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.
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.