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Tom Stafford: History continues to teach lessons


Junius and Brutus are distinctive enough first and middle names to make theater and history geeks recall the British-born Junius Brutus Booth, one of the pre-eminent actors of the 19th century American stage. With a lengthy list of acting credits, his most infamous credit was bringing Abraham Lincoln’s assassin into the world and then onto the stage, both theatrical and historical.

The extent to which the assassination was a theatrical performance is one of the thousands of fascinating aspects of 1800s America David S. Reynolds touches on in his 1995 book, “Walt Whitman’s America.” The book is a cultural biography, one that tells the story of the America in which that most-American of poets emerged; its approach allows us to look back and forth at Whitman and his times so we can consider what he contributed to them and they to him.

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One of the many fascinating things Reynolds points out in exploring Whitman’s immersion in the arts and theater is the extent to which some of the actors of the 1820s and 1830s were both artists and celebrities on a par with current day World Wresting Entertainment stars.

“Throughout the 1820s and 1830s the New York theater was in several senses truly democratic,” a term Reynolds mentions because it was so critical to Whitman. “The identification of the Park Theater with elite culture and the Bowery Theater with unadulterated sensationalism would not come until later. In fact, the Bowery pulled off a great coups in the thirties by wooing two of the era’s bet actors, Junius Brutus Booth and Edwin Forrest, away from the Park.”

Before he reviewed plays for various newspaper, Whitman “generally had to pay his own way and therefore sit in the cheap third tier, or gallery (of the theaters), along with the roughs and prostitutes,” Reynolds writes. “He once joked that he considered it a fall from grace when, in his journalism days … he got press passes to sit among more sophisticated types on the parquet, or first level, of the New York theaters.”

Whitman was proud of his friends in low places. The roughs and prostitutes “expressed their praise and displeasure with the greatest possible noise. It was not unusual for the din of clapping, yelling, cheering or hissing to drown out the actors. At the slightest provocation, unruly elements in the audience would throw things onto the stage.”

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For the rowdy contingent of the New York theater audience, Junius Booth could bring on the feeling of today’s Monday Night Raw, a feel that Whitman celebrated as a democratic part of American culture.

In contrast to actors like Forrest, who trade-in-craft was subtlety, “Booth took to an extreme the total identification with the role that in the 20th century would be associated with the Stanislavsky technique,” Reynolds writes. “So utter was his absorption in a role that he challenged the very boundaries between life and art. He could become so carried away as Othello trying to suffocate Desdemona with a pillow that he had to be pulled away by other actors for fear that he would actually kill her. As the sword-wielding Richard (III) he sometimes inflicted real wounds.”

Notes Reynolds, “It was generally known that Booth was mad.”

“Booth’s violent acting style was carried on, and even amplified, by his son John Wilkes Booth …. who, like his father, came to identify with the roles he played.”

Although for decades I have known John Wilkes Booth as an actor and Southern sympathizer – and that he had chosen Ford’s Theater as the scene for his crime, I hadn’t before entertained the thought of what a rich part the role offered an actor of his sort. I hadn’t considered how Booth, sensing the Civil War was in its final act, might have perceived it as a dramatic moment to mount the historical stage to play a role that would forever be remembered – and to do so in an actual theater.

Writes Reynolds, “After he shot Lincoln with a derringer in the presidential box in Ford’s Theater, he leaped 12 feet down onto the stage, cried ‘Sic semper tyrannis!,’ and made a quick exit to a horse waiting outside. The whole event was theatrical to the hilt.”

Booth’s line is purported first to have been said by Marcus Junius Brutus – the Brutus who was part of the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar and who shared two thirds of Booths’ father’s name.

ADDITION: In last week’s column about Rabbi Richard Address’ visit to Springfield, I neglected to mention that his visit was arranged and paid for by Temple Sholom through a bequest from the late Florence Tannenbaum.



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