At first glance, the life of celebrated 19th-Century American actor Edwin Booth would seem to have little if anything in common with folks who eat worms on TV, and eagerly subject themselves to myriad other humiliations in hopes of grasping their own fleeting moment of celebrity, or "fame".
Yet, Edwin Booth (1833-1893) was one of America’s first pop culture idols. A leading Shakespearean actor, he redefined both the grand presentational style of mid-19th Century classical stage acting and, perhaps even more notably, his own public persona—the latter thanks to the infamy of his brother, Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes.
The Booth Variations, a new multimedia creation by Caridad Svich, Todd Cerveris and Nick Philippou opening August 5 at 59E59 in midtown Manhattan, presents an Edwin Booth who took his role as an unwitting participant in an unprecedented national calamity and spun it into a whole new, if Faustian, media-fueled and supported career. And with it, forged the mold of contemporary American celebrity obsession.
"One of the many things we discussed when putting this piece together was what the role of the actor was in contemporary media society in the Western world," says playwright Svich, who wrote Variations with actor/writer Cerveris (who also plays Edwin). "How is an actor ‘made’? And how does he become what the audience expects of him, and thus, a star?"
Edwin Booth, born in Maryland, was one of ten children of prominent British actor Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. and his common-law wife. Both Edwin and John Wilkes, five years his brother’s junior, followed in their father’s footsteps to the stage. For young Edwin, the path was literal. He apprenticed as his father’s dresser, understudy and often keeper while on tour, as Booth, Sr. was known as a wildly eccentric, legendary drunk who was also quite possibly certifiably insane. Edwin settled in the North, primarily New York City. There, he founded the Players’ Club and built the original Booth Theater while developing an introspective approach to acting, a style that foreshadowed the Stanislavski "Method."
Brother John Wilkes, meanwhile, struck out on his own, cutting a flamboyant, rakish figure across stages throughout the antebellum American South. When a female audience member went into labor when John Wilkes was performing one night, for instance, he immediately seized upon it as a marketing ploy, posting "warning" signs that the sheer power of his performance was likely to induce labor in pregnant women. To underscore the ploy, an ambulance, prominently positioned outside the theater, was kept waiting while J.W. was onstage.
In the quiet shadow of his brother’s shenanigans, Edwin was busy settling into quiet domesticity with his wife, Molly. When their daughter was born in England while he was on tour, Edwin draped the Stars and Stripes over the bed, so that his child might be born, quite literally, under the American flag. When the Civil War broke out, Edwin supported the Union. His brother became a spy for the Confederacy.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that when the brothers’ lives, styles, politics and destinies finally collided, it would be in a theater—the Ford Theater, on April 14, 1865.
"When John Wilkes leapt to the stage after shooting Lincoln, proclaiming, ‘sic semper tyrannis!’ (‘thus always to tyrants!’), he invented Jerry Springer," says director Nick Philippou, who is charged with transforming Svich and Cerveris’ intensely cerebral concept into living, breathing theatricality. "The template for today’s confessional, ‘reality’ television was formed."
Philippou has been "mining" the story of Edwin Booth and the cult of modern celebrity with Cerveris and Svich through about 15 edits over the past two years, gradually distilling the story from what Cerveris says was quite literally a "two-foot high stack" of raw material. "We had enough stuff for five plays," he laughs. Throughout, the process has been a microcosm of how Philippou sees the purpose of art, that which brings order and meaning out of the chaos of existence.
Under Philippou’s hand, The Booth Variations uses an eclectic mix of live performance, video and soundscape to create a time-tripping fusion of past and present, of performer and performance, of reality and "reality."
How actors are "seen," both by their contemporary public and by posterity, is a refracted, elusive concept in which the boundaries between the public and the private have become increasingly blurred, and it is one that fascinates writer Svich.
"Do we always see the actor’s now public private life on the screen or stage when we witness a performance?" she wonders. "Is part of the thrill of seeing a celebrity now irregardless of their craft, and more to do with their latest scandal?"
The concept of an actor’s personal life as morsels for public consumption was virtually unknown before Edwin Booth. There were actors who were famous and sought after, to be sure, but the public’s interest and curiosity was for the roles they played while in performance on the stage, not for who they were as private individuals when off.
Edwin Booth’s Faustian deal with Fate’s fallout changed all of that. Initially shunned as a pariah by both the theater establishment and the general public following brother John Wilkes’ assassination of President Lincoln in April, 1865, Edwin returned to the stage a mere eleven months later in New York City as Hamlet, Shakespeare’s conflicted, brooding prince who kills the king. In so doing, Booth not only secured his own legacy as a doomed, tragic figure; he also allowed a divided, grieving nation to purge itself. In assuming the role for which he would be most remembered, Booth created the prototype of the modern media star, where the private fuses with the public, and where personal tragedy is commodified and marketed as a tonic for a shared national ill.
"This was the audience telling its own story through Edwin," observes Cerveris. "They needed a hero, a catharsis from Lincoln’s assassination, from the war. They knew it, Edwin knew it. They came there with the story they needed to see. Edwin was simply there to act it out."
In exchange for the forgiveness and adulation of the public, Booth became what the public needed him to be. Shedding the artifice of character and costume, Booth became the profitable, media-enhanced result of his own creation, the tragic American hero, a role made all the more tragic, and marketable, by the well-publicized death of his beloved wife, Molly.
In a series of photographs by prominent photographer Matthew Brady, Booth presents himself not in the guise of his craft, but as himself, at times paired with his young daughter. The photographs were significant not only because they portrayed Booth as Booth, but because they signified the arrival of this illegitimate son of a drunken thespian into the celebrity ranks of the Brady-photographed elite, anointed by contemporary media to the status of prominent politicians and famous generals.
Variations deconstructs the concept of personal celebrity’s connection to the media by exploring the symbiotic relationship between the two, how the media commodify and market, how they "frame" their subjects for the public. "Actors in our society are asked to frame themselves for public consumption," says Svich. "They develop a pose, and then fix the pose."
This "fixed pose" often becomes, in the public eye, not merely the actor’s image, but who the actor is. Moreover, as the image becomes popular, hip and enviably fused into the culture of desire, more and more will want to emulate it, imitate it, be it.
"Every cultural act becomes a slightly thinner version of the one that came before it," notes Cerveris. "Eventually, it’s got to become too hollow for anyone to swallow, right?" He pauses, then adds, "Or does it?"
Maybe. Maybe it becomes too hollow, or maybe, in the ever-more-competitive, ever-more-desperate quest for "fame," no matter how meaningless or Warholian or fleeting, all that really changes is what we are willing to swallow to achieve it. Where once it took Edwin Booth as Hamlet, swallowing his brother’s sins before a grieving nation to acquire fame, now anyone can do it…as long as s/he is willing to throw down some worms before a "live" TV-studio audience.
The Booth Variations
Conceived and created by Todd Cerveris, Nick Philippou & Caridad Svich. Written by Todd Cerveris & Caridad Svich. Directed by Nick Philippou. Starring Todd Cerveris as Edwin Booth, with video performance by Michael Cerveris as John Wilkes Booth. Presented by The Moonshine Project.
August 5-22, 2004 at 59 East 59th Street Theatre, New York City.
Tickets: $30, www.ticketcentral.com, or 212-279-4200 (12-8 PM)
Further info: www.boothvariations.com
excerpt from: The Booth Variations:
Note: Voiceover (photographer Matthew Brady) is written in italics.
Bold (Davy Herold, young accomplice to Lincoln’s assassin) indicates video text.
Plain text (Edwin Booth) is spoken live.
The camera is a box. Think of it like an eye. It traps radiant light, the reflections of the world around us. With an open eye, the truth can come upon us at any moment.
What truth is that?
The truth of nature.
You misunderstand my talents, Mr. Brady. I help an audience to dream of natural wonders.
And you misunderstand mine, Mr. Booth. I capture the dreamer, not the dream. Hold still. And count to ten.
[counts to ten during the next paragraph]
I just want to see my rabbit again. He was wild once, but I caught him. He was eating our garden, so I set out a trap. That’s how it is, you’re in the wrong place, just because you’re alive, and suddenly you get taken away.
My work is to tell a story.
You’re the story. You’re what we see. Any manipulation results in art, which the exact science of photography has rendered base and useless. Art is dead. Photography brings you truth.
What is false about Richard’s disfigurement?
Relax your shoulders.
Iago’s wretched leer?
Eyes up. Towards the lens.
Romeo’s swooning gait?
Don’t clutch your breast, so.
Macbeth’s murderous hands?
Lower the arms.
Hal’s calm, impassioned brow?
Prince Hal. Not yet a king, only the possibility.
We are nothing but possibility, Mr. Booth. You step on stage, and everything is before you. Your mere presence is your performance.
And by being nothing more than my presence…?
You cease to tell the story. Instead, you become it.
Understand, this is not the work my past has trained me for.
This is the future that awaits us all.
My father’s art was all I ever knew.
What do you know?
I watched him. That is all.
What do you know?
That I am not my father.
"To thine own self be true."
You know the story.
I am an actor.
What do you know?
I am a man.
What do you know? Sit in the chair. I will show you what you are. Just the face, please. Just the eyes. I’m employing flash powder for the first time. It allows me to capture something instantly. In the moment. In the now. There is another moment, half-way. The powder catches that moment, catches you in motion.
"There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will."
Before you even begin to move, before you even begin to speak… It is at this moment where all possibility breathes. To capture not only who you are, but who you might be. This is the future’s form, the glass of a new age.
There will be a bright light. Hold.
I had my picture taken once. I got caught, in this bright light. Made me squint, my face weren’t the same. But the man said he could see better that way. Clearer for him. Him and anyone else that would ever look at it. You see a picture, what you know is someone took it. Someone must’ve been there. That flash of light and everything it catches. Like a rabbit trap. That’s why you catch something. Sometimes, that’s why you kill it. So you can whisper in its ear, tell it what you are.
Brook Stowe is a playwright and the editor of the annual New York Theater Review.