Edwin through the lens of his infamous brother. American Tragedian addresses the assassination in only six pages and wisely keeps the spotlight on the titular Booth. When Edwin returned to the stage a year after Lincoln’s death forced an early retirement, “It was as if the American psyche, scarred by years of war and then the shocking assassination of an esteemed president, needed to invest its collective suffering into a single individual. . . . Booth’s personal suffering . . . became emblematic of the nation’s suffering” (127). Watermeier honors the inescapable impact of John Wilkes’ act, but unwavering focus on Edwin encourages a more complex understanding of both the actor and the country. Previous Booth biographies often privileged limited aspects of his career, but Watermeier’s study is remarkably comprehensive. Readers finally experience Booth’s complete story, with scrupulous accuracy and documentation.
Watermeier is at his best when he contextualizes and analyzes, fully capitalizing on the forty-year relationship with his subject and sources. Edwin as Hamlet wore his father’s portrait on a chain around his neck. When Watermeier posits, “It was as if his own father was King Hamlet, a tangible memento stimulating a complex emotional memory that fueled the believability of Edwin’s performance” (22), we receive genuine insight not only into Booth, but also into an acting process decades ahead of its time. Watermeier skillfully contextualizes the complex and often contradictory responses to Booth in his analysis of the “Joint Star” tour with Lawrence Barrett (a pair he convincingly identifies as pioneering “theatrical capitalists” ), which closely coincided with President Grover Cleveland’s own “Good Will Tour.” Cleveland had chosen not to intercede in the impending executions of anarchist assassins convicted in the 1886 Haymarket Riot, and “against these local events, Booth as Brutus [in Julius Caesar]—whether heroic martyr or tragically misguided conspirator—may have had a special resonance with Chicago playgoers” (322), polarized in their response.
If the book has a weakness, it lies in synthesis and interpretation. Too often Watermeier merely reports weekly theatres, roles, and box-office receipts, in lieu of complex analysis. Watermeier details the powerful connection that Booth shared with his audiences—an affinity that sometimes reached the level of obsession. Booth’s physical beauty, combined with his passionate and soulful portrayals, especially fascinated a number of young women and men who returned dozens of times to view his performances, to connect with him on a personal level, and to write voluminously and fanatically in their attempts to comprehend, if not demystify, his magical power. While Watermeier reports the fascination, he never truly grapples with the reasons behind it.
Booth was born with a lucky caul, yet tragedy clung to him. Booth entered the profession when the first generation of serious American actors were in decline. Criticized for lacking tragic power, he aspired to a refined and intellectual approach that fortuitously matched temperament with the soon-to-be-dominant middle class and the sacred domain of the cultural elite. Booth consciously sought to elevate and ennoble audiences through repertoire selection, realistic stagecraft, and popular publishing of his acting texts. He built and managed Booth’s Theatre, arguably the finest in the world, to showcase his artistic ambition; yet, he was undone by bad choices and timing: “He did clearly put his trust too readily into the wrong partner and financial advisors, and, equally damaging, he overestimated his ability through hard work and substantial income to control the situation and unforeseen events—principally, the Panic of 1873” (175). In choosing his title, and in the focus of his study, Watermeier sees Booth as tragic, and tragedy did follow the actor in the death of his father, two wives, and infant son, as well as a crippling carriage accident, John Wilkes’ shooting of Lincoln, and an assassination attempt on his own life. Yet Watermeier frequently reveals playfulness, and often deliberate anti-intellectualism, in Booth’s private correspondence and poetry. Booth said of himself, “I was always of a boyish spirit. . . . But there was always an air of melancholy about me that made me seem much more serious than I ever really was” (358). Watermeier lets Booth’s self-assessment pass without comment or analysis, yet this contradiction between the man and his public perception seems key to a complete picture. While somewhat conservative and traditional, American Tragedian remains scrupulously researched and documented, accessibly written, and complete in scope. This comprehensive biography presents the clearest picture yet of its endlessly compelling and maddeningly elusive hero.