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Joseph Jefferson, distinguished, among his other brilliant successes as an actor, as the creator for this generation of the character of Rip Van Winkle in the play dramatized from the story in Washington Irving's "Sketch Book," was the third of his name in a family of actors. The first of the three was born at Plymouth, England, in 1774. He was the son of Thomas Jefferson, a comedian of merit, the contemporary and friend of Garrick, and came to this country in 1795, making his first appearance in New York on February 10, 1796, in the part of Squire Richard in "The Provoked Husband." Dunlap says that, young as he was, he was already an artist, and that among the men of the company he held the first place. He lived in this country for thirty-six years, admired as an actor and respected as a man. He died at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1832.
Joe Jefferson as Bob Acres.
Thus early wedded to the stage, Jefferson followed the fortunes of his family, and led with them a wandering life for many years, growing, by slow degrees and constant, varied practice, to the perfection of his prime. In 1838 his father led the flock to Chicago, just then grown from an Indian village to a thriving place of two thousand inhabitants, where he was to join his brother in the management of a new theatre, then building. Jefferson's account of the journey is a striking picture, at once amusing and pathetic, of the changes that have been wrought by fifty years. The real privations and hardships of the trip are veiled in the actor's story by his quiet humor and his disposition to see everything in a cheerful light. Always quizzing his own youthful follies, he cannot conceal from us by any mischievous anecdotes his essential goodness of nature, his merry helpfulness, his unselfish devotion to the welfare of the others, or the pluck with which he met the accidents of this itinerant life. From Chicago, where their success was not brilliant, the family went by stage to Springfield, where, by a singular chance, they were rescued from the danger that threatened them in the closing of the theatre by a municipal law trumped up in the interest of religious revivalists, by the adroitness of a young lawyer, who proved to be none other than Abraham Lincoln. In Memphis, when bad business had closed the theatre, young Jefferson's pluck and ready wit saved the family purse from absolute collapse. A city ordinance had been passed, requiring that all carts, drays, and public vehicles should be numbered; and the boy, hearing of this, called at the mayor's office, and, explaining the situation that had obliged his father to exchange acting for sign-painting, applied in his name for the contract for painting the numbers--and obtained it! The new industry furnished father and son with a month's work, and some jobs at sign-painting helped still further to make life easier.
From Memphis the family went to Mobile, where they hoped to rest after their long wanderings, and where it was also hoped the children, Joseph and his sister, might be put to school. But the yellow fever was raging in Mobile, and they had been in the city only a fortnight when Mr. Jefferson was attacked by the disease and died. In Mobile, too, the good Mary died, and Mrs. Jefferson was left alone to care for herself and her children as she could. She had no longer a heart for acting, and she decided to open a boarding-house for actors, while Joseph and his sister earned a small stipend by variety work in the theatre.
More years of hardship followed--the trio of mother and children wandering over the country, south and west: in Mississippi and Mexico, seeing life in all its phases of ill luck and disappointment, with faint gleams of success here and there, but meeting all with a spirit of such cheerful bravery as makes the darkest experience yield a pleasure in the telling. Surely, it might soften the heart of the sourest enemy of the stage to read the spirit in which this family met the long-continued crosses of their professional life.
Joseph Jefferson tells the story of his career so modestly, that it is hard to discover just when it was that success first began to turn a smiling face upon his efforts. Yet it would seem as if, for himself, the day broke when he created the part of Asa Trenchard in "Our American Cousin." He says that up to 1858, when he acted that part, he had been always more or less a "legitimate" actor, that is, one who has his place with others in a stock company, and never thinks of himself as an individual and single attraction--a star, as it is called. While engaged with this part, it suddenly occurred to him that in acting Asa Trenchard he had, for the first time in his life on the stage, spoken a pathetic speech; up to that time all with him had been pure comedy. Now he had found a part in which he could move his audience to tears as well as smiles. This was to him a delightful discovery, and he looked about for a new part in which he could repeat the experiment. One day in summer, as he lay in the loft of a barn reading in a book he well calls delightful, Pierre Irving's "Life and Letters of Washington Irving," he learned that the great writer had seen him act the part of Goldfinch, in Holcroft's "Road to Ruin," and that he reminded him of his grandfather, Joseph Jefferson, "in look, gesture, size, and make." Naturally pleased to find himself remembered and written of by such a man, he lay musing on the compliment, when the "Sketch Book" and the story of Rip van Winkle came suddenly into his mind. "There was to me," he writes, "magic in the sound of the name as I repeated it. Why was not this the very character I wanted? An American story by an American author was surely just the thing suited to an American actor."
There had been three or four plays founded on this story, but Jefferson says that none of them were good. His father and his half-brother had acted the part before him, but nothing that he remembered gave him any hope that he could make a good play out of existing material. He therefore went to work to construct a play for himself, and his story of how he did it, told in two pages of his book, and with the most unconscious air in the world, reveals the whole secret of Jefferson's acting: its humor and pathos subtly mingled, its deep humanity, its pure poetry--the assemblage of qualities, in fine, that make it the most perfect as well as the most original product of the American stage.
Yet the play, even in the form he gave it, did not satisfy him, nor did it make the impression in America that he desired. It was not until five years later that Dion Boucicault, in London, remade it for Jefferson; and it was in that city it first saw the light in its new form, September 5, 1865. It was at once successful, and had a run of one hundred and seventy-five nights.
With his Asa Trenchard and his Rip van Winkle will ever be associated in the loving memory of play-goers his Bob Acres in Sheridan's "Rivals," thought by many to be his capital part--a personification where all the foibles of the would-be man-of-the-world: his self-conceit, his brag, his cowardice, are transformed into virtues and captivate our hearts, dissolved in the brimming humor which yet never overflows the just measure, so degenerating into farce.
Between the two productions of Rip van Winkle in New York and in London, Jefferson had had many strange experiences. His wife died in 1861, and he broke up his household in New York, and leaving three of his children at school in that city, he left home with his eldest son and went to California. After acting in San Francisco, he sailed for Australia, where he was warmly received; thence went to the other British colonies in that region, touched on his return at Lima and Callao and Panama, at which place he took a sailing-packet for London, and after his great success in that city returned to America in 1866. In 1867 he married, in Chicago, Miss Sarah Warren, and since that time his life has flowed on in an even stream, happy in all its relations, private and public, crowned with honors, not of a gaudy or brilliant kind, but solid and enduring. His art is henceforth part and parcel of the rich treasure of the American stage.
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