1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Jefferson, Joseph
JEFFERSON, JOSEPH (1820–1905), American actor, was born in Philadelphia on the 20th of February 1829. He was the third actor of this name in a family of actors and managers, and the most famous of all American comedians. At the age of three he appeared as the boy in Kotzebue’s Pizarro, and throughout his youth he underwent all the hardships connected with theatrical touring in those early days. After a miscellaneous experience, partly as actor, partly as manager, he won his first pronounced success in 1858 as Asa Trenchard in Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin at Laura Keene’s theatre in New York. This play was the turning-point of his career, as it was of Sothern’s. The naturalness and spontaneity of humour with which he acted the love scenes revealed a spirit in comedy new to his contemporaries, long used to a more artificial convention; and the touch of pathos which the part required revealed no less to the actor an unexpected power in himself. Other early parts were Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickleby, Caleb Plummer in The Cricket on the Hearth, Dr Pangloss in The Heir at Law, Salem Scudder in The Octoroon, and Bob Acres in The Rivals, the last being not so much an interpretation of the character as Sheridan sketched it as a creation of the actor’s. In 1859 Jefferson made a dramatic version of the story of Rip Van Winkle on the basis of older plays, and acted it with success at Washington. The play was given its permanent form by Dion Boucicault in London, where (1865) it ran 170 nights, with Jefferson in the leading part. Jefferson continued to act with undiminished popularity in a limited number of parts in nearly every town in the United States, his Rip Van Winkle, Bob Acres, and Caleb Plummer being the most popular. He was one of the first to establish the travelling combinations which superseded the old system of local stock companies. With the exception of minor parts, such as the First Gravedigger in Hamlet, which he played in an “all star combination” headed by Edwin Booth, Jefferson created no new character after 1865; and the success of Rip Van Winkle was so pronounced that he has often been called a one-part actor. If this was a fault, it was the public’s, who never wearied of his one masterpiece. Jefferson died on the 23rd of April 1905. No man in his profession was more honoured for his achievements or his character. He was the friend of many of the leading men in American politics, art and literature. He was an ardent fisherman and lover of nature, and devoted to painting. Jefferson was twice married: to an actress, Margaret Clements Lockyer (1832–1861), in 1850, and in 1867 to Sarah Warren, niece of William Warren the actor.
Jefferson’s Autobiography (New York, 1889) is written with admirable spirit and humour, and its judgments with regard to the art of the actor and of the playwright entitle it to a place beside Cibber’s Apology. See William Winter, The Jeffersons (1881), and Life of Joseph Jefferson (1894); Mrs. E. P. Jefferson, Recollections of Joseph Jefferson (1909).