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Monday, October 24, 2011

This Week in BAM History: John Wilkes Booth, October 1863

There has long been a tightly interwoven relationship between American politics and the theater. In fact, John Wilkes Booth—the man who assassinated President Lincoln at a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington—was an acclaimed actor from the famous Booth family of actors (see my previous post on his brother, Edwin). Often cast as a leading man, Wilkes Booth was a 19th century heartthrob, as popular with the young ladies of the day as Ryan Gosling is now.

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Like many stage actors both then and now, Wilkes Booth would travel the country from theater to theater, company to company. In late October, 1863, a year and a half before his assassination of Lincoln, Wilkes Booth was in Brooklyn, performing repertory at BAM. After playing the title role in Richard III on October 24th, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote that Wilkes Booth’s performance was “wretchedly appointed though well acted.” He went immediately on to play Raphael in Charles Selby’s The Marble Heart, which opened at BAM on October 26th before its restaging in November at Ford’s Theater.

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In a particularly chilling moment in American theatrical history, President Lincoln watched The Marble Heart from the very box at Ford’s Theater where Wilkes Booth would later shoot him. Legend has it that Wilkes Booth, in a soliloquy addressed to the audience, paused, turned directly toward Lincoln and shook his finger at him. Lincoln remarked on the actor’s intense demeanor, saying, “He does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?”

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