If you read my last post on the Broadway musical Hamilton, you’ve already read my waxing admiration of the show and might also remember that I listen to the soundtrack non-stop. The musical has shown the world the power that music has as a teaching tool. As someone interested in nineteenth century American history, I long for a Hamilton-esque musical regarding the Civil War era. One of the reasons Hamilton is so successful is its ability to draw connections between past and present issues, and that can be done easily for nineteenth century America. Women’s rights, slavery, immigration, emancipation, and workers’ rights are all issues that plagued the nineteenth century and, in many ways, we deal with their legacy today. I have thought long and hard about how a musical about the nineteenth century would be executed and on whose life it would focus. The obvious choice would be to focus on Abraham Lincoln. Our sixteenth president’s story has equal parts success and personal tragedy. Lincoln, however, does not satisfy me as the protagonist in the way that Hamilton does. His story has been told many times over and. Comparatively speaking, retelling Lincoln’s story would be a similar choice to telling Washington’s story in the context of the Revolutionary War era.
Hamilton is one of Broadway’s newest musicals and it’s the hottest thing to hit the stage in a long time. The show, a rap-opera, follows the life of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s ‘forgotten Founding Father.’ The show has had immense success since it opened in August 2015, with thousands of followers on the show’s Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube pages. It has exploded from the stage into a cultural phenomenon, but what makes the story of this Founding Father so compelling for audiences? Previous productions of historical musicals and plays have failed on the stage, while Hamilton thrives. What is its secret?
On an April night in 1865, John Wilkes Booth became the most notorious actor of the nineteenth century. However, he is not remembered in history because of his ability to capture the hearts of an audience. In fact, rumors have spread throughout the years that he was not even that great of an actor. He is remembered only as the villain who shot and killed President Lincoln, on the night of April 15, 1865. It is because of the crime he committed that Booth acquired his infamous reputation of the 19th century. Many actors of the Civil War era, including Booth’s own brother, have been overshadowed by the memory of John Wilkes Booth.
Edwin Booth is the less famous Booth in modern memory, but back in the nineteenth century Edwin was a superstar. He tackled the hardest Shakespeare roles, playing Macbeth in Macbeth and Hamlet in Hamlet. In fact, his production of Hamlet was so popular that it played for one hundred performances at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre. According theatre scholar Richard Sautter, this was highly unusual for its time. A majority of the time shows played for a night, a couple of days, or even a week, but so many performances was rare at the time. Julia Ward Howe, wrote in her diary how she was impressed with Booth’s performance of Hamlet, “Saw Booth in ‘Hamlet’ — still first-rate, I think, although he has played it one hundred nights in New York.” Continue reading “The Other Booth: The Cult Following of John Wilkes’s Brother”
Lastly, we come upon perhaps the best known actor of the Civil War era, John Wilkes Booth. Of course, the reason memory allows us to recall the name is not because of the merits achieved through his profession, but rather because he murdered the elected executive official – United States President Abraham Lincoln. Booth, a product of a theater family, was a dramatic, eccentric, and impatient being. He wanted the leading roles, did not want to prepare the role, but to simply play the role. His brother, Edwin Booth, a talented poetical performer, one might deduce, did prepare for his roles, as he performed the role of Hamlet for one-hundred shows straight in New York City during his career.
Did the theater work to benefit the causes for north or south, dependent upon region? Sautter stated that this phenomenon was less common than many might expect. Many actors stated their neutrality, or as one Civil War era actor said, “I am neither northerner nor southerner.” Still others simply responded to the war by leaving the country. One must consider the “clannish nature” of theater of the time in order to understand how actors could have taken the neutral role during a war of ideals: many actors were born into theater life, therefore did not grow up in any one city or region, and furthermore lived a life separate from the outside world where harsh realities allowed for the existence of slavery and social oppression.
Central to American nineteenth century life was the theater. As the fratricidal fighting of the American Civil War broke out and divided the nation, this centrality remained, and audiences crowded into the theaters. For both north and south, the theater provided an outlet through which Americans could enjoy plays, performances, music, and variety shows that appealed to all social classes of American society. However, in order to understand the operations of theater companies during the war itself, it is first essential to examine the state of the theater as a concept during the mid-nineteenth century, and in the pre-war years.