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Monday, February 6, 2012

The Ghosts That Haunt BAM’s Richard III

Kevin Spacey might be feeling a lot of pressure these days—and not merely because he’s playing the title role in over 50 performances of Richard III at BAM’s Harvey Theater this season. The pressure comes not from the strain of playing the same character night after night, nor from the craftsman’s need to nightly renew the complex energies of the Duke of Gloucester. We trust that Spacey can do this. Instead, the pressure comes from the walls. It comes from the voices of BAM’s past.

Richard III has a particularly fascinating history at BAM. Its first performance was in BAM’s third season, in October 1863, back when theaters in New York and Brooklyn were the battlegrounds for class warfare (read more about these early controversies at BAM here). And who starred in this first Richard III production at BAM? John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln’s assassin.

It seems, however, that the show didn’t go over so well. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle offered a single-sentence review of his performance: “On Saturday, to a poor house, Wilkes Booth gave a wretchedly appointed though well acted representation of Richard the Third.” It’s a nuanced, brusque critique—and Wilkes Booth must have felt the slap by this anonymous critic. He left Brooklyn shortly after, ostensibly never to return (though here is an interesting article conjecturing that Booth was in Brooklyn shortly before Lincoln’s assassination).

Ad for John Wilkes Booth's Richard III
The second production of Richard III at BAM occurred just a few months later, in January 1864. And here’s where things get interesting: It starred Edwin Booth, John Wilkes’ older and more accomplished brother, in residence at BAM for a month, doing Shakespearian repertory. Brooklyn audiences were in love with Edwin (read about the final performance of his career, which was given at BAM, here). To make matters worse for John Wilkes, the local press overflowed with accolades for Edwin on a daily basis, as night after night he gave virtuosic performances of Richard III and Romeo and Macbeth and Othello and Hamlet.

Did this spark some sort of sibling rivalry? It’s easy to imagine John Wilkes, sitting over Edwin’s many glowing reviews, muttering over and over, “Now is the winter of my discontent,” as he began plotting his next career move. Maybe shortly after Edwin’s run at BAM ended and the glowing reviews stopped, John Wilkes decided it was time to leave the theater for a deadlier, more heinous line of work. Whatever the case, there’s a delicious parallel here, in that John Wilkes resented Edwin the same way Richard III resents his brother Edward IV in the play. Perhaps, if you listen closely enough, you’ll overhear the ancestral, bickering voices of the Booth brothers running through Kevin Spacey’s head as he harnesses the tyrannical powers of Richard III.

Edwin (left), John Wilkes (right)


  1. Sic semper tyrannis!

  2. Great read! Mr. Spacey doesn't have a brother right? You know, for safety's sake.