Arts & Culture
3:56 pm
Wed November 27, 2013

Milwaukee Playwright Finds Muse in Actor Brother of John Wilkes Booth

Edwin Booth as Hamlet, circa 1870
Edwin Booth as Hamlet, circa 1870
Credit J. Gurney & Son, N.Y.

History may remember the name "Booth" as the surname of President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, but before, and well after, John Wilkes Booth fired that fateful shot, his family was known as America's theatrical royalty.

Father Junius Brutus Booth began the dynasty, and long before there were movie matinee idols, brother Edwin Booth was one. Edwin was also one of the greatest actors of his, or maybe any, generation.

"He was an absolute innovator, and incredibly contemporary and naturalistic. Long before we ever needed the Russians to come over here and tell us how to act naturally, Edwin Booth was doing it," says Milwaukee actress and playwright Angela Iannone.

Iannone focuses on various real life points in Edwin Booth's life in a trilogy of plays called "Irving and Booth in Othello."

The third installment finds Booth working in London in the early 1880s. Booth was in a famous production of "Othello" with Sir Henry Irving, in which they weekly traded off the roles of Othello and Iago to actress Ellen Terry's Desdemona.

But it wasn't just in Shakespeare's "Othello" that Booth made a name for himself. Iannone says he performed "fearless innovations" as Hamlet.

"I don't think there's a contemporary actor working today who would have the guts to do what Edwin did with Hamlet," she says.

For example, Booth was the first American actor to sit during the famous "to be or not to be" monologue, as well as the first to dim the lights so the audience's focus would be on the stage.

During the scene in which Hamlet discovers Ophelia is dead, Iannone says he performed it entirely with Horatio standing in front of him, blocking him from the audience. The only visible part of him was his hand on Horatio's shoulder.

"When he discovers that it's Ophelia, all you see is him clench his hand and then release it as he begins to grieve and then he would slide down out of sight behind Horatio," she says.

Despite these innovations, Iannone says Edwin Booth's legacy is sometimes overshadowed by his infamous brother's. But Edwin distanced himself from John after the assassination.

"He did not allow his brother's name to be mentioned in his presence and he didn't mention it either," she says.

That is why, she says, we still know of Edwin Booth today.

"A great actor is always a great actor," she says. "If he weren't great we wouldn't still be talking about him."

Iannone's play will have a staged reading next Monday and Tuesday evenings at Milwaukee's 10th Street Theatre. Iannone plays English actress Ellen Terry, and Simon Provan playing Edwin Booth.

Listen below to hear the wax cylinder recording of Edwin Booth performing a scene from "Othello."

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