I’m in the midst of reading the book, Junius Brutus Booth: Theatrical Prometheus by Stephen M. Archer. One of the most fascinating things I’ve come across thus far is the drama that occurred when Junius Brutus Booth made his star debut in the theaters of London. In preparation for a post about the matter, I found myself with a wealth of material on the early theatrical life of Junius Brutus Booth. Instead of summarizing key points of Junius’ initial acting career, I decided to write a series of posts examining the humble acting beginnings of the man who would later father a theatrical dynasty, including the assassin of President Lincoln. What follows is a continuing part of a series of posts entitled, “When Junius Took the Stage”. Click here for Part 1, here for Part 2, and here for Part 3 of the series.
Part 4 – When Junius Took the Lead
Back home in London after a tour of the European continent, 19 year-old Junius Brutus Booth was still struggling to make his way. Recently married and with a baby on the way, Junius needed to make a name for himself in his chosen theatrical profession. Upon his return from the continent, Junius used the name of a patron he had met during his travels in order to gain an audience with the manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, Henry Harris. Junius signed a five year contract with Harris, with a salary of two pounds a week for the first four years which would double on the fifth year. Not willing or financially able to wait until the 1815-1816 theatrical season commenced in the fall, Junius spent the summer of 1815 in the country provinces. He joined Thomas Trotter’s theatres in the costal cities of Brighton and nearby Worthing and was paid one pound ten shillings per week.
Pregnant Adelaide joined her husband at Brighton but, by September the couple was back in London awaiting Junius’ debut at Covent Garden. Junius was still merely a supernumerary, a supporting player. While he was given a weekly salary regardless of whether he worked or not, his pay was not sufficient enough to even support him. On October 5th, 1815, Junius had another mouth to feed with the birth of his daughter, Amelia Portia Adelaide Booth. The only way to earn an adequate amount of money to support a family as an actor was to progress into a star. In order to become a star, a supporting character had to be on stage as much as possible in order to gain supporters and beneficial reviews. During the 1815 – 1816 season at Covent Garden, Junius’ work was hardly consistent, hindering his efforts to create a following of fans. Over the nine month season at the Covent Garden, Booth acted only 18 times. His most repeated role during this time was the part of Silvius, the sheepherder, in the play, As You Like It. Little better than a walk on role, Booth played Silvius a total of 5 times that season.
At the end of the 1815-1816 season, it was very obvious to Booth that Harris and the Convent Garden Theatre were not going to give him the chances he needed to be a star. During the summer months, Booth returned to the provinces of Worthing and Brighton playing at Thomas Trotter’s theatres there. Trotter increased Booth’s salary from the previous summer, and now paid him two pounds two shillings per week. This was an increase even over his normal pay from Covent Garden and, at Trotter’s theatres, Booth was able to act regularly and in more lucrative roles. As the summer came to a close, Booth wisely decided to remain in the provinces for the 1816-1817 season. As his acting ability grew, Junius began to assemble a modest group of supporters in the provinces. On September 25th, 1816, Junius got the opportunity that all supernumeraries prayed for. At his theatre at Brighton, Thomas Trotter announced that Edmund Kean, the leading actor in England, was to play Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts.
A leading London star in the provinces was a sure way to pack the houses and people came out to witness Kean’s majesty. In a serendipitous twist, Kean never showed up. Kean later stated that he had never agreed to any such performance at Trotter’s, though it is equally likely that an attack of brandy prevented him from making the journey. Trotter quickly brought in Booth who had been performing at his Worthing theatre. Junius played the role meant for Kean that night, and he pleasantly surprised the expecting audience. As Dr. Archer states in his book, “the neophyte had risen to the occasion.” This successful, break out performance by Junius Brutus Booth led Trotter to give him more substantial roles. In time, this greater exposure allowed Booth to gain a following of fans. Several of these fans turned out to be better than your run of the mill theatre goers. Three rich and influential patrons banded together on Junius’ behalf. They collectively paid a visit to Henry Harris back at the Covent Garden Theatre in London. They convinced Harris to give Booth a trial night in the city where he would play the leading role. His shot as a star on the London stages occurred on February 12th, 1817.
Junius’ star debut came at a crucial time for the young actor. He and Adelaide had suffered the devastating death of their first child, Amelia. Though her exact date of death is unknown, it is likely that the poor girl passed away sometime during Junius’ season in the provinces. Mourning the loss of their daughter, a needed boost in Junius’ theatrical career was just what the small family needed. Alas, when Junius arrived at Covent Garden to rehearse for his leading role, he was greeted with less than open arms. His former cast mates jeered him stating, “Why, I declare! It’s little Silvius of last season, come to play Richard the Third, in opposition to the great Kean!” “I wonder, now, if the manager expects respectable actors to play secondary parts to him!” In fairness, it was probably a slap in the face to the troupe of Covent Garden to play supporting roles to an amateur that had been among the lowest in their ranks a year before, even if the arrangement was for only one night. One of the supporting actresses, a Sally Booth, requested that Junius might add an “e” to the end of his surname so that, upon his assumed failure that night, the audience would not mistakenly believe they two were related and therefore tarnish her reputation. In turn, Junius made a snide remark about how Ms. Booth had been trying to change her own name through marriage with an equal amount of success as her acting ability.
Despite the negativity from his colleagues, Junius prepared for his best, and perhaps only, chance at stardom. He chose Shakespeare’s Richard the Third as his play as it was one of his successful roles in the provinces. This was Junius Brutus Booth’s chance to replicate the success of Edmund Kean. Kean, himself, had come from the provinces as an unknown actor in 1814 and was now the most celebrated star in London with a following of devoted fans known as Keanites.
We can only imagine the amount of stress and trepidation Junius must have felt when the curtain rose on February 12th, 1817.
When the curtain fell at the conclusion of the play, Junius’ fate as an actor was set. Here are some quotes from London theatre critics of “Mr. Booth’s” debut at Covent Garden:
“an exact copy or parody of Mr. Kean”
“a perpetual strut and an unwielding swagger”
“He stamps too often”
“[he] traverses more extent of the stage than any Actor we ever beheld”
“Though it may pass at Brighton for grand, gracious, and magnificent, even the lowest of the mob will laugh at [it] in London”
From these reviews, it would appear that Junius was practically booed from the stage. However, the exact opposite was true. Despite the complaints of some theatre critics and loyal Keanites, Booth closed Richard the Third with “rapturous and unanimous applause”. Following Junius’ bows, another actor appeared onstage to announce the next evening’s performance, as was customary. When the audience heard that tomorrow’s play, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, would not feature Junius Brutus Booth, they stood shouting chants of, “Richard the Third! Booth as Richard!” The shocked messenger actor retreated backstage and consulted the manager. In face of the sudden and thunderous acclamation of Booth, the manager ceded to the audience’s wishes. He announced that Booth would repeat his role and talent the following night. As Dr. Archer expertly sums up in his book, “No new tragedian, fresh from the country, could ask for more.”
The next night, Junius received an almost identical demonstration of support. At the conclusion of his second performance as Richard the Third the audience once again rose to their feet and demanded a third performance for the next night, Friday. Though this time the manager refused, he did announce that Booth would return as Richard on Monday the 17th. Junius had succeeded in establishing himself as an exciting, new tragedian and soon had his own following of fans named “Boothites”.
There is no doubt that Adelaide and Junius’ father, Richard, were incredibly relieved at Junius’ new found success. However, in a city such as London, there can be only one reigning monarch of the stage. A battle, the likes of which had never been seen before, was about to start between the rising upstart Junius Brutus Booth and the king of the London stages, Edmund Kean. Which would come out the victor in their Shakespearian scuffle? Stay tuned for the next post in this series.