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Edwin Forrest was born in the city of Philadelphia, March 9, 1806, his father, a Scotchman, having emigrated to America during the last year of the preceding century. The boy, like many others of his profession, was designed for the ministry, and before the age of eleven the future Channing had attracted admiring listeners by the music of his voice and the aptness of his mimicry. His memory was remarkable, and he would recite whole passages of his preceptor's sermons. Perched upon a chair or stool, and crowned with the proud approval of family and friends, the young mimic filled the hearts of his listeners with fervent hopes of his coming success in the fold of their beloved church. These hopes were destined to be met with disappointment. The bias of the future leader of the American stage was only faintly outlined as yet; his hour of development was still to come.
Forrest as Metamora.
Of his professional progress here we have but poor accounts. He seems to have been very popular, and to have had an experience larger than he had heretofore enjoyed. He played with the elder Conway, and was affected by the grandeur of that actor's Othello, a study which served Forrest well when in late years he inherited the character.
Jane Placide, who inspired the first love of Edwin Forrest, was an actress who combined talent, beauty, and goodness. Her character would have softened the asperities of his, and led him by a calmer path to those grand elevations toward which Providence had directed his footsteps. Baffled in love, however, and believing Caldwell to be his rival and enemy, he challenged him; but was rebuked by the silent contempt of his manager, whom the impulsive and disappointed lover "posted."
The hard novitiate of Edwin Forrest was now drawing near its close. Securing a stock engagement with Charles Gilfert, manager of the Albany Theatre, he opened there in the early fall, and played for the first time with Edmund Kean, then on his second visit to America. The meeting with this extraordinary man and the attention he received from him were foremost among the directing influences of Forrest's life. To his last hour he never wearied of singing the praises of Kean, whose genius filled the English-speaking world with admiration. Two men more unlike in mind and body can scarcely be imagined. Until now Forrest had seen no actor who represented in perfection the impassioned school of which Kean was the master. He could not have known Cooke, even in the decline of that great tragedian's power, and the little giant was indeed a revelation. He played Iago to Kean's Othello, Titus to his Brutus, and Richmond to his Richard III.
In the interval which preceded the opening of the Bowery Theatre, New York, Forrest appeared at the Park for the benefit of Woodhull, playing Othello. He made a pronounced success, his old manager sitting in front, profanely exclaiming, "By God, the boy has made a hit!" This was a great event, as the Park was then the leading theatre of America, and its actors were the most famous and exclusive.
He opened at the Bowery Theatre in November, 1826, as Othello, and made a brilliant impression. His salary was raised from $28 to $40 per week. From this success may be traced the first absolute hold made by Edwin Forrest upon the attention of cultivated auditors and intelligent critics. The Bowery was then a very different theatre from what it afterward became, when the newsboys took forcible possession of its pit and the fire-laddies were the arbiters of public taste in its neighborhood.
An instance of Forrest's moral integrity may be told here. He had been approached by a rival manager, after his first success, and urged to secede from the Bowery and join the other house at a much larger salary. He scornfully refused to break his word, although his own interests he knew must suffer. His popularity at this time was so great that, when his contract for the season had expired, he was instantly engaged for eight nights, at a salary of two hundred dollars a night.
The success which had greeted Forrest on his first appearance in New York, was renewed in every city in the land. Fortune attended fame, and filled his pockets, as the breath of adulation filled his heart. He had paid the last penny of debt left by his father, and had seen a firm shelter raised over the head of his living family. With a patriotic feeling for all things American, Forrest, about this time, formed a plan for the encouragement or development of an American drama, which resulted in heavy money losses to himself, but produced such contributions to our stage literature as the "Gladiator," "Jack Cade," and "Metamora." After five years of constant labor he felt that he had earned the right to a holiday, and he formed his plans for a two years' absence in Europe. A farewell banquet was tendered him by the citizens of New York, and a medal was struck in honor of the occasion. Bryant, Halleck, Leggett, Ingraham and other distinguished men were present. This was an honor which had never before been paid to an American actor.
He had been absent about two years when he landed in New York in September, 1836. On his appearance at the Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, he was received with unprecedented enthusiasm. He gave six performances only, on this occasion, and each saw a repetition of the scene at the beginning of the engagement. The receipts were the largest ever known in that house.
On September 19, 1836, Forrest embarked once more for the mother country, this time with serious purpose. After a speedy and uneventful passage he reached England, and at once set about the preliminary business of his British engagement, which began October 17, 1836. He was the first really great American actor who had appeared in London as a rival of the English tragedians; for Cooper was born in England, though always regarded as belonging to the younger country. His opening part was Spartacus in the "Gladiator." The play was condemned, the actor applauded. In Othello, in Lear, and in Macbeth, he achieved instant success. He began his engagement October 17th and closed December 19th, having acted Macbeth seven times, Othello nine, and King Lear eight. A dinner at the Garrick Club was offered and accepted. Here he sat down with Charles Kemble and Macready; Sergeant Talfourd was in the chair.
It was during this engagement he met his future wife, Miss Catherine Sinclair. In the latter part of June, 1837, the marriage took place in St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden. Mr. and Mrs. Forrest soon after embarked for America. The tragedian resumed his American engagements November 15, 1837, at the old Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia. Presented to his friends, his wife at once made a deep and lasting impression. Her native delicacy of mind and refinement of manners enchanted those who hoped for some such influence to be exerted in softening the rough vigor and democratic downrightness of the man. Domestic discord came too soon, however, and in an evil hour for himself, in an evil hour for his art and for the struggling drama in America, Edwin Forrest threw open the doors of his home to the scrutiny of the world, and appealed to the courts to remove the skeleton which was hidden in his closet. With the proceedings of that trial, which resulted in divorce, alimony, and separation, this memoir has nothing to do.
Edwin Forrest, leaving the court-room a defeated man, was instantly raised to a popularity with the masses beyond anything even he had before experienced. He began an engagement soon after at the Broadway Theatre, opening as Damon. The house was crowded to suffocation. The engagement of sixty nights was unparalleled in the history of the American drama for length and profit. But despite the flattering applause of the multitude, life never again had for him the smiling aspect it had so often worn before. The applause which filled his ears, the wealth which flowed in upon him could not improve that temper which had never been amiable, and all the hard stories of his life belong to this period.
On September 20, 1852, he reappeared at the Broadway Theatre, New York. In February, 1853, "Macbeth" was produced in grand style, with new scenery and appointments. The tragedy was played on twenty consecutive nights, then by far the longest run of any Shakespearean play in America. The cast was very strong. It included Conway, Duff, Davenport, Pope, Davidge, Barry, and Madame Ponisi.
On September 17, 1860, after an absence of nearly four years, Edwin Forrest appeared again on the stage. He was engaged by James Nixon, and began his contract of one hundred nights at Niblo's Garden, New York, in the character of Hamlet. The long retirement only increased the curious interest which centred round his historic name. Upon his opening night the seats were sold at auction. His success in Philadelphia rivalled that of New York. In Boston the vast auditorium of the grandest theatre in America was found too small to contain the crowds he drew.
Severe attacks of gout were beginning to tell upon that herculean form, sapping and undermining it; and in 1865, while playing Damon at the Holiday Street Theatre, in Baltimore, the weather being very cold and the theatre open to draughts, he was seized with a sudden illness, which was followed by very serious results. Suffering the most intense agony, he was able to get to the end of the part; but when his robes were laid aside and physicians summoned, it was found to his horror that he had suffered a partial paralysis of the sciatic nerve. In an instant the sturdy gait, the proud tread of the herculean actor was forever gone; for he never regained complete control of his limb, a perceptible hobble being the legacy of the dreadful visitation. His right hand was almost powerless, and he could not hold his sword.
In 1866 he went to California, urged by the manager in San Francisco. His last engagement in New York took place in February, 1871. He played Lear and Richelieu, his two greatest parts. On the night of March 25, 1872, Forrest opened in "Lear" at the Globe Theatre, Boston. "Lear" was played six nights. During the second week he was announced for Richelieu and Virginius; but he caught a violent cold on Sunday, and labored sorely on Monday evening through the part of Richelieu. On Tuesday he repeated the performance, against the advice of friends and physicians. Rare bursts of his old power lighted up the play, but he labored piteously on against his illness and threatened pneumonia. When stimulants were offered he rejected them, declaring "that if he died to-night, he should still be his old royal self."
Announced for Virginius the following evening, he was unable to appear. A severe attack of pneumonia developed itself. He was carried to his hotel, and his last engagement was brought to an abrupt and melancholy end. As soon as he was able to move, he left Boston for his home in Philadelphia, resting on his way only a day in New York. As the summer passed away, the desire for work grew stronger and stronger, and he decided to re-enter public life, but simply as a reader of the great plays in which he had as an actor been so successful. The result was a disappointment. On December 11, 1872, he wrote to Oakes his last letter, saying sadly, but fondly: "God bless you ever, my dear and much-beloved friend."
When the morning of December 12th came, his servant, hearing no sound in his chamber at his general hour of rising, became alarmed, opened his master's door, and found there, cold in death upon his bed, the form of the great tragedian. His arms were crossed upon his bosom, and he seemed to be at rest. The stroke had come suddenly. With little warning, and without pain, he had passed away.
The dead man's will was found to contain several bequests to old friends and servants, and an elaborate scheme by which his fortune, in the hands of trustees, was to be applied to the erection and support of a retreat for aged actors, to be called "The Edwin Forrest Home." The idea had been long in his mind, and careful directions were drawn up for its practical working; but the trustees found themselves powerless to realize fully the hopes and wishes of the testator. A settlement had to be made to the divorced wife, who acted liberally toward the estate; but the amount withdrawn seriously crippled it, as it was deprived at once of a large sum of ready money. Other legal difficulties arose. And thus the great ambition of the tragedian to be a benefactor to his profession was destined to come almost to naught. Of this happily little he recks now. He has parted with all the cares of life, and has at last found rest.
Forrest's greatest Shakespearean parts were Lear, Othello, and Coriolanus. The first grew mellow and rich as the actor grew in years, while it still retained much of its earlier force. His Othello suffered with the decline of his faculties, although his clear conception of all he did was apparent to the end in the acting of every one of his parts. Coriolanus died with him, the last of all the Romans. He was greatest, however, in such parts as Virginius, William Tell, and Spartacus. Here his mannerisms of gait and utterance were less noticeable than in his Shakespearean characters, or were overlooked in the rugged massiveness of the creation. Hamlet, Richard, and Macbeth were out of his temperament, and added nothing to his fame; but Richelieu is said to have been one of his noblest and most impressive performances. He was in all things marked and distinctive. His obtrusive personality often destroyed the harmony of the portrait he was painting; but in his inspired moments, which were many, his touches were sublime. He passed over quiet scenes with little elaboration, and dwelt strongly upon the grand features of the characters he represented. His Lear, in the great scenes, rose to a majestic height, but fell in places almost to mediocrity. His art was unequal to his natural gifts. He was totally unlike his great contemporary and rival, Macready, whose attention to detail gave to every performance the harmony of perfect work.
This memoir may fitly close with an illustrative anecdote of the great actor. Toward the end of his professional career he was playing an engagement at St. Louis. He was very feeble in health, and his lameness was a source of great anxiety to him. Sitting at a late supper in his hotel one evening, after a performance of "King Lear," with his friend J. B. McCullough, of the Globe-Democrat, that gentleman remarked to him: "Mr. Forrest, I never in my life saw you play Lear so well as you did to-night." Whereupon the veteran almost indignantly replied, rising slowly and laboriously from his chair to his full height: "Play Lear! What do you mean, sir? I do not play Lear! I play Hamlet, Richard, Shylock, Virginius, if you please, but by God, sir, I am Lear!"
Nor was this wholly imaginative. Ingratitude of the basest kind had rent his soul. Old friends were gone from him; new friends were but half-hearted. His hearthstone was desolate. The public, to whom he had given his best years, was becoming impatient of his infirmities. The royalty of his powers he saw by degrees torn from his decaying form. Other kings had arisen on the stage, to whom his old subjects now showed a reverence once all his own. The mockery of his diadem only remained. A wreck of the once proud man who had despised all weakness, and had ruled his kingdom with imperial sway, he now stood alone. Broken in health and in spirit, deserted, forgotten, unkinged, he might well exclaim, "I am Lear!"
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