The Edwin Booth statue in Gramercy Park.

How I Became a Player

Playwright and director Brad McEntire writes about his pilgrimage to Edwin Booth's hang.

published Friday, May 29, 2009

I have a mild, but persistent case of dromomania. The traveling fugue as it is sometimes called; dromomania is the compulsive desire to travel, far and often. For St. Patrick's Day this year, I was in New York City.

My original reason for being in town was to attend a staged reading of my original play Chop put on by the Off-Broadway development theatre Cry Havoc the night before St. Pat’s, at their Monday Night Lab Series. My friend Will Harper (former Dallas actor and currently acting in Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, which won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama) performed Chop for the reading and my new friend Andy Merkel directed. The reading went over nicely. I got some good feedback and the piece showed itself to be about 95 percent ready to be put on its feet.

When I made my original travel plans for NYC, I overlooked the fact that St. Patrick's Day was this week. It was a happy coincidence. For St. Pat's I visited a place I had wanted to visit for years: The Players Club.

Here's the description from the Players Club website:

In 1888, Edwin Booth, America's pre-eminent Shakespearean actor, and 15 other incorporators, including Mark Twain and General William Tecumseh Sherman, founded The Players. Modeled after London's famed Garrick Club, The Players was the first American "gentleman's club" of its kind. Its purpose: "The promotion of social intercourse between members of the dramatic profession and the kindred professions of literature, painting, architecture, sculpture and music, law and medicine, and the patrons of the arts..."

The Players, located in a Greek Revival townhouse facing historic Gramercy Park, is also home to the Hampden-Booth Theater Library, reflecting Booth's express wish to create "a library relating especially to the history of the American stage and the preservation of pictures, bills of the play, photographs, and curiosities connected with such history... ."

Today, men and women from a variety of professions in the arts, business, and commerce enjoy The Players' unique spirit of conviviality and tradition that truly makes it a certain club. I made an appointment and was led around the place by a fellow named Dennis. It was a hurried tour, but still magical. I am a sucker for old-time oak and mahogany, brass fittings and velvet furniture. Also, I really am a sort of amateur-expert of Edwin Booth, appreciating chiefly how he brought the profession of acting up to respectable status (or semi-respectable...believe it or not, the theatre used to be synonymous with low moral character and questionable business practices. Hard to believe, I know).

I also remain fascinated with how Edwin Booth handled his brother, John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He was a perfect gentleman about a very difficult episode both in national history, but in his own family history as well.

In fact, in an interesting coincidence of history, Edwin Booth saved Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert, from serious injury or even death. The incident occurred on a train platform in New Jersey. The exact date of the incident is uncertain, but it is believed to have taken place in late 1864 or early 1865, shortly before Edwin's brother assassinated President Lincoln. Booth did not know the identity of the man whose life he had saved until some months later. The fact that he had saved the life of Abraham Lincoln's son was said to have been of some comfort to Edwin Booth following his brother's assassination of the president.

Besides the Dining Room (lined with painted portraits, it doubles as an ad hoc theatre for readings, music and lectures) and the great second floor Hampden-Booth Theatre Library with its wood panels and warm old decorative lamps the Booth Room was the highlight.

The musty smell hits first, more so than the rest of the place. It really does seem somehow fitting when you enter Edwin Booth's bedroom on the third floor—the room he died in. The hardwood floor is partially covered by a well-worn Persian carpet and personal effects are displayed and arranged as though they were just used by their owner, who died in his bed shortly after 1 a.m. on June 7, 1893.

This suite was Booth's inner sanctum. In fact, when he deeded 16 Gramercy Park to The Players, it was with the proviso that he should be allowed to retain his rooms on the third floor where he and his servants could come and go undisturbed.

The room is divided into two areas: the bedroom on the east side of the room, which takes up a little less than half the space, and a living area. Booth's small, canopied single bed, covered by a handmade patchwork coverlet embroidered with the initials "E.B.," dominates the sleeping area. Next to Booth's bed is the chaise where Booth's daughter Edwina often used to stay, looking over her father during his last days.

Nearly everything in the Booth Room is as it was in the actor's lifetime, with the obvious exception of the memorial wreath that now hangs on the wall behind Edwina's chaise. Against the northeast corner of the room is a huge two-handed broadsword with a four-foot blade. Old tobacco pouches hang on the wall. Opposite is the only portrait of John Wilkes Booth that can be found in The Players, hanging just above a picture of the other bane of Booth's existence, his second wife, Mary McVicker (over my shoulder in the picture of me in the room). High on the west wall of the bedroom, partially obscured by damask curtains, is the Booth coat of arms, bearing the motto Quod ero, Spero (“I look forward to what I shall become”), which Booth bequeathed to The Players for use as the club's motto.

Across from the bedroom area is a study that can be divided by a heavy red velvet curtain. Besides objects from Stratford-upon-Avon, a collection of smoking pipes and other mementos, photographs, portraits, and paraphernalia of the loved ones and colleagues who filled Edwin Booth's life cover the walls of this room.

I was hoping to see a painting of Edwin’s father Junius Brutus, but there was not one in his living chambers. I have a delightful old hardback with well-yellowed pages called Prince of Players: Edwin Booth by Eleanor Ruggles. The first part of the book is about his brilliant, crazy, alcoholic dad Junius Brutus Booth. Junius Brutus had acted in his youth with Edmund Kean and was a contemporary of Edwin Forrest, for whom his son Edwin was named. As a young man Edwin accompanied his dad around the country on his tours as he played great tragic roles like Richard III and Othello. Edwin’s job was mostly to keep his pop off the sauce and get him to the wings in time for his entrances. After several years, Edwin started joining his dad on stage, playing minor roles at first. Here is one episode about how Edwin learned how to interact with an audience from his father:

[Edwin] began to get the feel of an audience. They [Edwin and his father Junius Brutus] were doing Brutus by John Howard Payne one night in Richmond. In the part of the doughty old Roman for whom he was named Mr. Booth has just ordered his son Titus beheaded for treason. He clasped Edwin as Titus in a last embrace. "Farewell," he murmured, "eternally farewell!" and his passionately sad tones, investing the few words with the whole terrible conflict between father and patriot, brought tears to the eyes of everyone watching, even of the supers dressed as Roman lictors—to all eyes except those of a drunken man in the gallery who sniggered.

A laugh in the wrong place, shattering the delicate structure of emotional tension so painstakingly wrought, often made the cheeks of veteran tragedians flush with crimson, and their lips tremble. Booth was made of sterner material. He stared deliberately up in the direction of the rude noise, and improvising a line not in the text but perfectly in keeping with his role, said in a voice that suddenly filled the theater: "Beware, I am the headsman! I am the executioner!"

Edwin, at the time rigid in his father’s arms, recalled afterward that the words fell "like a thunder-shock... All in front and on the stage seemed paralyzed, until the thunders of applause that followed broke the spell."

It is rare indeed to find contemporary performers who can command an audience like that. Sometimes, I wish for the glory, romance and power of the old pasteboard glitter of olden times. That’s probably one reason Edwin Booth fascinates me so.

Atop the mahogany bookcase on one wall is the skull of a notorious horse thief, Lovett, who according to my tour guide Dennis, went by the name of Fontaine. He fancied himself a Shakespeare buff and an even bigger fan of the acting of Junius Brutus Booth, Edwin’s father. According to a 19th-century biographer of Edmund Kean, when Fontaine and Junius Brutus met in a Louisville jail cell (the elder Booth was frequently jailed for drunkenness), Fontaine, aware that his execution would be imminent, willed his skull to be used by Booth as Yorick in future productions of Hamlet. Accounts differ as to whether or not Junius Brutus ever actually used Fontaine's cranium as a stage prop, but we do know that the skull was presented to Edwin Booth when he was on the road touring. Edwin's signature and that of actor Owen Fawcett, who played the gravedigger on February 1, 1890, are both inscribed on the skull. I didn’t get close enough to see it, but according to the Players Club website, there is also a curious mark of a crescent moon and a five-pointed star just above the brow, and the remnants of a handwritten quote that to the naked eye appears to have been made by whichever hand inked the moon and star insignia. Most appropriately, the writing appears to be one of the most famous quotes from Hamlet: "The rest is silence."

Side note: The real human skull reminded me of that great and sad hoax concerning Del Close’s skull. Del Close was an improvisation pioneer, cantankerous founder of Chicago’s Improv Olympics and a director at the world-renowned Second City (he trained folks like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Mike Myers and Tina Fey). Just before he died of terminal emphysema Close had made provisions in his will for his skull to go to the Goodman Theatre, so that he could play Yorick in Hamlet. He instructed Charna Halpern, his longtime creative partner and executor, “Promise me you’ll make that skull thing happen, no matter what.” And she promised. It was sort of his great last joke on the world. A skull was presented with much fanfare to the Goodman and appeared onstage in Arcadia, Pericles and I Am My Own Wife. Del Close’s cranium became a Chicago legend, but years later it came out that Halpern gave up trying to sort through the paperwork involved with trying to get Close’s real skull after his death, and broke her promise to a dying man and just bought a random skull from a medical supply store and substituted it.

After the tour of the Players Club, I snuck into Gramercy Park across the street. I say snuck, because it is the only private park left in New York and only the residents surrounding the park have keys to get in the gated park (though I’ve heard that if you are a guest at the ritzy Gramercy Park Hotel, you are given a key to get it). I hung around one of the gates until I could follow someone in. In the middle of the park is a great statue of Edwin Booth. After a half hour of relaxing on the well-kept grounds I tried to leave and learned I was then locked in. I waited again for someone to let me out.

I later met up with friends and as we drank and caroused, favoring a Belgian beer place over the more rowdy and crowded Irish bars on St. Patrick's Day, I recounted my tour of the Players Club. Everyone at the table thought it would be a worthy goal to someday become a full-fledged member there. And then we drank a round to Mr. Edwin Booth, long may his legend remain.

Brad McEntire is the Artistic Director of Dallas' Audacity Theatre Lab (formerly Audacity Productions). His play Arsenic & Roses will be seen this summer at the Bath House Cultural Center's Festival of Independent Theatres. Thanks For Reading

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How I Became a Player
Playwright and director Brad McEntire writes about his pilgrimage to Edwin Booth's hang.

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