The Illinois Shakespeare Festival opens its 37th season on Friday with “Much Ado About Nothing.” The first-rate performances, costuming, set design and direction, enjoyed under the stars at the Theatre at Ewing, serve as an annual celebration of the greatest playwright in the English language.
Yet the Twin Cities’ love affair with the Bard goes back much farther and even includes several appearances by Edwin Booth, the famed 19th century interpreter of Shakespeare whose Hamlet was said to have no rival in the history of the American stage.
Edwin Booth, of course, was the elder brother of actor John Wilkes Booth, who on April 14, 1865 assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. The two brothers (and a third, Junius, Jr.) were illegitimate sons of Englishman Junius Brutus Booth, himself a famous actor. After the assassination Edwin Booth disowned his brother and took brief leave from the stage, though his self-exile ended in January 1866 with “Hamlet” at New York City’s Winter Garden Theatre.
Hamlet, one of the more befuddling, inscrutable and psychologically complex characters in all western literature, defined Booth’s career, and it was said that he brought “almost magical sincerity” to the role.
On March 31, 1873, nearly eight years after the assassination, Booth made his debut in Bloomington as—who else?—Hamlet. Appearing under the management of father-in-law and Chicago theater impresario J.H. McVicker, Booth was on tour to help pay mounting debts related to his New York theater venture, which despite his efforts would go belly up the following year.
Booth’s “Hamlet” played at Bloomington’s finest theater, Durley Hall, located on the northeast corner of Main and Jefferson streets off the courthouse square. Given Booth’s reputation, tickets were rather pricey— at least by the standards of provincial Bloomington, with the high-end seats going for $1.50 (or the equivalent of $30 today, adjusted for inflation).
Sure enough, Booth received stellar notices from the local press. The Daily Leader, a lively competitor to The Pantagraph, marveled at his command of “voice, feature and eye,” noting how “each varying emotion … is portrayed upon his countenance, flashes from his eye, and fills every motion and gesture so completely that even without words from the actor, the spectator can catch the mood of the moment, and follow the varying feelings of the soul.”
Booth’s naturalistic approach to acting, a departure from the more affecting, declaiming and bombastic style preferred by the older generation of stage greats, drew special notice. “As Booth renders this character, there is nothing in it out of place, farfetched or overstrained,” observed The Leader, “but each part fits every other, and the whole glides along, a finished piece of workmanship, a natural, human character.”
Fifteen years passed before Booth returned to Bloomington, this time sharing top billing with renowned tragedian Lawrence Barrett for an April 25, 1888, Durley Hall performance of “Julius Caesar.”
Fresh off a show in Springfield, the 40-member theater company (including a cook and three servants) arrived aboard the “Junius Brutus Booth,” a special sleeping/dining/parlor car named for Booth père and attached to a regularly scheduled Chicago & Alton passenger train.
The Pantagraph praised Barrett’s Brutus but found the 54-year-old Booth “listless and weary” as he played Cassius. “And of Booth, what can we say?” read the tough review. “That he is blasé; that he is tired of it all. That he is tired of being Brutus and the rest of them; that he is tired of the footlights, the people and the audience.” Booth received kinder treatment from The Leader, which called this “Julius Caesar” the “greatest dramatic event in the history of Bloomington theatricals.”
The traveling company left around 4:30 a.m. on an Indiana, Bloomington & Western Railway train for Terre Haute, Ind. “In all probability,” declared The Pantagraph, “Edwin Booth will not appear in Bloomington again.”
The stage veteran proved this newspaper wrong by returning to the Durley on April 28, 1890, to play the lead in “Macbeth.” Appearing alongside Booth as Lady Macbeth was Polish-born Helena Modjeska, considered by many at the time to be the leading Shakespearian actress working in the U.S.
The Pantagraph found Booth’s Macbeth a much greater success than his Brutus of two years earlier, as it was said he “surpassed anything he has ever done in this city; no loud words, no forcible gestures, but a quiet intensity that thrilled the people more than any noise could have done.”
Less than a year later, April 4, 1891, an ailing Booth ended his stage career at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with one final go-around as Hamlet. He passed away on June 7, 1893, in New York City.