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EDWIN BOOTH (1833-1893)

THE personality of American actor Edwin Booth was greater than his achievement. By birth and heredity he possessed faculties and qualities that most actors pass laborious lives in the fruitless effort to emulate -- the faculties and qualities, namely, of genius and personal charm, that constitute distinction and lead directly to conquest. His face, his voice, his person, his demeanour, and his brilliant, indomitable spirit -- those were his authentic preordination to empire and renown. As a young man his beauty was extraordinary. His dark eyes flashed with superb fire, not alone of physical vitality, but of imagination, emotion, and exaltation of the soul. In mature years the same nobility of presence continued to subsist, but it was softened and hallowed by experience and grief. Alike in youth and age, in bloom and in decline, he was exceptional and rare, a striking product of nature, and as such a puissant and predominant force. He needed not to seek after novelties; he was himself a novelty. The old plays were adequate for his purpose, because, in his inspired expression of their thought and feeling, character and action, he made them ever new. His success was that of a great personality, -- specially shown in the equilibrium of his intellectual life and its freedom from fret and fume. All his mistakes and most of his troubles resulted from the amiable weakness with which he sometimes permitted himself to become entangled with paltry, scheming, unworthy people. By himself, -- isolated, introspective, strange, wayward, variable, moody, yet noble, gentle, affectionate, generous, -- he was incarnate victory.

The salient attributes of Booth's art were imagination, insight, grace, intense emotion, and melancholy refinement. In Hamlet, Richelieu, Othello, Iago, King Lear, Bertuccio, and Lucius Brutus they were conspicuously manifest. But the controlling attribute, -- that which imparted individual character, colour, and fascination to his acting, -- was the thoughtful, introspective habit of a stately mind, abstracted from passion and suffused with mournful dreaminess of temperament. The moment that charm began to work, his victory was complete. It was that which made him the true image of Shakespeare's thought, in the glittering halls of Elsinore, on its midnight battlements, and in its lonely, wind-beaten place of graves.

Under the discipline of sorrow, and through "years that bring the philosophic mind," Booth drifted further and further away from things dark and terrible, whether in the possibilities of human life or in the world of imagination. That is the direction of true growth. In all characters that evoked his essential spirit -- in characters which rest on spiritualised intellect, or on sensibility to fragile loveliness, the joy that is unattainable, the glory that fades, and the beauty that perishes -- he was peerless. Hamlet, Richelieu, Faust, Manfred, Jacques, Esmond, Sydney Carton, and Sir Edward Mortimer are all, in different ways, suggestive of the personality that Booth was fitted to illustrate. It is the loftiest type that human nature affords, because it is the embodied supremacy of the soul, and because therein it denotes the only possible escape from the cares and vanities of a transitory world.


This article was originally published in The Life and Art of Edwin Booth. William Winter. New York: Macmillon Co., 1893. pp. 151-153.

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