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The Ghosts of Edwin Booth, Finally Captured

Gary Sloan playing Edwin Booth.In losing a part, Associate Professor of Drama Gary Sloan gained a life’s passion.

In 1983, as a twentysomething actor, he was asked to play the role of Hamlet for the Dallas Shakespeare Festival using the exact gestures and intonations that someone had meticulously recorded of America’s greatest 19th-century Shakespearean actor, Edwin Booth (1833–1893). Sloan was even told that he resembled Booth, who happened to have been the brother of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Sloan spent a year and a half researching the role before the Shakespeare festival decided it should be played by someone older. He was left with a sense of unfinished business with Edwin Booth, an actor who revolutionized Shakespearean drama by performing the Bard in the naturalistic manner we’re familiar with today, rather than the declamatory style of his day. “Ever since that time I’ve been looking for a way to tell Booth’s story and to play it,” says the CUA professor, who recognizes a kindred spirit in his predecessor. “Booth found inspiration to overcome suffering through the process of playing Shakespearean roles such as Hamlet, and I feel that I have, too.”

Emulating and honoring Booth became a passion for Sloan. At the invitation of its owners, he lived for a few years in the Bel Air, Md., farmhouse where Edwin and John Wilkes had been born. With the support of well-known actors Hal Holbrook, Lynn Redgrave and Stacy Keach, he even attempted to turn the house into a cultural center devoted to classical theater and the Booth family’s seminal role in bringing Shakespearean theater to America. Sloan’s sense of connection with his predecessor continued after he joined CUA’s faculty in 2001, and he recently collaborated with Stephen Fried and Christie Brown to co-write a one-man play on the life of Edwin Booth. This past spring the professor performed the play — titled Haunted Prince: The Ghosts of Edwin Booth — five times in the large theater inside Washington, D.C.’s National Portrait Gallery, as part of the Washington Shakespeare Festival sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The writing of the play didn’t turn out to be easy. To be sure, Booth had lived a tumultuous life — struggling successfully with alcoholism, enduring the death of his first wife after two years of marriage, seeing his second wife succumb to mental illness, and grieving over the infamy of his brother. Nevertheless he had been a rather private man, hard to bring to life on the stage. After writing 17 drafts of the play, the playwrights were still dissatisfied with the result.

Then at 4 o’clock on a December 2006 morning, Sloan recalls, “I woke up and went to soak myself in the bathtub, where I thought, ‘What is this story? What do I really want to play?’ And it just occurred to me that this is an actor’s search, my own search.” So Sloan inserted himself into the play — a 21st century actor who dialogues with Booth and the Shakespearean characters the latter played.

“Booth was a shy guy and I think he would only reveal himself through friendship and in a certain context,” the professor explains. “So we gave him that context, setting the play in his New York City apartment. If an actor is in his room, Edwin will appear. That’s how we finally brought him to life.”

Booth’s own words — taken from his letters and memoirs — form most of the renowned figure’s lines as he recalls his father’s alcoholic binges, his first wife’s death and the day in November 1864 when he confronted his brother John Wilkes after the latter denounced Abraham Lincoln as a “a tyrant … overturning this blind republic and making himself a king.”

Sloan is now putting together a video of his performance to promote the play to other theaters and is considering a film version of the play. If he succeeds, Booth could become more widely known outside the shadow of his younger brother, and a fiftysomething actor will have brought to fruition a role he embraced three decades ago. — R.W.

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Revised: July 2007

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