Edwin Booth had these eyes: dark, large and full of sorrow.They tore people’s hearts out. It was said that no one had ever seen the young actor laugh. That well-earned sorrow matured into frequent drinking binges and sometimes shoddy performances as an actor, but unlike his insane and brilliant father who begot him illegitimately there was a softness to his voice and a winning sensitivity in his acting that drew people in despite Edwin’s faltering.
His father Junius was famous and famously promiscuous having many children and setting up between his illegitimate sons a devastating competitiveness and ambition. Since Junius was nuts, but the one paying the bills, Edwin at age twelve was given the monumental task of caretaker for his father on the road. So long schooling and stability (if there ever was any) and hello late nights chasing down his father at saloons only to be humiliated when his drunk father pretended not to know him.
Maybe that was better than the nights Edwin was forced to play the banjo at his father’s bedside to help him fall asleep. Did he look down at the man he loved and was ashamed of as the old man’s nose hairs fluttered through his snoring? What must a 12-year-old think?
Twelve became 13 and 14 and 19. People said Edwin looked pale, neglected and exhausted but still he ran lines with his increasingly insane father who finally died after drinking river water. Imagine having spent years hiding your father under a bed as you try to explain to angry creditors and theater owners why your father is missing. Imagine sitting up late at night in shoddy hotels still a child, your eyes so soulfully taking in every last evidence that you were a nobody.
But people had noticed Edwin knew the lines his father didn’t. They wanted to take him in–those eyes demanded it. And so his acting career began. Once he played along side his infamous brother John. Once just before his brother assassinated the president Edwin saved Lincoln’s son from falling under a train. This was small comfort as Lincoln’s body was taken to be buried, but Edwin was used to small comfort. Fame didn’t erase sorrow.
People in the 19th century were acquainted with sorrow. They even worried that too much happiness would cause them to fall away from God who in his great love for these little sorrowful people called upon his own son to die for them. Edwin was no Christ figure but he was called upon to sacrifice a whole lot. He married and had one child. I like to think that when he finally gave up drinking and focused on cementing his career as the best 19th century actor that he also had plenty of tender moments with his child. I hope on those occasions the sorrow left his eyes.
Inspired by Rebel Souls