First Love

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Here it is, the document that first got me hooked on theatre history. I was working on what started out as a short-term summer job at the American Antiquarian Society back in 2005. It ultimately turned into a multi-year part-time gig for me (thanks for letting me stick around, guys!), but it was that very first day that opened my eyes to just how fascinating this material could be.

The obvious eye-catcher here is the advertisement for the “Third Week of J. Wilkes BOOTH” towards the top. Even if you don’t know diddly-squat about theatre history, this name jumps out, for reasons that I don’t think require explanation. But remember: this is February, 1863, and back then Booth was relatively unimportant. Yes, he was a prominent actor, but if he’d never gone into that box at Ford’s Theatre, his career would likely have been a footnote to those of his often-impressive but always-drunk father, Junius Brutus, and his brother Edwin, often acclaimed as one of – if not the – greatest Shakespearean actors of his generation. However, that’s not what happened, and instead whenever you mention Edwin Booth to most people, they understandably scrunch up their face in confusion and ask, “Who?” Poor Edwin.

In the event, the great actor weathered his fair share of vitriol for the actions of his brother. It made sense, people whispered; after all, look at the disgraceful dissipation of the Booth brothers’ father. Edwin disappeared from the stage for a time, and some of his friends thought that it would be wise to encourage the newspapers to publish some of his letters from earlier in the war, in which he vehemently expressed his support for the Union cause. It didn’t always help. In one of those possibly-untrue-but-too-good-to-pass-up tales, the Boston Daily Advertiser of September 14, 1865, relayed a story about a shopkeeper in France who insisted that the image of Edwin in his shop window was actually that of “Boot, the assassin. Vilk Boot, le miserable, le lache.”

I think the thing that fundamentally gets me about this playbill is that it gives me a sense of the events of history as contingent things, instead of fixed occurrences, irrevocably dead and mummified. I remember showing the playbill to my friends who were working with me and jokingly saying “Stop that man! Don’t let him leave the theatre!” A joke, maybe, but ideally that’s the sort of excitement that you should get from seeing and examining these kinds of documents.

This document is also interesting because there’s so much other stuff going on besides the attention-grabbing advertisement for Booth. For instance, the venue is called the “Boston Museum”, which kind of seems like a weird name for a theatre, right? The Museum was actually part of a trend, started by the theatre’s founder Moses Kimball and his friend and business associate P.T. Barnum, of incorporating theatres into a larger institution that was effectively a hodgepodge of material that we would today separate into different museums: art, natural history, and, in some cases, straight-out fabrications like the infamous “Feejee Mermaid”, which was a hideous combination of a monkey’s head and torso sewn onto a fish’s body. The idea was that the theatre, often still considered an immoral, vice-ridden place, could be made to seem more family-friendly if it was part of a larger institution that was clearly inoffensive and enlightening in nature.

Also worth mentioning: the “Mr. W. Warren” billed right under Booth was a major fixture of the nineteenth-century Boston theatre scene. William Warren, Jr. spent most of his career at the Boston Museum, playing there well into old age. He tried once to take his career to a national scale, but that venture only lasted a season. He’s an example of the sort of actor, well-known in his own city but fairly obscure outside of it, that once characterized the stock companies that occupied many theatres. By the time this playbill was published, these companies were already an endangered species, getting progressively hollowed out as all the box office went to big touring stars like Edwin Booth and, to a lesser extent, his brother John Wilkes.

So that’s how I first got lured into this profession in the first place. Pretty cool, huh? Take it away, Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Sondheim!

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