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Edwin Forrest

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Edwin Forrest
(1806-1872)


"…a vast animal, bewildered by a grain of genius, who was personally an utterly selfish man, but as an actor, Forrest, at his best, was remarkable for iron repose, perfect precision of method, immense physical force, capacity for leonine banter, fiery ferocity and occasional felicity of elocution." William Winter

Forrest, Edwin (1806-1872) was born in Philadelphia on March 9th, to the impoverished runaway son of a Scottish squire and the daughter of middle-class German immigrants. He is generally acknowledged as the first star and grand tragedian of the American stage. He was educated at the common schools in Philadelphia but beyond that had little formal education. His theatrical debut came about quite by accident, when in 1817, the manager of the Southwark Theatre, noting his attractiveness, asked him to substitute for an ailing actress in the small role of Rosina, a captive odalisque, in Rudolph; or The Robber of Calabria. The experience made such an impression on him that he started studying elocution and formed a Thespian Club, all to the deep grief of his pious mother. At the age of 15, the stage-struck young Forrest attended many theatrical performances where he studied the acting of Thomas A. Cooper, Edmund Kean and Junius Brutus Booth. Within six years he was acting with all of them. His real debut came in 1820 as Norval in John Holme’s tragedy Douglas at the Walnut Street Theatre. At this time in American theatre history the playhouses of New York and Philadelphia were crowded with trained and successful actors, mostly from England, so Forrest decided to hone his craft by touring what was then called the Western Circuit – Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky, where he performed many of the roles for which he would become famous including Damon in Damon and Pythias, Jaffier in Venice Preserved, Tell in William Tell and the Indian chief in She Would Be a Soldier. After several season of this hard life touring a rough country with the inconveniences of long journeys, playing in rude halls, & poor scenery, he made his New York debut as Othello in July 1826 at the Park Theatre and repeated this performance at the Bowery Theatre the following November. These performances launched him on a then unparalleled career of critical success and public renown. What the critics and playgoers witnessed was unlike anything they had seen before. Forrest’s power derived mainly from his commanding physique. He stood five feet ten inches tall with a noticeably muscular build (he always favored roles which allowed him to display his massive arms and legs), that on stage made him appear like a giant. Combined with a magnetic presence, a deep, penetrating voice, sardonic good looks, his acting was an overwhelming experience. Implicit in his appearance and acting as well, were the seeds of class differences that would beset his career. His appeal was to the masses, the more genteel members of the audience found his style crude with its vulgar display of physique and unlettered readings.

Starting in 1828 and continuing until 1847, he offered prizes for new American plays with preferably American themes. First prize went to John Augustus Stone for Metamora, which soon became one of Forrest most popular vehicles. Other winners over the years included Richard Penn Smith’s Caius Marcus; three plays by Robert Mongomery Bird: The Gladiator, Oralloosa and The Broker of Bogota; and Robert T. Conrad’s Jack Cade. Of these, only The Gladiator (with Forrest as Spartacus); and Jack Cade endured along with Metamora in Forrest’s repertory. But the well-intentioned contest also added to the actor’s increasingly questionable personal reputation, as he was accused of not paying money owed to several of the playwrights. With his New York successes firmly under his belt, he toured the country amassing great praise and wealth for his efforts. Afterwards, he traveled to Europe for rest and relaxation and was received with much courtesy by actors including William Charles Macready and scholars.

Continuing to grow as an artist he added a number of major roles to his repertory including King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth and Virginius. He returned to Philadelphia in 1831 and played there and in New York with triumphant success until September 1836 when he sailed for England. There he made his first appearance as Spartacus at the Drury Lane Theatre, London. The play was unpopular but his acting was a success and he performed at the theatre in Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear for the next ten months. During this engagement he married Catherine Norton Sinclair, daughter of John Sinclair the popular singer, in June 1837. He returned to Philadelphia in November of that year and began an engagement. Then in the late 1840’s, when he was at the height of his career, two incidents occurred which further tarnished his reputation. What led up to the first began in 1845, when he visited London a second time. While at the Princess Theatre he met with great success as Virginius and other parts, but when he attempted Macbeth (a character unsuited to his physique and style of acting), the audience hissed the performance. He attributed this to the professional jealousy and machinations of William Charles Macready. A few weeks later, when Macready was playing Hamlet in Edinburgh, Forrest stood up in his private box and hissed the English actor. This act of spiteful resentment evoked contemptuous reproaches from the British press and destroyed the respect in which the public had held him. Then in May 1849, when Macready was acting Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House in New York, the friends of Forrest hissed and interrupted the performance. Things snowballed out of control, coming to a head in the bloody Astor Place Riots in which 23 died and hundreds were injured. Forrest almost certainly had a hand in provoking this incident. In 1851 a second event leading to his wane in popularity was the divorce from his wife. After a two year court battle during which time each had quite publicly, and probably accurately, accused the other of infidelity. In Forrest case, his affair with Josephine Clifton had become public knowledge. The court decided in favor of Mrs. Forrest on all points, and Forrest left the courtroom a defeated and injured man. Even with the applause that was heaped upon him by his followers after the trial, when he appeared as Damon for sixty nights, exceeding anything known in the theatre’s history, did nothing to soften a temper soured by domestic sorrow.

In 1853 he played Macbeth at the Broadway Theatre for four weeks, an unprecedented run at that date, and at the end of this engagement, he retired for several years. He became interested in politics, and was touted as a possible candidate for congress. But he was back on the boards again in 1860 when he appeared as Hamlet at Niblo’s Garden, New York, at the age of 54, in what turned out to be the most successful engagement of his life. But with increasing age, sameness in the repertory and failing health were getting the better of him. In 1865, he developed a malignant form of hereditary gout and during an engagement in Baltimore the sciatic nerve was paralyzed and he never regained the use of his hand or his steady gait. A California tour in 1866 was a failure and during his last New York engagement in 1871, where he played Richelieu and Lear, the houses were nearly empty. His last appearance as an actor came on March 25, 1871 at Boston’s Globe Theatre as Lear. The craving for public applause, which was his only happiness, induced him to give reading from Shakespeare in several large cities. The scheme failed, and was abandoned, to his deep mortification. A stroke ended his life suddenly and without pain on December 12, 1872. His servant found him dead, alone, and apparently asleep in his home in Philadelphia at the age of 66.

The large sums that he had earned over the course of his career (he earned more money than any other actor in the 1800s), were judiciously invested with a resulting huge fortune. In 1850, he built a castle on the banks of the Hudson River which he called Fonthill. It was later sold for a convent. He had a home in New York and in 1855, he purchased a mansion in Philadelphia, to which he retired after his temporary abandonment from the stage. There he collected the largest dramatic library in the United States. In 1860 he commissioned Mathew Brady to photograph him is his most famous roles. His will contained plans that part of his fortune be used to erect and support the Edwin Forrest Home for 'decayed’ actors to which propose he devoted his Philadelphia mansion. It remained in existence until the late 1980s.

(click on photo to enlarge)

Forrest at age twenty-Illustration-B&W-Resized.jpg (78022 bytes) Edwin Forrest mother-Rebecca Lauman Forrest-Illustration-B&W-Resized.jpg (82663 bytes) Edwin Forrest as a young man-Engraving-B&W-Resized.jpg (76745 bytes)
age 20 Forrest's mother Rebecca Lauman Forrest as a young man
Edwin Forrest as a young man-cameo-Photo-Resized.jpg (83195 bytes) Edwin Forrest as Carwin-Illustration-Resized.jpg (55575 bytes)
as a young man as Carwin
Edwin Forrest as Jack Cade-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (72725 bytes) Edwin Forrest-age twenty-Illustration-B&W-Resized.jpg (68631 bytes) Edwin Forrest as Hamlet-sketch-Resized.jpg (111952 bytes)

as Jack Cade

age 20 as Hamlet
Edwin Forrest Hamlet promptbook Fronticpiece 1-Resized.jpg (117341 bytes) Edwin Forrest Hamlet promptbook Ttitle page-Resized.jpg (132717 bytes) Edwin Forrest Hamlet promptbook Act I Scenei-Resized.jpg (168222 bytes)
Forrest's Prompt book for Hamlet
Edwin Forrest as King Lear-Daguerreotype-Resized.jpg (107210 bytes) Edwin Forrest as King Lear-Engraving-B&W-Resized.jpg (80807 bytes) Edwin Forrest as King Lear-sketch-Resized.jpg (98746 bytes)
as King Lear
Forrest as King Lear-Sketch-B&W-Resized.jpg (83901 bytes) Edwin Forrest as King Lear sketch-B&W-Resized.jpg (107133 bytes)
as King Lear
Edwin Forrest in cape-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (54520 bytes) Forrest as he appeared at the height of his career-Engraving-B&W-Resized.jpg (88093 bytes) Edwin Forrest sketch with signature-Resized.jpg (95155 bytes)
Portrait at the height of his career Sketch
Edwin Forrest as Metamora sketch 2-Resized.jpg (157952 bytes) Edwin Forrest as Metamora sketch 3-Resized.jpg (107631 bytes)
as Metamora
Edwin Forrest (1806-1872) as Coriolanus-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (100065 bytes) Forrest as Virginius-Photo-B&W-resized.jpg (96521 bytes) Forrest as Richelieu-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (74679 bytes)
as Coriolanus as Virginius as Richelieu
Forrest as Richard III-Photo-B&W-resized.jpg (82762 bytes) Forrest as Othello-Engraving-B&W-Resized.jpg (94866 bytes) Forrest & Miss Lily in The Broker of Bogata-Photo-B&W-Resized without caption.jpg (108371 bytes)
as Richard III as Othello in The Broker of Bogata
Edwin Forrest as Macbeth-sketch-Resized.jpg (100411 bytes) New York riots-Resized.jpg (325133 bytes)  
as Macbeth
Edwin Forrest as Spartacus_sketch 2-B&W-Resized.jpg (134252 bytes) Edwin Forrest as Spartacus_sketch-B&W-Resized-Resized.jpg (83809 bytes)
as Spartacus
Edwin Forrest-studio headshot-photo-tinted-Resized.jpg (219952 bytes) Forrest final apearance reading Shakespeare from the platform of Steinway Hall, NYC-Resized.jpg (74914 bytes) Edwin Forrest headshot with messed up hair-postcard-Resized.jpg (220934 bytes)
Portrait in later life Astor Place Opera House Riots Portrait