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Edwin Booth as Hamlet
The following article was originally published in Hamlet From the Actor's Standpoint. Henry P. Phelps. New York: Edgar S. Werner, 1890.

Edwin Booth as HamletIn the summer of 1852, while playing an engagement in Sacramento, Junius Brutus Booth, moody and thoughtful as was his wont, exclaimed after gazing at his son Edwin (1833-1893) for some time: "You look like Hamlet; why don't you play it?" "Perhaps I may, if I should ever have another benefit," was the reply. The following November the father died. Edwin remained in California, a stock actor in his brother's company, playing everything from farce in a black face to Richard, Shylock and Macbeth. In these Shakespearian characters he had been received with much favor, and, finally, remembering the reply he had made to his father's suggestion, he did play Hamlet for his benefit, and for the first time in his life. It was his greatest success then, and became, to quote Mr. Winter, "the part which has been the chief means of his development, his fortune, his fame, and the genuine, permanent and loving esteem in which he is held by the great body of his countrymen." Mr. Booth first played Hamlet in New York, at Burton's in 1857. Beginning November 16, 1864, and ending March 24, 1865, he played the part at the Winter Garden, for 100 nights, at that time the longest run any Shakespearian play had ever enjoyed in America. Transferred to the Boston Theatre, it was played till the 14th of April, when the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth led his brother Edwin to immediate retirement from the stage, with no expectation of ever again appearing in public. When, however, in response to the almost universal sentiment that he should not abandon his lifework because of the crime of another, he reappeared in the Winter Garden, January 3, 1866, it was in the same character of Hamlet, notwithstanding the fact that one paper in New York, standing by itself and for itself, pronounced it the drama of assassination. His reception was of the most enthusiastic nature.

On January 22, 1867, he was presented with the Hamlet medal by a committee of distinguished citizens. Among those appearing on the stage at the presentation were Admiral Farragut, Admiral Palmer, Gen. Anderson--the hero of Fort Sumter; Gov. Hoffman, George Bancroft, Charles A. Dana, Albert Bierstadt, Richard O'Gorman and William Fullerton.

The praises of Booth's Hamlet have been the subject of some of the most graceful pens in America. There was scarcely a magazine, review or newspaper of any literary pretensions that did not contain an article or articles of this kind, varying of course in the warmth of their admiration, but almost without exception eulogistic or commendatory.

George William Curtis, in the Easy Chair, Harper's Magazine, April, 1865, says:

"What Garrick was in Richard III, or Edmund Kean in Shylock, we are sure Edwin Booth is in Hamlet. Booth looks the ideal Hamlet. For the Hamlet of our imaginations, which is the Hamlet of Shakespeare, is not the 'scant of breath' gentleman whom the severer critics insist that he should be. He is a sad, slight prince. Booth is altogether princely. His costume is still the solemn suit of sables, varied according to his fancy of greater fitness, and his small lithe form, with his mobility and intellectual sadness of face and his large melancholy eyes satisfy the most fastidious imagination that this is Hamlet as he lived in Shakespeare's world. His playing throughout has an exquisite tone, like an old picture. It is not any particular scene, or passage, or look, or movement that conveys the impression; it is the consistency of every part with every other, the pervasive sense of the mind of a true gentleman sadly strained and jarred. Through the whole play the mind is borne on in mournful reverie. It is not so much what he says or does that we observe; for under all, beneath every scene and word and act, we hear what is not audible, the melancholy music of the sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh."

Mr. William Winter, who more than any other man studied Booth in all his moods, says in Harper's for June, 1881:

"In former days his acting retained the exuberance of a youthful spirit, before the philosophic mind that checked the headlong currents of the heart or curbed imagination in its lawless flight. Even his Hamlet was touched with this elemental fire. Not alone in the great junctures of the tragedy--the encounters with the Ghost, the parting with Ophelia, the climax of the play-scene, the slaughter of poor old Polonius in delirious mistake for the King, and the avouchment to Laertes in the graveyard--was he brilliant and impetuous, but in almost everything this quality of temperament showed itself, and here, of course, it was in excess. He no longer hurls the pipes into the flies when saying, 'Though you may fret me you cannot play upon me,' but he used to do so then, and the rest of the performance was a piece with that part of it. He needed in that period of his development the most terrible passions to deal with. Pathos and spirituality and the mountain air of great thought were yet to grow. His Hamlet was only dazzling the glorious possibility of what it has since become. No person can be said to know Edwin Booth's acting who has not seen him play the same part several times. His artistic treatment, indeed, will generally be found adequate, but his mood or spirit will continually vary. He cannot, at will, command it, and when it is absent his performance seems cold. Standing on the lonely ramparts of Elsinore and with awe-stricken, preoccupied, involuntary glances questioning the starlit midnight air, while he talks with his attendant friends, Edwin Booth's Hamlet is the simple and absolute realization of Shakespeare's haunted Prince, and leaves no room for inquiry, whether the Danes in the middle ages wore velvet robes or had long flaxen hair. It is dark, mysterious, melancholy, beautiful--a vision of dignity, and of grace, made sublime by suffering, made weird and awful by 'thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.' Sorrow never looked more woefully and ineffably lovely than his sorrow looks in the parting scene with Ophelia, and frenzy never spoke with a wilder glee of horrid joy and fearful exultation than is heard in his tempestuous cry of delirium, 'Nay, I know not; is it the King?'"

The English critics did not receive Mr. Booth's Hamlet with such unqualified admiration as this. He received a cordial welcome there in 1880, but the critics did not find his personation faultless.

Mr. Clement Scott, of the London Telegraph, wrote as follows:

"He has a fine stage face, well cut, animated and intellectual, and an elastic walk; a poor and unattractive dress, contrasting by its dinginess with the gorgeous glitter of the court; tangled black hair, well off the face but hanging in feminine disorder down the back--this was Edwin Booth, who looked as if he had stepped out of some old theatrical print in the days of elocution and before the era of natural and real acting. It was impossible to keep the attention off that remarkable face, that strange power of expression, those eyes that rolled and changed. It was a fascinating picture in spite of the poverty of the princely costume, and then it suddenly struck the attention: Is this Hamlet? Modern playgoers have seen two Hamlets of considerable weight--the tearful expression, the sadly reddened eyes, the pathetic prettiness of Fechter, and the dejected, unnerved and eminently poetic depression of Henry Irving. No one can say positively who is right or wrong.

"But when Mr. Booth, at his entrance, seizes the attention of the audience with that sharp and emphatic presence and those eyes that flash intelligence and say as much as the studied gesture, our thoughts revert to the text and we think of the veiled lids, the nighted color, the fruitful river in the eye, the dejected 'havior of the visage; where are they in the Hamlet that stands before us? How can they be detected in this nervous physical strength, and this clear staccato manner? The play proceeds, scene after scene, and act after act, and the naturally ideal Hamlet seems omitted from the program. He never makes the blood course through the veins, warms the emotions or touches the sympathies. Our hearts are unreached. Gradually the attention was directed to Hamlet, the actor, and not Hamlet, the ideal. The contemplation of Hamlet from an intellectual point of view became too soon an impossibility. It was an actor's Hamlet, a Hamlet of point, a Hamlet built upon the teaching of old schools, and, as such, a very admirable Hamlet. The audience was at once fascinated by the clear and measured delivery of Mr. Booth. It was academical and correct to a fault. Not a word of the text escaped anybody or was lost. This was such a novelty that the great tirades and soliloquies received more than their accustomed praise and called down extravagant enthusiasm. If we require nothing but the soft and moving delivery of the text of Hamlet, no one can do it better than Mr. Booth; but to modern ideas something more is wanted than a reading of Hamlet on the stage.

"The days of the old classical school are dead and buried, though let no one imagine that the new Hamlet ever bores his audience for five minutes. Mr. Booth is correct, but his manner is wanting in sympathy, in ideality and in persuasion. We are always thinking of the actor, never of the man. We are admiring the representative of the Prince of Denmark, but are not admitted into the penetralia of the philosophic mind of Hamlet. Up to the play-scene there were some happy, but never very impressive moments, and Mr. Booth does not waste time or patience in creating or elaborating striking business for effect. All has been rhetorical and neat, but, save at the end of Ophelia's scene and in the speech, 'What a rogue and peasant slave am I,' excitement has not been stirred. The play-scene is after all the test of both the mental and physical Hamlet. Here, strange to say, Mr. Booth made the least effect. The utterance was eminently measured, musical and incisive, but the manner was anything but typical and pictorial. The actor never lost himself in a scene, which is surely the climax of all Hamlet's hopes and ambitions, the confirmation of his doubts. But ideally considered, the scene was singularly cold. As in the scene with the players, so with the recorders there was a sly and suppressed humor.

"But Mr. Booth is far too orthodox a student to degrade his conception by mere point-making, and whatever may be said of his Hamlet, it does not contain one grain or trace of unworthy trifling or vulgarity. It is cold and classical to a fault, but nothing moves the artist from his unbending purpose. The scene with the mother failed in effect mainly because no effect was sought, and it was too late now to build up an ideal Hamlet. But even from the standpoint of an actor's Hamlet, the words, 'Is it the King?' missed fire. The face was not illumined and the words hissed out, but Hamlet rushed across the stage to his mother, and screamed the words in a somewhat overstrained and melodramatic fashion. The reserve of the actor enabled him to do more than justice to the churchyard-scene, which tries the muscle of exhausted Hamlets. Here Mr. Booth revived wonderfully and interested the audience at a late hour. But the fencing and the death appeared to us to be singularly ill managed and ineffective, and the closing scene, having been robbed of all poetic significance, seemed to be commonplace."

Mr. J. Palgrave Simpson, in the Theatre (London) for December, 1880, says:

"Instead of being the slave of tradition, I found him constantly neglecting the old traditional points, of which his manner after the play-scene, when his exultation would not give him time to wait until the crowd had wholly dispersed, was, perhaps, the most notable example, for effects which commended themselves better to his true matured intelligence. Another instance may be given in his delivery of the words, 'I'll rant as well as thou,' which were not howled and ranted as is commonly the case, but uttered with a profound contempt of the ranting Laertes. To my mind, and especially on the second occasion of my witnessing his performance, Edwin Booth was eminently natural, and to be looked on as an admirable exponent of the more approved 'new school.'"

"Throughout he was the Prince, without any display of stilted dignity, but graceful in his courtesy and gentlemanly in his condescension. His charm of manner in this respect was especially to be remarked in the scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in his excellently delivered and modestly reticent advice to the players, and in his scene with Osric, whom he treated with the utmost courtesy, displaying his contempt of the fop in suppressed tones of voice, and playful by-play with Horatio, instead of anger or impatience. His exquisite tenderness toward Ophelia, to whom the words 'Go to a nunnery' were uttered as a warning voice of a man who really loved her, and not as indignant denunciation, was such as to reach every heart. The same may be said of the closet-scene with the Queen, in his display of filial forbearance, which was made as prominent as was consistent with the purpose of reproach."

Dutton Cook, in his "Nights at the Play," says:

"Altogether, so far as a first judgment after one hearing can be trusted, Mr. Booth's Hamlet is a spirited, elaborate, painstaking and expert, but conventional performance. He presents essentially the Hamlet of the stage with variations and embroideries of immaterial quality, and not the Hamlet of the student of Shakespeare. His chief aim is theatrical effectiveness of the old-fashioned sort. His Hamlet, in truth, may be said to be the Hamlet of the past. Often I found myself reminded of the Hamlet of Charles Kean; if I missed his physical demerits, I missed also his intensity, his special power of startling and kindling his audience. Something the Englishman (Irving) would gain if he could emulate the American's promptness, vigilance, decisiveness of manner, ease of action and freedom of limb. But, as I think, the Hamlet of Mr. Irving is to be preferred in that it is more picturesque, more poetic, more intellectually interesting and altogether more genuinely Shakespearian."

Mr. Booth's German critics were enthusiastic in his praise as will be seen by the following extracts from the German press, translated for the New York Tribune.

Oscar Welten in the Tägliche Berliner Rundschau:

"Booth is the best Hamlet I have ever seen. Neither Rossi, Devrient nor Barnay--not to mention the minor celebrities--can be put on the same level with him. Joseph Wagner is perhaps the only one who can be compared with him, and Wagner is dead. Even he failed to make me understand Hamlet as the great American did. You can understand Booth perfectly even though you may not know a single word of what he utters. Here his essential power as an actor shows itself. In mobility of expression his countenance is extraordinary, almost unique. In Hamlet the scene with the flutes, as interpreted by him, was a masterpiece. The audience greeted it with a storm of applause. The play-scene was quite overwhelming in its effect. Booth's quick transition from wild laughter to choking agony is an achievement of startling power in the school of realistic æstheticism. His action in the passage that involves Yorick's skull may be noted as of kindred character. The vital treatment extends to the most minute details."

From the Unterhaltungs-Blatt der Berliner Presse:

"Here and there we should have liked more dramatic power, but this Hamlet is totally unlike any German Hamlet that ever we saw, and we are inclined to say that Edwin Booth is Hamlet by the grace of God and of Shakespeare--that a ray of the light which inspired the great Englishman in his creation has also inspired this actor. You may, if you like, wrangle over the interpretation of the character. Hamlet presents itself to the mind of every actor differently. A creation, immeasurable as the wide world, admits of the largest and most varied exposition. This granted, Booth is a phenomenal artist. He is the most sombre of all stage Hamlets' but his understanding of the part and the manner in which he evolves it are so full of light and clearness that all commentaries upon this difficult character appear superfluous. There is an infinite charm in the acting of this artist, so simple, so noble and free from all attempts at mere effect. Even in moments of the highest passion he never oversteps the boundary lines of the beautiful. He is always 'every inch a king.'"

From the Vossische Zeitung:

"But how is it possible to enumerate in detail the striking, delicate, touching and charming points of this interpretation--the irony toward Polonius, the interest in the grave-digger, the desperate hilarity during and after the play-scene, the deep pathos in the meeting with his mother--which we regard as the climax of Booth's performance! A temperament of singular purity, features of infinite capacity for expression, a captivating voice (which only at minor points was not altogether free from mannerism), place the impersonations of Booth among the most attractive and lifelike that could be conceived."

From the Staatsburger Zeitüng:

"Very unjustly, it appears, do we allow ourselves to be suspicious of works of art which originate in America. The 'puffing' by which, as a rule, they are heralded, repels us from them. Then, too, the impression which we derive from hearing of the materialistic tendencies of life in America and of the technical character of the culture which is said to dominate all minds in that country, is perplexing and well calculated to mislead. How can the eminently practical American, we ask--he that is said to have ropes for nerves--be in sympathy with the most subtle character that a poet ever created? The spiritual, sublimated Hamlet soul, with all its nervous, dreamlike and melancholy attributes--how can this be conceived by such a man?

"For an answer, look at Edwin Booth. True, genuine, profound feeling it is which he brings into play, and which captivates and awakens our enthusiasm. He is guided by artistic instinct, he is free from all excesses, he is discreet, and always moves on the lines of true beauty. Over all the passion that burns with consuming flame in his bosom, over all the dark despair of a brooding soul, rises still--distinct and supreme--the tender, gentle, perhaps bitter, but always refined melancholy of his dominant intellect. Mr. Booth's acting of Hamlet places him, among German interpreters of this character, at the side of Joseph Wagner and Emil Devrient. The latter--one of the most famous--Booth seems to surpass in diversity and incisiveness. His wit and irony, in the scenes with Polonius and the courtiers, are quicker, and his manner toward Horatio, Ophelia and the mother is more winning."

From the Berliner Fremdenblatt:

Booth seems to take the cue for his conception of Hamlet from the lines beginning the monologue: 'O that this too, too solid flesh would melt!' His spirit is rebellious against the cumbersome body, and ever desirious to 'shuffle off this mortal coil.' Throughout the almost death-like calm which pervades his being, a fiery longing to escape the burden imposed upon him by Fate seems to agitate the innermost recesses of his nature. Splendid outbursts of impassioned eloquence, prompted by this struggle, thrill the hearer's very soul. The wonderful play of Booth's face, and the soul-searching glances from the burning depths of his dark eyes, enthral the hearts of his auditors, even though the words he speaks may be in a language not familiar to all. The verdict of the public of Berlin agrees with that of all former judges of Mr. Booth's Hamlet in pronouncing it a masterpiece of the actor's genius, grand in its imposing utterances and beautified into a stage-figure of fascinating proportions by the consummate grace of its representative.

"Of perfections there seem to be so many, of faults so few, that we do not know to what portion of the part as he renders it we should accord the most unqualified praise. Never did an actor succeed so admirably in painting alike the noble dignity and the exquisite humor of the philosophic Hamlet. And what shall I say of the fencing-scene--that apotheosis of grace? Was ever more delightful play witnessed in any of our play-houses, by any one of our great actors, past or present? When has death been portrayed more faithfully yet less revoltingly? The curtain fell upon the most wonderful impersonation of Hamlet that Berlin has ever seen--an impersonation in which dignified grace, exquisite humor, stupendous passion of delivery and the sublime power of genius were all blended. This Hamlet was not played, but lived. And so forever he will live in the memory of his enraptured listeners. Mr. Booth, amid spontaneous outbursts of applause, was called upon the scene, and at the close of the acts, no less than twenty-four times."

As among the ripest opinions may be given that of William Winter, in the New York Tribune, November 5, 1889, at the time Mr. Booth was playing with Modjeska:

"Edwin Booth was never at any time inclined, when impersonating Hamlet, to employ those theatrical expedients that startle an audience, and diffuse nervous excitement. He shows himself to be less inclined to them than ever, now. Except at the delirious moment when the Prince rushes upon the arras and stabs through it the hidden spy whom he wildly hopes is the King, his acting was never diverted from that mood of intellectual self-concentration which essentially is the condition of Hamlet. In that moment his burst of frenzied eagerness--half horror and half exultant delight--liberated the passion that smoulders beneath Hamlet's calm, and it was irresistibly enthralling. There were indications of the same passion in the delivery of the soliloquy upon the artificial grief of the player, at the climax of the play-scene, and in the half-lunatic rant over Ophelia's grave. But these variations only served to deepen the darkness of misery with which his emodiment of Hamlet is saturated, and the gloomy grandeur of the haunted atmosphere in which it is swathed.

"Now, as always hitherto, Edwin Booth's ideal of Hamlet is an entirely noble person overwhelmed with fatal grief, which he endures for the most part with a patient sweetness that is deeply pathetic, but which sometimes drives him into delirium and must inevitably cause his death. In his expression of this ideal, which is true to Shakespeare, he has never yet gone as far as Shakespeare's text would warrant. He has never yet allowed his votaries to see Hamlet as Ophelia saw him, in that hour of eloquent revelation when--without artifice and in the unpremeditated candor of involuntary sincerity--his ravaged and blighted figure stood before her in all the pitiable disorder of self-abandoned sorrow. To show Hamlet in that way would be to show him exactly as he is in Shakespeare; but in a theatrical representation that expedient, while it may gratify the few, would certainly repel the many. Real grief is not attractive, and the grief of Hamlet is real; it is not simply a filial sorrow for the death of his beloved father; a mournful shame at his mother's hasty marriage with his uncle; an affliction of the haunted soul because it knows that his father's spirit is condemned to fast in fires and to walk the night. It is deeper than all these. It is an elemental misery, coëxistent with his being; coïncident with his conviction of the utter fatuity of all this world and with his mental paralysis of comprehension, awe-stricken and half insane, in presence of the unfathomable misery that environs man's spiritual life. Entirely and literally to embody the man whose nature is convulsed in this way would be to oppress an audience with what few persons understood and most persons deem intolerable--the reality of sorrow. Hamlet upon the stage must be interesting, and, in a certain sense, he must be brilliant; and Edwin Booth has also made him so. But this noble actor, so fine in his intuitions, so just in his methods, cannot be otherwise than true to his artistic conscience. He embodies Hamlet not simply as the picturesque and interesting central figure in a story of intrigue, half amatory and half political, in an ancient royal court, but as the representative type of man at his higher point of development, vainly contrasting the darkness and doubt that enshroud him in this week, pain-stricken, transitory, mortal state, and (because his vision is too comprehensive, his heart too tender and his will too weak for the circumstances of human life) going to his death at last, broken, dejected, baffled, a mystery among mysteries, and a complete and disastrous failure, but glorious through it all, and infinitely more precious to those who even vaguely comprehend his drift, than the most successful man that ever was drawn.

"Treating Hamlet in this spirit Edwin Booth is not content merely to invest him with symmetry of form, poetry of motion, statuesque grace of pose, and the exquisite beauty of musical elocution, and to blend these gracious attributes with dignity of mind and spontaneous and unerring refinement of temperament and manner. He goes much further, because he illumines the whole figure with a tremulous light of agonized vitality. This is the true Hamlet, in whose bosom burns the fire that is not quenched."

From A. S. in the New York Telegram:


The curtain rises. This is Elsinore,
And this the noble Dane;
The long, long centuries have backward rolled,
And Hamlet lives again:
He lives in all his beauty and his grace,
A man--a king 'mong men;
His great dark eyes, and haughty, clear-cut face
Shine on us now as then.

He moves us by his genius and his power
To smiles or tears at will;
We listen to his voice--that thrilling voice,
I seem to hear it still:
Our souls are stirred with pity at his grief,
Our eyes with tears grow dim,
And as he weaves his spell around us here
OUr hearts go out to him.

Oh, fair Ophelia! happy woman thou
For but one hour to be;
Even though it brought thee pain and early death,
Beloved by such as he:
Ah, well, when years have passed above my head,
And stolen my youth away,
Some other maid may actor praise or blame,
Then I, with truth, shall say:

There is no actor living now, my child,
Like him who in my youth,
Did tread the stage, and bear away the palm;
There's none like Edwin Booth:
A man of generous heart, noble and true,
His life was good and pure;
He won and kept the homage of the rich,
The blessings of the poor.

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