A Promptbook of John Wilkes Booth Sheds Light on a Nation Divided

Using Booth's own promptbook, Hidden Room Theatre resuscitates the production played by the actor turned presidential assassin

John Wilkes Booth’s promptbook for Richard III, ca. 1861–1864. Manuscripts Collection, Harry Ransom Center. The entire promptbook is digitized and available online.

A promptbook for Shakespeare’s “Richard III” that belonged to John Wilkes Booth — the actor and presidential assassin — hints at how one of the most popular actors of his time performed his most popular role, a tyrannical leader.

And if the promptbook doesn’t entirely illuminate how a veritable celebrity such as Booth became one of the most detested villains in American history, it does hint at why Shakespeare’s dark history play about power-mad leader so popular in mid 19th-century America.

For two years, theater director Beth Burns and Ransom Center theater curator Eric Colleary, have studied Booth’s “Richard III” promptbook.

Says Burns: “Art often tells us who we are, and I think the question for me is, what were we doing with our art when our country was at its most divided?”

Burns’ Hidden Room Theatre will stage “Booth’s ‘Richard III’” June 15 to 30 at the historic Austin Scottish Rite Theater.

Hidden Room specializes in recreating historical theatrical practices and plays. In 2015, the company production of a rare 17th-century puppet version of “Hamlet” traveled to Shakespeare’s Globe in London. In 2016, Burns and Colleary partnered up on “Houdini Speaks to the Living,” a dramatization of the debate between Houdini, who exposed spiritualism as a hoax, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a devoted believer in spiritualism.

Colleary came across Booth’s promptbook soon after he came to work at the University of Texas center’s archive three years ago.

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“Sometime promptbooks are just dismissed as just marked up books. But they’re really the best records of historical performance practices, and therefore incredibly important” he says.

A promptbook captures all a production’s technical notes — curtain cues, music cues, scenery changes — as well as acting notes for all the actors. At the time, theaters operated on the star system in which star actors — like Booth — traveled from town to town performing their most famous roles supported by a local stock theater company. Star actors traveled with their own props and costumes — and their own promptbooks.

“Very little has survived from John Wilkes Booth theater career, and yet he was absolutely one of the most popular performers of his day,” says Colleary. “After Booth’s assassination of Lincoln, most of the Booth’s professional theatrical materials were destroyed, either intentionally or accidentally. The fact that this promptbook survived is remarkable.”

The Ransom Center has digitized Booth’s “Richard III” promptbook. It is available here.

Legend has it most of John’s belongings were burned by his brother Edwin, also a highly-praised actor who after Lincoln’s assassination, reportedly refused to have John’s name spoken in his presence.

The Booths were a thespian family. Edwin, John and Junius Jr. were sons of Junius Brutus Booth, an English actor who immigrated to America. John T. Ford, who owned a theater in Washington D.C., was a Booth family friend.  John Wilkes Booth made his stage debut in 1855 at age 17, playing the supporting role of the Earl of Richmond in “Richard III.”  By the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, Booth was tremendously popular, touring to theaters in New York, Boston, St. Louis and Chicago. But he was publicly outspoken about his support of the South’s secession, beliefs that cost him status with Northern audiences.

This program is from Booth’s first performance of Richard III at the historic Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia on March 2, 1863. Ransom Center Collections.

Heavily annotated in Booth’s florid handwriting, the promptbook is not wholly Shakespeare’s original play, but a 1699 adaptation by Colley Cibber, abridged by almost a third in length and with a few more onstage fight scenes than the Bard originally wrote. Cibber’s Shakespeare adaptations were the only Shakespeare audiences saw well into 19th-century.

“Cibber’s version is nicknamed the ‘blood and thunder Richard III’,” says Burns. “It’s fast-paced, the plot is very clear and there’s lot drama and melodrama — absolute good versus absolute evil. It’s very audience friendly.”

It also had enormous appeal to a 19th-century America fascinated by moral riotousness.  “Booth was performing in an era obsessed with the notion that there is clear good and clear evil in the world,” says Colleary. “And in Cibber’s version, Richard III is a very clear tyrant, and yet he’s a leader who gets things. John Wilkes Booth clearly found that tension interesting, and Richard III was his signature role, it’s how he showed off his chops.”

Critics were impressed. One writing for Washington Intelligencer in April 1863 proclaimed that “(Booth) played not from the stage rule, but from the soul, and his soul is inspired with genius.”

Booth’s particular acting style emerges in his annotations. “It’s somewhat like contemporary soap opera acting,” says Burns, who also studied 19th-century acting books to gain an understanding acting methods. “It’s passionate, it’s emotional and maybe a little melodramatic by our standards today, but there is some realism and naturalism to it. Acting is right at the tipping point in Booth’s era.”

Other historical records — reviews of Booth’s performance, memoirs of his contemporaries — reveal more about Booth’s character.

“He was considered a very nice person to work with apparently,” says Colleary. “His peers write that he gave kind and constructive feedback to other actors.”

Built in 1871, the Scottish Rite Theatre is a working relic, its 19th-centurary hand-painted scenic backdrops intact, its manual sound effect contraptions still working. And just off stage right? An actual prompter’s station, a podium where the prompter would have stood, promptbook in hand, directing the action of the production.

“Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” says Burns. “(This production) allows us to really dig deep into this particular moment of history and what was its popular entertainment. It’s a bridge to the 19th-century and to a time when our country was ripped in two.”

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