- Edwin Booth: A Biography and Performance History by Arthur W. Bloom, and: American Tragedian: The Life of Edwin Booth by Daniel J. Watermeier
Arthur W. Bloom’s Edwin Booth: A Biography and Performance History is divided into two parts: a biography of some 170 pages (consisting of twenty-five chapters of five to fifteen pages each) and a year-by-year detailed performance history of about 120 pages. The notes to the text and to the performance history are substantial—some forty-six pages—and reflect the major collections of Booth material and of those who knew and wrote about him. A short bibliography of secondary sources concludes the work.
In undertaking a Booth biography and career history, Bloom has in view “a desire to exhume and understand the past,” a past “focus[ed] on primary sources” and not the unverifiable statements that have often, Bloom argues, colored our view of Edwin Booth (1). At the same time, Bloom acknowledges that even scholarly histories are “versions” of what the historical record tells (1), a confession that should not obviate the fact that verifiable statements are also “versions” of the past. Bloom’s account of Edwin Booth’s life and work is strongly inflected, and the opportunity to evaluate it in context with another, and very different, approach is instructive.
Bloom’s account shows us a Booth in a love/hate relationship with the theatre. Certainly, Booth did not want to work in melodrama, which, Bloom concludes, “he thought, endangered the status conferred by his Shakespearean roles,” even though Forrest and Cushman had reputations “based on melodramatic characters” (51). Booth did appear in the standard repertory, especially during his pre-Civil War career, but he early determined to star and never identified with a repertory company, choosing, instead, a life of constant touring.
The first part of Bloom’s book works through Booth’s life in chronological order. It examines Booth’s career within the theatre history of nineteenth-century America, its participants, its acting, repertory, and production practices, giving some consideration to theatre’s relation to history (especially the Lincoln assassination) and to American culture as a whole. It is a summary history providing necessary context to readers not well-informed about these practices. Indeed, in Bloom’s deft hands, Edwin Booth becomes a microcosm mirroring the macrocosm of American theatre and cultural history at the time of the collapse of repertory companies and the rise of touring combinations.
However typical, Bloom’s Booth is given individualized motives as well, as when Bloom imagines Booth thinking that “‘a decent theatre’ would raise his profession [End Page 127] and himself to a level of respectability that would allow him to overcome the fact that his birth was illegitimate, his father alcoholic and insane, and his brother a presidential assassin” (98). How much this is an imagining of Bloom’s, rather than Booth’s, readers can weigh not only against Watermeier’s Booth, but Stephen Archer’s 1992 study of Junius Brutus Booth (the putatively randy, alcoholic, and demented father of Bloom’s version) and Terry Alford’s 2015 biography of John Wilkes Booth (Edwin Booth’s guilty-as-charged brother).
If Bloom’s version overcorrects the adulatory accounts of Edwin Booth’s life and career, Daniel J. Watermeier’s American Tragedian: The Life of Edwin Booth aims for a more “complete” life of its subject, which I take to be Edwin Booth as an American tragedian. Through 366 pages of text, sixty-four pages of notes, and a substantial bibliography, Watermeier focuses less on the man than on the work, both Booth’s professional work and scholarly work about it. Rightly pointing out that, since the 1950s, “a considerable amount of new Booth documentary material” has come to light (ix-x), Watermeier gives credit to recent biographers, especially to Bloom’s “painstaking research” and “comprehensive calendar of Booth’s performances” (x...