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Junius Brutus Booth: Theatrical Prometheus.

Not only is Stephen Archer's work cogent and readable, but it is simply destined to become the definitive work on Booth. The author's narrative style draws the reader into the turbulent life of the great actor and avoids any sense of a dry historical regurgitation of facts and figures. Exhaustive research is evident in the text as well as in the Appendix which lists every recorded engagement that Booth ever made. Archer makes his point that Booth was indeed the "Theatrical Prometheus" in this country, spreading the flame of the romantic style of acting. In the first new biography of Junius Brutus Booth in a century, Archer is able to stand back from the actor and restrain himself from romantic portraiture, something earlier biographies lacked.

Using Scribe's style of the "Well-made Play," Archer begins his biography of Junius Brutus Booth at a pivotal moment in the elder Booth's career - the showdown with Edmund Kean at Old Drury - and then surgically recreates the life of early America's "Theatrical Prometheus." The main thread of the study rests on Booth's frustrations with never reaching what he considered the apex of any theatrical career - popular success in London. Booth seems to have been reborn from the "sparagmos" of Richard III - a role he played some 579 times (239) - and the Man who would eat no meat nor kill a spider because it would mean the taking of a life.

At times, the author drifts into oceans of numbers regarding Booth's account books, but this allows the reader to recognize virtually every aspect of what it was like to have been an actor at that time in history. Rehearsal practices, contracts, travel arrangements - one gets the sense that Archer has become a soulmate of Booth's. He never apologizes for the actor's excessive drinking, "madness" and marital indiscretions. He notes: "That this vegetarian, this lover of all life, displayed a propensity for violence while under the influence, even to self-destruction, only indicates the potency of the addiction" (239).

In the last chapter of the book, Archer sets himself free from the bonds of objectivity and allows himself to express his love for Booth. After living through the narrative struggle of Booth's life, this coda acts not only as a release for Archer but for the reader as well. In Archer's writing, Booth's theatrical career takes the reader and Booth "through two marriages and twelve children, five of whom died young; through stardom in two hemispheres, from Amsterdam to San Francisco, from New Orleans to New Brunswick" (223). Archer is able to bring the pain and happiness of Booth to the surface where the reader becomes a traveller in Booth's life.

Junius Brutus Booth is eminently readable and difficult to put down. It is a welcomed addition to the scattered cultural histories of the period and will provide valuable information to not only theatre historians, but actors and historians of nineteenth-century American social and cultural history as well. Archer also makes use of the work to paint a detailed portrait of American theatre in the first half of the nineteenth-century. Descriptions from Booth's memoirs, account books, newspaper advertisements, broadsides and the like allow the reader to enter the theatrical world while Archer attempts to explain the love/hate affair between Booth and American playgoers: "His [Booth's] intelligence no doubt led him to disillusionment with his profession; he was able to imagine what it could be, but he had to live with what it was" (237).

With the amount of material that Archer must have developed in his research, evidenced by his appendix and endnotes, it must have been especially difficult for him to limit this study to a one volume work. He has, however, achieved this mark quite admirably. As Archer tells the reader of his biography: "Filled with imperfect virtues, he [Booth] fought his demons till the end, and like the great actors of every age, he was all of us" (xiv).
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Author:Sajko, Brian Paul
Publication:Theatre Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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