Rough magic : the theatrical life of John Wilkes Booth

Kincaid, Deirdre Lindsay

History; Literature; Mass media; Performing arts
August 2000

Thesis or dissertation

© 2000 Deirdre Lindsay Kincaid. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

When John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre in Washington on the evening of April 14,1865, he destroyed any possibility that his reputation as an actor would be dispassionately assessed for the foreseeable future. A bitter, fratricidal war was drawing to its close, and Northern newspapers were not interested in being fair; opprobrium was heaped on Booth's name, beginning in the press the following day. Twelve days later he was dead, shot during an attempted arrest. In 1890, his fellow player Clara Morris asserted hopefully, ‘At this late day the country can afford to deal justly with John Wilkes Booth.’ That time had not yet come: in fact, some of the worst -- and silliest -- slanders have been perpetrated in the twentieth century. But surely now, over a hundred years later, it should be possible to set aside that April evening and look dispassionately at Booth's career in the theatre of his time.

As well as extending simple justice to a man who seems to have been extremely likeable and idealistic, and an actor interesting enough to deserve study, such a reassessment may serve to correct a distortion which the 'mythologized' view of his career has created: the idea that Edwin Booth was the only promising young tragedian in the early 1860s, which falsifies both Edwin's career and the period in general. Moreover, John's entire career covered a mere ten years, and his four full seasons as a star occurred during the Civil War, an under-researched period. The necessary concentration on so brief a time-span allows a more detailed treatment than would be possible in examining a career of average length, which may in turn illuminate some broader aspects of American theatre during an unsettled and transitional period.

Department of Drama, The University of Hull
Roy, Donald, 1930-
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