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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

New Old Things: Edwin Booth’s Hamlet

Edwin Booth
The Booth family of actors lived drama both on and off the stage. Household names to the 19th century sophisticate, the Booths were part Kennedy, part Sheen (Charlie, that is). The father, Junius Booth, renowned for his alcoholic outbursts, was hailed by Walt Whitman as “the grandest histrion of modern times.” His son, John Wilkes Booth, was the dashing leading man who became famous for killing President Lincoln (more on this next week). John Wilkes’ elder brother, Edwin, gained widespread acclaim for his Shakespearian chops, playing Hamlet thousands of times throughout his life.

We in the BAM Hamm Archives are thrilled to now possess programs from Edwin Booth’s final performances.

In the first week of April 1891, Edwin Booth was in his late 50s. The demanding life of the stage was taking its toll, and his health was deteriorating. Booth announced to the public that he was retiring from the stage, and that he would give his last performances at BAM during a week of Shakespearian repertory that included Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet. After playing Othello on the evening of April 1st, three days later Booth gave his last performance as Hamlet, his signature role. A mere two years later, he was dead. An obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle recalled that as Booth played his final Hamlet, BAM’s theater was “filled clear over the audience rail and down to the footlights in an audience representing … the culture of the city.”

Program for Edwin Booth's final performance

The morning after Edwin Booth’s last performance, The New York Times published a description of his departure from BAM, in a now all too familiar scene in our era of celebrity worship: “Outside on Montague Street [BAM’s original site] there was a great crowd. The stoop of the houses opposite and the windows of the Brooklyn Library were all occupied. When the famous actor came in sight, 2,000 voices united in a mighty cheer. He bowed his acknowledgement gravely… The policemen led him through the throng and the cheering continued. With some difficulty he reached the carriage, and bowed once more to the admiring crowd.”

Booth's signature

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