In this, the first thoroughly researched scholarly biography of Junius Brutus Booth, Stephen M. Archer reveals Booth to have been an actor of considerable range and a man of sensitivity and intellect. Archer provides a clear account of the actor’s professional and personal life and places him in relationship to his contemporaries, particularly Edmund Kean and William Charles Macready.
Indeed, he begins the book on February 20, 1817, as Booth first confronts Kean on the Drury Lane stage. Archer then provides a chronological account of Booth’s life, summarizing and assessing his career by drawing upon the opinions of his fellow actors as well as of the critics and scholars of the day. From 1817 to 1852 Booth toured throughout North America, enjoying a reputation as the most distinguished Shakespearean tragedian on the American continent. Still, he yearned for success on the British stage, a goal he never attained. His public image as a drunken, dangerous lunatic obscured a private life filled with the richness of a close and loyal family and an appreciation for living.
The worldwide fame assured for the Booth family by John Wilkes Booth’s bone-shattering leap from the President’s box had eluded Junius Brutus Booth throughout his lifelong exile in America. But from that event until today, no American family of actors—not the Barrymores, the Drews, the Jeffersons, not even the Fondas—has stimulated such scrutiny as the Booths.
After Junius Brutus Booth’s death, the actor’s wife, in an attempt to preserve family dignity and privacy, burned the bulk of his letters and papers. In spite of this, Archer has done a remarkable job of reconstructing Booth’s life and career. Eight years of research, pursuing Booth from Amsterdam to San Francisco, has resulted in an accurate, fascinating narrative that both records and illuminates the actor’s life with objectivity and perception. Archer follows Junius Brutus Booth in unprecedented detail as the actor deserts his wife and child to come to America with a pregnant Covent Garden flower girl. His American adventure lasted thirty-five years and ended with his death on a steamboat on the Mississippi River after having played his final engagement in New Orleans.
Archer concludes by tracing the lives and fortunes of Booth’s immediate family. He also provides a complete performance record, including every known performance of Booth’s, indicating date, place, theatre, whether or not it was a benefit, and the terms under which the actor appeared.
This riveting and absorbing work will interest scholars of American theatrical history, the history of Shakespeare on stage, and American cultural history.