Daniel J. Watermeier’s American Tragedian has just been selected as a finalist for the George Freedley Memorial Award for an exemplary work in the field of theater or performance. American Tragedian examines the life of Edwin Booth (1833-1893), widely considered to be the preeminent tragic actor of his era, and the greatest-ever American Shakespearean actor. His achievements, however, are often overshadowed by his brother’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln. (In a weird coincidence, Edwin Booth saved Lincoln’s son, Robert, from serious injury or death when he slipped between a moving train and the platform.)
This biography focuses on Booth the actor, the producer-director, and the champion of the “classical” acting tradition. Booth’s histrionic “genius” and his extraordinary popular success were affected by a number of off-stage buffetings, including the unexpected loss of his actor-father, Lincoln’s assassination, the premature death of two wives, and the failure of his theater and the resulting bankruptcy. In American Tragedian, Booth’s behind-the-scenes life is intertwined with and balanced against his on-stage work.
The scholarship that underpins this work is first-rate, but scholarship alone does not a good biography make. The biographer has to get on the wave-length of his subject and gain a kind of intimacy with that personality, as this one does. It was gratifying that my reading of this book confirmed what theatre historians have been buzzing about for years: Watermeier’s will be the definitive Booth biography.—Felicia Hardison Londré, author of History of World Theater: From the English Restoration to the Present