- American Tragedian: The Life of Edwin Booth by Daniel J. Watermeier
A labor of love and a work of careful scholarship, Daniel J. Watermeier's American Tragedian chronicles the life and career of Edwin Booth from his humble beginnings in the shadow of his famous actor father through his growth and maturation as a theatre artist and manager. Of course, much has previously been written about Edwin Booth, and at the outset of his book Watermeier openly acknowledges this fact. Yet the author clearly justifies his work, making the case that previous writings on Booth either lack sufficient documentation or tend to be skewed toward his connection to his infamous brother, John Wilkes Booth. Watermeier seeks to present a more measured and methodical look at Edwin Booth's biography. This approach proves to be both the book's strength and a potential weakness.
In eleven chapters culled from correspondence, diaries, articles, reviews, and previous scholarship, Watermeier maps out the major events of Booth's life divided into segments ranging from one to nineteen years. In chapter 1, "Father and Son, 1833–1852," we learn of the complicated Booth family tree, with family members on two continents. We also learn of Booth's upbringing and his apprenticeship to Junius Brutus Booth. In chapter 2, "From Stock Actor to California Star, 1852–1856," we follow Booth's early years as a journeyman actor playing the East Coast, traveling west to California, and then following the gold rush to Australia. We learn of his early professional associations with the likes of Keene, Jefferson, and Forrest. Yet, if there is fault to be found with Watermeier's work, it is in these early chapters, which, at times, read more like a reference [End Page 341] source on Booth than a biography. Seasons of Booth's performances are sometimes presented as a simple narrative litany of roles, plays, and venues. Despite (or perhaps because of) Watermeier's previous work on Booth's performances, little attention is paid to how these early roles (i.e., the choice of part, the characterization, the interpretation, etc.) might have influenced or reflected Booth as a developing artist. It feels like a missed opportunity. As mere facts, painstakingly researched as they are, these pieces of information might best be presented as a table of Booth's roles in a given season. By folding so much of this information into the narrative, however, we temporarily lose sight of Booth the man, in essence missing the forest for the trees.
By chapter 3, "The Mantle of the Father, 1856–1862," however, Watermeier seems to work out the formula. His discussion of Booth's portrayal of Richelieu, for example, demonstrates what we can glean about Booth from the role he chooses and the way it is crafted. In subsequent chapters, his analyses of Booth's portrayals of Hamlet and Brutus likewise use the art to illuminate the man. In chapter 4, "Triumph and Tragedy, 1862–1865," Watermeier truly hits his narrative stride, expertly merging research with an informed analysis. We get not just the events of Booth's life but a sense of their impact. We become intrigued by Booth's ongoing struggles with alcohol, the somewhat open question of his sexuality, his marriage to Mary Devlin, and the birth of his daughter, Edwina. We see Booth grieve over the loss of his wife and the experiments with mysticism that grief leads to. We feel his shock and sadness dealing with the assassination of President Lincoln at the hands of his brother, and we marvel at the courage required to take the stage in the aftermath of such a personal yet public tragedy.
Chapter 5, "Producer and Theatre Builder, 1866–1875," tells the cautionary tale of Booth's attempt at building and managing his own theatre in New York. We see the actor struggle to balance art and commerce, eventually being left bankrupt with no choice but to tour to pay debts and suffering the ignominy of being a visiting actor in the theatre that...