Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Booth, Edwin Thomas (1833–1893)

by Helen M. Van Der Poorten

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Edwin Thomas Booth (1833-1893), by Walter G. Mason, 1857

Edwin Thomas Booth (1833-1893), by Walter G. Mason, 1857

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an7975386 [as Richard III]

Edwin Thomas Booth (1833-1893), actor and manager, was born on 13 November 1833 near Baltimore, United States of America, the seventh son of the eccentric tragedian Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852) and Mary Ann Holmes (d.1885) and elder brother of Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth (1839-1865). Edwin made his stage début in September 1849 at Boston, and performed under his father until 1852 when he decided to seek an independent career in California. In San Francisco particularly he became competent in leading stage business. In July 1860 he married the actress Mary Devlin (1840-1863); their daughter Edwina was born next year.

Booth's visit to Australia was his first serious starring tour, and despite the misgivings of his family he felt confident of making a fortune. Sailing from San Francisco he reached Sydney with the actors Laura Keene (1820-1873) and D. C. Anderson (d.1884?) on 11 October 1854. Sydney audiences, seeking a substitute for the recently departed opera star Catherine Hayes, packed the Royal Victoria Theatre for the visitors' opening performance of The Lady of Lyons, by E. Bulwer Lytton, on the 23rd. The Empire welcomed Booth as one of the most fiery and intelligent Melnottes (the main role) ever seen in the colony and later performances were claimed to show him 'by no means unfit to be compared with the leading tragedians of the day'. In Hamlet he pleased audiences less with his impersonation than with his sensitive rendition of the set speeches and soliloquies. By contrast, as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Booth was praised for his heartless, cynical tone. The party's one attempt at sensational drama was greeted coldly. The Sydney Morning Herald described his Sydney visit as 'quite an event', but though Booth was an artistic success, he complained that they had played to 'so-so business'. The party left Sydney on 8 November.

When they arrived in Melbourne Booth staged an intemperate celebration of his 21st birthday. The Argus warned that their Sydney success might not be repeated because other performers were then visiting Melbourne. Players who were to have presented Henry VIII at the Queen's Theatre Royal yielded the priority to Laura Keene and Booth, who then opened in Much Ado to a crowded house on 20 November. A clue to Booth's later unpopularity in England may be found in the Argus accounts of his acting in Melbourne, where critics objected to his 'national peculiarities of intonation' and later his 'disagreeable intonation of voice, which they believed led to some crudity of acting'. That his accent was American has often been overlooked by Booth's biographers. Although Laura Keene was understood to be the leading figure in the tour, Booth was received with more interest as 'the son of Edmund Kean's rival'. This praise, his intemperate habits and the clear failure of their short Melbourne engagement led to professional disagreement with her and the severing of their partnership. With his friend Anderson, Booth returned to the United States. No evidence supports the common assertion that he revisited Australia in 1872.

In later years when Booth was again troubled by his drinking, he attributed it to 'All the accumulated vices I had acquired in the wilds of California and Australia'. On the favourable side his visit to Australia had given him an early taste for adulation, which in turn led to his break from Laura Keene and the beginning of his career as a true leading performer. In Australia Booth's tour was exceptional in that it preceded his rise to fame, providing Sydney's audiences with the opportunity to recall their early recognition of his talents. Booth died at New York on 7 June 1893.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Winter, Life and Art of Edwin Booth (Boston, 1893)
  • E. Ruggles, Prince of Players: Edwin Booth (Lond, 1953).

Citation details

Helen M. Van Der Poorten, 'Booth, Edwin Thomas (1833–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/booth-edwin-thomas-3023/text4277, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 16 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

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