The Booths’ Noble Effigy

In 1864, to honor the 300 anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare, a group of actors led by James Morrison Steele MacKay and Edwin Booth formed a committee to erect a statue of the Bard. It would be placed in the Mall (aka Literary Walk) in Central Park where Booth laid the cornerstone. As a way to finance the project while expressing a theatrical tribute to Shakespeare, the committee arranged to have the Booths appear in one of his greatest plays at the Winter Garden Theatre on November 25, 1864.

The play was Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and it was the first and only time that Edwin, Junius and John Wilkes Booth performed together. Edwin played Brutus, Junius played Cassius and John Wilkes took the role of Marc Antony. The audience was unaware that the turbulent relationship between these three characters onstage mirrored the growing turbulence between the three brothers offstage.

John Wilkes’ familial relationship became strained, especially towards Edwin, as the Civil War raged on. By the middle of 1864, the tide of war had turned against the South; it marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. John Wilkes’ tirades against the Union in general and President Lincoln in particular became increasingly vehement. While his mother and his sister Asia (who both adored him) listened to his outbursts with loving patience, and while Junius tried to remain neutral, Edwin treated John Wilkes with a dismissive attitude that further infuriated him. By the autumn of that year, the brothers were barely speaking to one another; nevertheless, after much cajoling, and for the sake of the benefit, they agreed to appear in Julius Caesar.

John-Wilkes, Junius and Edwin Booth in JULIUS CAESAR

The play’s themes of civil war, oppression, conspiracy and tyrannicide were hauntingly relevant to Booth’s own day. It cannot have gone unnoticed that it was presented now by the sons of a man named Brutus [the legendary Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth]. Six months in the future, patrons would look back on this night and wonder what had gone through the mind of John Wilkes Booth as he stood in the wings and listened to the prophecy of Cassius:

“How many ages hence/ Shall this lofty scene be acted over/ In states unborn and accents yet unknown.”

The Booths’ performance was a critical success, raising $3,500 for the statue fund, but relations between John Wilkes and Edwin further deteriorated. Due to an oversight, Edwin failed to invite his two brothers to a post-performance gala that he was hosting. Edwin’s star was on the rise and he would soon embark on a series of Shakespearean “Grand Revivals” that would make him one of the greatest actors in American theatre history; he was quite exuberant. While Junius wasn’t able to attend the gala anyway (he had to escort their mother home), John felt deeply insulted and left the theatre in a rage; a rage, which had already long consumed him, and that would culminate at Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865.

Actual work on the Shakespeare statue didn’t commence until the end of the Civil War. Through a competition held in 1866, the sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward was chosen to create the work, casting it in Philadelphia in 1870 and cutting a granite pedestal for it in Scotland; because of delays in managing this pedestal, the statue was unveiled in 1872 on a temporary base. Many critics praised it as being a “noble effigy” while others derided it as being a “costumed piece.” The “lofty scene” that was behind the work was indeed a blend of the noble and the costumed…torn apart by a civil unrest that Shakespeare would have deeply understood.

Source: American Brutus by Michael Kauffman (pp. 295-96)

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