Edwin Forrest is arguably one of the greatest performers in the American-theater history. Forrest was born in the city of Philadelphia in the ninth day of March 1806. His father was a Scotchman who had immigrated to America at the end of eighteenth century. Forrest’s father died while he was still a young boy.
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This left him in the care of her mother. Her mother was of German origin and she was quite a simple woman by the standards of those days. Due to his well-pronounced oratory skills, Forrest was well suited to be a preacher. Her mother was almost sure of this fact when she was raising him.
Forrest received his education from the common schools of Philadelphia. Other than this basic education, Forrest never received any form of specialized training in his life (Moody 24). From an early age, Forrest had the ability to capture an audience. He also possessed a gift for music and mimicry. In church, listeners would gather around the young boy and be amazed by his skills.
It was largely presumed that Forrest would assume a career in church. However, most of Forrest’s admirers were to be disappointed by his career choice. From an early age, Forrest had shown an attraction to theatre. It is not clear how he was able to access a theater but by the time he was nine, Forrest was already a regular theatre attendant. His first appearance in an organized performance was when he was eleven.
During this appearance, he played a female character. Although this was a milestone for the aspiring thespian, his performance was not good enough to convince the theatre manager to cast him regularly. However, this performance lit a fire in his belly and convinced him he could pursue theatre.
It was during this time that the young thespian started studying the great artists of the time. He was particularly keen with the works of Edmund Kean, William Conway, and Junius Booth. Forrest attended performances of these actors regularly in a bid to hone his skills.
After his first not-so-convincing performance, Forrest finally convinced the theatre manager to give him another chance. The manager then agreed to include the future theater master in a performance of “Douglas” at the Walnut Street House theatre. Even though he had joined a cast of experienced performers, he still managed to impress the audience.
His gracious and modest figure was the fuel that was to drive his career to unprecedented heights. After his first performance, the manager allowed him to come back to the theatre as Fredric in “Lovers’ Vows”. By January of 1821, Forrest was already in his third performance as Octavian in the theatre production of the “Mountaineers”. During his late teens, the young actor was operating as a manager at the Prune Street Theatre.
This proved to be a profitable venture for the thespian. It also broadened his horizons and it was at this time that he started seeking admission to the prestigious “Western Circuits”. He believed this would give him the necessary experience as well as recognition. His efforts paid off because when he was around sixteen years old, Forrest was employed by the Collins and Jones theatre company.
Through this company, he worked for various theatres in Cincinnati, Lexington, and Pittsburgh. During these performances, he took up mainly juvenile roles. Soon after, the actor signed up with a theatrical company. This move helped introduce this great artist to the rest of the world.
After launching his professional career, Forrest was involved in many major performances across the country. He also had the chance of performing alongside one of his childhood heroes William Conway. Conway’s performance in Othello was one of the performances that were studied keenly by Forrest.
Later on, this study was to help him when it was his turn to portray this same character. Another high point of Forrest’s career was when he played alongside his other idol Edmund Kean. Kean was on his second American tour and was performing at the Albany theatre at the time.
Forrest was particularly baffled by the way his idol admired his work. In his own admission, Kean was one of the most magnificent actors he had ever met. During their stint together, the pair was involved in some memorable performances. For instance, Forrest performed as Lago to Kean’s Othello, Richmond to Kean’s Richard, and Titus to the legend’s Brutus.
Forrest’s breakthrough role was in the production of “Othello” at the Park Theatre in New York. This was quite a breakthrough considering this was the most famous theatre in America at the time. All famous actors of the time had showcased their talent at Park and Forrest made his chance count. Soon after this legendary performance, the Bowery Theatre of New York opened its doors.
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In his inaugural performance at this venue in November of 1826, the actor continued to mesmerize audiences with his performance as Othello. This performance also earned him a considerable pay hike.
The thespian was also a man of great moral integrity. For instance when he was offered a post at a rival theatre for a better salary, he declined the offer. At the height of his popularity, Edwin Forrest was able to make up to two hundred dollars a night.
One of the benefits that came with the actor’s fame and acceptance was that he got to make money. After only a few years in the business, the actor had managed to clear his late father’s debts. His mother and the rest of the family were also well taken care of at the time.
It was in 1834 that the actor decided to go on a hiatus (Moody 57). He was bade farewell by fans and fellow actors in a banquet that was held in New York. When he returned from his vacation in Europe, he was glad to find that his popularity and fame were still intact.
In 1836, Forrest embarked on a performance tour in Europe. His first stop was London. Here he became one of the first American actors to take a stage in England. His first performance was in “Spartacus”. Although the play was a failure, his performance was applauded. His subsequent performances received reviews that were more positive.
It was during this London engagement that he got to meet his future wife Miss Catherine Sinclair the daughter of a popular English singer. The two got married in 1837. It was also during this engagement that Forrest met and socialized with both Charles Kemble and William Macready. Forrest admitted to getting a lot of help from the latter when he was trying to connect with the English audience.
When Forrest returned to America, his new wife was an instant sensation even with his friends. Most people were amazed by her mannerisms and her refinement. The qualities were in contrast to Forrest’s downright and rough attitude. However, their marriage failed to transcend over these differences.
Just a few years after they had been married, the two were involved in nasty and public divorce proceedings. The result of the divorce was a trodden Edwin Forrest. The court also ordered him to pay alimony to Sinclair.
After the divorce, the actor came out of the proceedings a dejected man (Baker 49). However, his rising popularity encouraged him to soldier on. After the Broadway theatre went into business, Forrest found a new venue to parade his art. It was in this theatre that he launched a sixty-night performance.
This performance increased his popularity as well as wealth. It is often thought that the events surrounding his divorce made Edwin Forrest a bitter man. This is why he had a lot of problems with his temper during this period.
In 1845, Forrest had visited England for a second time. During this time, he was accompanied by his wife. At their arrival, the two were welcomed by English and Scotch intellectuals and nobilities. When in London, Forrest pitched camp at Princess Theatre. Here he was able to stage several successful performances. It was during a performance as Macbeth when the audience publicly showed their dissatisfaction by hissing.
However, Forrest believed that this hissing was a manifestation of professional jealousy. He believed that William Macready had orchestrated this hissing to undermine him. This was in spite of the fact that Macready had helped him connect with local audiences during his previous trip to London.
As an act of retaliation, Forrest stood up during one of Macready’s performances and hissed him. This act was highly condemned by the British Press. Forrest’s stature among his English audience was also negatively impacted.
These two incidences were seemingly harmless and inconsequential. However, they laid the groundwork for an event that took the world by surprise. The rivalry between Macready and Forrest reached new heights when Macready toured America after the London incident. The two had both toured each other’s country twice. Their rivalry stemmed from the fact that Forrest was seen as the first homegrown American talent.
On the other hand, Macready represented English supremacy in the world of theatre performances. It is for this reason that both parties were insecure about the success of their rivals. This was much so for Forrest who had broken barriers to achieve unparalleled success. During Macready’s second visit to America, this rivalry had spread to encompass anti-British anger.
Therefore, on seventh May 1849 Forrest’s supporters halted Macready’s performance at the Astor Place theatre using acts of hooliganism. There were also anti-British slogans in the Astor Place theatre. This went on for a few days yet Macready declined to abandon his performance. Finally, the protests culminated into a full-blown riot. During the riot, approximately thirty people lost their lives and over a hundred were injured (Cliff 19).
When the riot ended, Forrest found himself at the receiving end of criticism. However, his brave actions earned him future respect. Other actors who came after him tried to influence change using their craft. John Barrymore is one of such actors.
After these unfortunate events, Forrest reappeared again at the Broadway Theatre in New York in 1852. The following year he took part in the staging of “Macbeth”. The play featured new settings, sceneries, and appointments. The play was staged for a record twenty-two nights and it featured an all-star cast. Forrest was then absent from the stage for about four years.
After this, he again reappeared at the Niblo’s Garden as Hamlet. At Niblo’s, he signed a contract that would have him perform for a hundred nights. His prior absence from the stage only fuelled his popularity.
Therefore, most of the shows at this venue were sold out. His similar performances in Philadelphia and Boston were equally successful. For instance, during his performances in Boston the halls were too small to contain the audiences he pulled.
In 1865, the now famous actor was faced by a new challenge. This time it was in the form of an illness. Edwin Forrest had started showing signs of early gout. The actor did not give up and continued performing as he struggled with this condition. Later on, the actor suffered a serious bout of pneumonia while performing at Baltimore’s Holiday Street Theatre.
After struggling to finish his performance, the doctors examined him only to discover that he had suffered partial paralysis of the sciatic nerve. Because of this affliction, his right hand became almost paralyzed. In his last days as a performer, the actor was even unable to lift up a sword.
In the year following his diagnosis, Forrest toured California and managed to do a few shows there. His final appearance in New York was in 1871 where he played Lear and Richelieu. After regaining considerable strength, he again toured Boston. This was in the month of March 1972.
At Boston, Forrest struggled through various illnesses including a severe cold. It was also during this time that he was unable to perform even after being booked for performances. Edwin Forrest died in December of the same year. The cause of his death was a stroke.
Edwin Forrest was involved in several philanthropic endeavors. Even in death, he continued these through his will and testament. For instance, he helped establish “The Edwin Forrest Home” a home for retired actors. As an honor, Forrest has had two theatres named after him. One of those is in New York and the other one is in Philadelphia.
In the span of his career, Forrest was able to triumph in many Shakespearean productions. Some of his strongest performances were in plays such as “Lear” and “Othello”. When it came to portraying characters, Coriolanus remains one his best portrayals. His performances managed to maintain their momentum until ill health came knocking.
However, his mastery of dialogue remained with him until the end. Characters such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard were said to be out of his character-range. However, it was his ability to realize when it was time to elaborate a scene that enabled him to connect with his audience. He was also able to elevate his artistic abilities above his natural talents. This is what made him one the greatest actors that American theatre has ever known.
Moody, Richard. Edwin Forrest, First Star of the American Stage, New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960. Print.
Baker, Thomas. Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame, New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.
Cliff, Nigel. The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America, New York, New York: Random House, 2007. Print.