Tag Archives: John Wilkes Booth

Edwin Booth play cycle seeks to redeem the name of America’s greatest actor

Edwin Booth is arguably the most acclaimed, most beloved and most talented American actor to ever strut the boards, a tragedian who was a pioneer of naturalistic acting. Yet today that reputation is buried beneath the weight of his brother’s name: John Wilkes Booth.

It’s in part to pull Edwin out from under his brother’s shadow that local theater artist Angela Iannone began writing a series of plays featuring him at work: the Edwin Booth Cycle. But her four plays — the latest of which, The Seeds of Banquo, will soon make its world premiere in Milwaukee thanks to Theater RED — are more than just a PR campaign. They’re an opportunity to examine a time long past but not truly so different from our own, through the life of a man who examined and embodied it better than any other creative artist in the period.

“The history of America in the 19th century,” Iannone says, “is the history of the Booth family.”

Edwin was born into a clan that became one of the earliest theatrical families in America. In addition to himself and his brother John, Edwin’s father Junius Brutus Booth and elder brother Junius “June” Jr. were both actors, and his sister Asia married the actor John Sleeper Clarke. But Edwin towered over them all. “There was Edwin Booth and there was everyone else,” Iannone says. “He was that much better.”

Edwin had already become America’s most beloved actor by the time John assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 as part of an attempted coup. His brother’s crime nearly derailed Edwin’s career — he went into seclusion for eight months, only leaving his hotel room at night. But after that time, he wrote a public letter asking his audiences to permit him to return to the stage, as acting was the only gift he possessed and it was the only career he believed he could pursue. They did. His first show was a production of Hamlet, and when he walked on stage, Edwin received a 5-minute standing ovation.

Iannone says that in contrast to our modern era, where John’s name is legendary and Edwin’s is secondary, 19th-century audiences truly separated Edwin from his brother’s acts. “During that time period, America was not as fascinated either with evil or with murderers as they are now,” she says. No one had any interest in figuring out why evil people like John acted the way they did, she says, and because Edwin had a strict rule that John’s name never be mentioned in his presence, he never expounded upon it himself.

It’s a rule Iannone has tried to follow in her four plays about Edwin. Only one, This Prison Where I Live, explicitly deals with John’s ghost haunting Edwin — for Edwin truly believed his brother, along with his father and his first, beloved wife, were always with him as he went about his life. Her first, The Edwin Booth Company Presents…, features John but takes place in the 1850s, before the war; her third, Irving & Booth in Othello, is set long after the assassination. 

The Seeds of Banquo gets slightly closer, but only obliquely. Like all four of Iannone’s Booth plays, it depicts Edwin (John Glowacki) in rehearsal for a Shakespeare play — in this case, Macbeth, a meditation on the nature of evil that Edwin would have been uniquely suited for exploring. “Who better to be dealing with that kind of question than the older brother of the man who brought down a government?” Iannone asks.

All of Iannone’s plays share a devotion to presenting Edwin’s circumstances as they actually occurred, aided by Iannone’s access to the Hampden-Booth Theatre Library, the preeminent research library for 19th-century American theater and home to Edwin’s correspondence and promptbooks. Many playwrights would simply take the setting and write the rest themselves, but Iannone says she wants to stick with portraying things as they happened whenever possible. “The truth is so much more interesting and it’s also so much more strange,” she says.

For The Seeds of Banquo, Iannone will be following Edwin’s actual directorial notes for his 1870 production of Macbeth, and the set and technical elements will follow those same specifications. She’s also included alongside Edwin actual members of his cast — Lawrence Barrett (Cory Jefferson Hagen), second only to Edwin on stage; Elizabeth Crocker Bowers (Marcee Doherty-Elst), an acclaimed actress brought out of semi-retirement to play Lady Macbeth; and the young ingenue Minna Gale (Sasha Katharine Sigel). Shoehorned in is comic actor Owen Fawcett (Bryan Quinn), a contemporary who fortuitously was in a melodrama up the street in 1870 and could be easily inserted into the mix.

This particular production of Macbeth happened to coincide with the first pregnancy of Edwin’s second wife, which Iannone says she’s taken as an opportunity for Edwin to ponder questions of inheritance — critical ones both for him as an actor and for him as the brother of an assassin.

Iannone’s decision to produce the play here is a fortuitous one for several reasons, the greatest of which is that she’d had no anticipation of ever staging one of her Booth plays in Milwaukee, due to their period costuming needs, historical context and elevated language and motifs. The Edwin Booth Company Presents… was conceived and produced as a project for UW-Whitewater, while her other two plays have had readings and workshops in Milwaukee and at Door Shakespeare but were ultimately picked up for full stagings by Titan Theatre Company in New York City, with This Prison Where I Live produced in 2014 and plans to stage Irving & Booth in Othello in progress.

“There is not another theater in town who has a mission to explore plays with those particular parameters,” she says. “I’m not trying to be snarky on that. But Theater RED has a mission for exploring literary and intellectual content, positive roles for women and supporting local playwrights. Not only is that my only door in, that was my only interest.”

But Iannone was steered toward Theater RED after seeing their production of A Lady in Waiting, a Maid Marian-centric adaptation of the Robin Hood legend, decided to work with them on Banquo

ON STAGE

Theater RED will produce the world premiere of The Seeds of Banquo Aug. 13 to 23 at Soulstice Theatre, 3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave., St. Francis. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at
theaterred.com. A portion of all sales will be donated to the Players Foundation for Theatre Education in New York City.

Lessons of Lincoln’s death unlearned

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, a stunning series of events altered the course of American history.

On April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate army to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The surrender ended four years of a bloody civil war that took the lives of 750,000 Americans.

Five days later, on Good Friday, April 14, racist fanatic John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater in Washington. Lincoln, who was shot in the head, never regained consciousness and died the next morning in a rooming house across the street from the theater.

Booth had spent months gathering accomplices and plotting to murder the president. The final straw for him was the defeat of the Confederacy and the president’s plan to extend the vote to former slaves. Booth was also a narcissist, convinced he could avenge the South and become a hero — a modern day Brutus who had slain America’s Caesar.

A well-known actor, Booth was able to walk into Ford’s Theater and carry out his crime without hindrance. During his flight through Maryland, Booth was dismayed when he learned of the revulsion that his murder elicited in both the North and South. On April 26, the federal manhunt closed in and he was cornered in a barn in Virginia. Booth was shot in the neck and spent three hours dying. His last words were: “Useless, useless.”

Booth and his Confederate cohorts had feared Lincoln’s retaliation toward the defeated South. Like so many other things, they misjudged the character of the man. Just days before the surrender, when Grant asked Lincoln about what terms to impose on the rebels, Lincoln had said: “Let ’em up easy.”

Lincoln’s magnanimity was also apparent in his second inaugural address the month before: “With malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

The public had seen Lincoln as an awkward and untested man when he became president. He was immediately confronted with the secession of Southern states, which were determined to maintain and expand slavery, and the Confederates’ defiant shelling of Fort Sumter. Lincoln wrestled with unrelenting problems of military logistics, political maneuvering and personal tragedy over the next four years. You can see the growing devastation of our civil war written on his face in photos taken from 1861 to 1865.

Lincoln weathered many controversies (the military draft, emancipation, suspension of habeas corpus) but grew in stature as he led the Union to victory. His slaying on a Good Friday burnished his image as a beloved martyr, and he is now revered for broadening a war to preserve the union into a war to free millions of slaves.

We’ll never know if post-Civil War America and race relations would have had a smoother time under Lincoln’s second term. Some question whether we ever achieved his dream of “a new birth of freedom.” Confederate partisans continue to defend their spurious “cause” on the Internet today.

The events of April 1865 offer a sobering perspective on racism, inflexibility and extremism. Amid escalating political invective and casual calls for secession in our own time, we would do well to heed that lesson.

The Reps’ ‘Assassins’ aims to make a statement

Good theater makes a compelling statement, while great theater carries with it truths that stand the test of time. That’s the measuring rod that Mark Clements, artistic director for Milwaukee Repertory Theater, uses frequently.

Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” – a musical revue featuring history’s most infamous U.S. presidential assassins – received mixed reviews when it first opened in 1990. But its characters’ search for sudden celebrity and the show’s celebration of the country’s growing gun culture has more relevance today than ever before, Clements says. The Rep opens its 2012-13 season Sept. 4 with the controversial work.

“In the 22 years since it was written, I believe that the statement the piece makes has grown in importance,” says Clements, who also is directing the production. “It’s deeply rooted themes force the audience to look into the mirror of our society, one which nurtures and maybe even encourages the kind of disenfranchised people we encounter in the show.”

The disenfranchised characters are many, and some are better known than others. From Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth to Kennedy’s killer Lee Harvey Oswald, from Charles Guitreau, who shot James Garfield, to Leon Czolgosz, who murdered William McKinley, the stage is occupied by social miscreants who believe their right to happiness includes license to kill a U.S. president. In fact, “Everybody’s Got the Right” is one of the show’s signature numbers.

The narrative structure is a series of vignettes built around the slim history that’s available about the characters. The book by Sondheim collaborator John Weidman, adapted from an original work by Charles Gilbert Jr., uses both fact and conjecture to good effect in what Clements describes as a complex work.

“It’s a very rich, very nuanced and very apt satire,” Clements says. “There are definitely elements of comedy in it, but there is so much more to it than that. It’s hard to label it as purely a dark comedy.”

Central to the show, which won five Tony Awards during its 2004 revival, are the guns used by the assassins. Jim Guy, prop master for the Milwaukee Rep, did a thorough search for the types and vintages of the actual weapons used in the crimes. Acquiring the weapons turned out to be easier than first thought.

“The Rep’s prop department actually had several of the harder-to-locate guns in stock from previous productions,” Guy says. “For the others I have been working through trusted vendors with whom I have been doing business for some time to locate or supply guns that duplicate or very closely resemble the ones noted in the script.”

The most difficult guns to replicate, he said, were the ones with which most of the audience is already familiar – the single-shot derringer with which Booth killed Lincoln and the bolt-action rifle used by Oswald to shoot Kennedy.

The Quadracci Powerhouse’s excellent acoustics allows Guy to load the weapons with less than full powder behind the blanks, which reduces the weapons’ recoil. Still, gun safety remains paramount in a production like “Assassins,” he says.

“Safety instruction is absolutely necessary every time a gun is used on stage because no two live performances are the same and nothing can be taken for granted,” says Guy, who teaches courses in firearms safety for the stage nationwide. “Before an actor touches a gun, the gun and ammunition undergo a series of tests in the shop and on the set to make sure that they are safe for the cast, crew and audience.”

As to the controversial final scene in which the assassins line up and fire their weapons into the audience, Guy is not tipping the director’s hand.

“The scene hasn’t been completely blocked yet, but serious discussion is already underway to make sure that the scene is absolutely safe for the audience and cast and generates the response that the director is after,” he says.

Regardless of how Clement’s version of the play ends, its themes ring true for the times, particularly following this summer’s mass shootings in Milwaukee’s Oak Creek suburb and in Aurora, Colo.

“No matter what your viewpoint on the right to have guns may be, the laws currently in place are not working,” Clements says. “Now is the perfect time to have a discussion about guns in our society, and I will be happy if ‘Assassins’ can be a catalyst for that conversation.”

The Rep’s season at a glance

Quadracci Powerhouse

“Assassins,” Sept. 4–Oct. 7

“The Diary of Anne Frank,” Oct. 23–Dec. 2

“Sense and Sensibility,” Dec. 11–Jan. 13

“Clybourne Park,” Jan. 29–Feb. 24

“A Raisin in the Sun,” March 12–April 14

Stackner Cabaret

“Gutenberg! The Musical!” Aug. 24–Oct. 14

“Blues in the Night,” Oct. 19–Dec. 23

“Mind Over Milwaukee,” Dec. 28–Feb. 24

“Ring of Fire,” March 1–May 5

Stiemke Studio

“The Mountaintop,” Sept. 26–Nov. 4

“How the World Began,” Jan. 16–Feb. 24

“Rep Lab,” March 1-4

Pabst Theater

“A Christmas Carol,” Nov. 29–Dec. 24