Friday, August 31st, 2018...8:25 am

Summer Spotlight: John Wilkes Booth and the Theatre of Our Discontent

Jump to Comments

Not all the objects in Houghton Library’s collections have such illustrious, proud histories as a Shakespeare First Folio or Gutenberg Bible.  Objects of less reputable association can provide just as striking of an encounter as these treasured relics, however. During the behind-the-scenes tour of Houghton on my first day of work at the library, I encountered one such item in the Harvard Theatre Collection: an actor’s promptbook of Richard III, belonging to one John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

Promptbook inscribed by Booth

Fly-leaf inscribed by John Wilkes Booth. ‘Shakespeare’s historical tragedy of Richard III: Adapted to representation by Colley Cibber,..’ (New York: Samuel French, [between 1857 and 1862]) pp. 16-17. TS Promptbook Sh154.322. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Promptbook interior with annotations by Booth

Promptbooks like this allowed actors to note specific stage directions and performance minutiae alongside the text itself. ‘Shakespeare’s historical tragedy of Richard III : Adapted to representation by Colley Cibber,..’ (New York: Samuel French, [between 1857 and 1862]), pp. 16-17. TS Promptbook Sh154.322. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

This promptbook features John Wilkes Booth’s prominent signature at the front and copious annotations  throughout, including notes about the staging (e.g. “call up Band”) and edits of the text. We cannot be certain all the notes are Booth’s, as the promptbook appears to have been shared by a few actors, but the notes in ink seem to match the hand that signed his name.  Booth used this promptbook for a performance of Richard III on March 17, 1862 at Mary Provost’s Theatre in New York.  Near the height of the Civil War (the Battle of Shiloh would be fought less than a month later) the staunch Confederate performed deep within Northern territory.  Richard III itself may have provided Booth with some twisted solace during his Northern foray, as many Southerners in the period drew parallels between Shakespeare’s Richard of Gloucester and the supposedly “tyrannical” President Abraham Lincoln.  However, even a cursory inspection of Booth’s promptbook complicates the story of this performance: Booth actually performed Colley Cibber’s 1699 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III.  This version, the standard in performance until the twentieth century, includes some of Shakespeare’s original lines but drastically condenses the play to a more performable length.  Thus, the text Booth edited and performed is largely unrecognizable to a modern reader of Shakespeare.

The Harvard Theatre Collection includes even more information about the performance in which Booth used this promptbook.  Playbills for the March 17th show advertised John Wilkes Booth in bold type as the “Young American Tragedian” braving the bright lights of New York for the first time.  The performance marked more firsts than that, however—actress Mary Provost had just taken over Wallack’s Theatre, and Booth’s performance of Richard III would inaugurate the grand re-opening under the Provost banner.  This would be the venue’s thirteenth such “rebranding” in the previous fifteen years; Provost would need a spark to stabilize the volatile theater and maintain a following.

Provost's Theatre playbill for Richard III

Playbill. Mary Provost’s Theatre. Richard III. March 17, 1862. TCS 65. Houghton Library, Harvard University.


Obverse of Provost's Richard III playbill

Obverse of the March 17th playbill; John Wilkes Booth was advertised as the “star” who would help Mary Provost re-open this theatre under “most favorable auspices.” Playbill. Mary Provost’s Theatre. Richard III. March 17, 1862. TCS 65. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Booth apparently lived up to this ambitious billing.  Critics praised his striking, violent performance as Richard of Gloucester; the New York Herald of March 18th recounted the “veritable sensation” of his performance in Act V: “His face blackened and smeared with blood, he seemed Richard himself . . . An audience packed and crammed beyond the normal limits of the theatre applauded him to the echo.”  Critic T. Allston Brown wrote of Booth’s performance, “He imitated no one, but struck out into a path of his own, introducing points which older actors would not dare to attempt. . . In this character he was more terribly real than any other actor I ever saw.”  As a result, Booth was reengaged in the role of Gloucester the following week for “every evening until further notice,” according to a playbill of his April 1st performance.  Additionally, during this engagement Booth took starring roles in Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice, among other plays not by Shakespeare.  (Despite the evident success of these performances, the theatre still closed again April 12th after Provost took ill.)

Playbill for Provost’s Theatre's Hamlet.

Playbill. Mary Provost’s Theatre. Hamlet. March 24, 1862. TCS 65. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

This material evidence of Booth’s success shocked me more than I might have expected.  My perception of Booth had always been fairly straightforward: some sort of outcast monster, the sorest of losers who found in violence the consummation of his hatred.  He was all those things, of course—but it never really occurred to me that he was anything more, as the assassination and aftermath usually dominate Booth’s historical profile.  These Booth-related objects at Houghton attest to a lot of things about the man, including the bewildering promise of his acting career.  However, they illuminate even more beyond this visible surface.

One of the things I find most compelling about American history are the moments of sheer peculiarity.  Seeing this praise of Booth reminds one of the fundamental weirdness of the Lincoln assassination.  After all, 1865’s Ryan Gosling murdered the president!  Our education seems to smooth out these peculiarities, assimilating them into a curriculum of conventional historical study and presenting them as the intelligible facts of an ordered history—the discipline’s version of subject-verb agreement or the order of operations.  Houghton’s artifacts undo some of that normalization, crystallizing the historical singularity of that moment in a way that I never before experienced.

Lincoln assassination wanted poster

Houghton’s unique copy of War Department wanted poster for Booth and conspirators. Washington, D.C., 1865. US 102.9. (43).  Houghton Library, Harvard University.

If these items together loosely posit a thesis, it has something to do with the tenuous grasp on “certainty” we have about the past.  Some of the things we might feel we know the most firmly—the text of Shakespeare, well-known historical figures like Booth—are themselves protean, with slippery cores of meaning we can only hope to glimpse behind layers of misdirection and surprise.  Thus, necks craned uncomfortably backwards, we hunt for that elusive clarity.

But though our removed perspective often limits us to (over)educated guesswork and perplexity, the benefit of “knowing the ending” of these historical stories can offer new light on the beginnings.  Perhaps underneath the lights at Mary Provost’s, Booth thought he was channeling the tyrannical spirit of his President. We know all too well, however, who would truly end up, in the words of Richard III, “determined to prove a villain.”


This is the second and last part of the “Summer Spotlight” series, written by Mitchell Edwards, Harvard College ’18 and Houghton Library Assistant.

For more on Houghton’s unique copy of the wanted poster for Lincoln’s assassins, featured in the Boston Globe, listen to John Stauffer, Professor of English and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University, speak about it here.

Comments are closed.