Booth, Junius Brutus (DNB00)

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BOOTH, JUNIUS BRUTUS (1796–1852), actor, was born on 1 May 1796 in the parish of St. Pancras, London. Through his grandmother, Elizabeth Wilkes, he claimed to be related to the famous John Wilkes, after whom one of his sons was named, and to whose influence was possibly owing his own baptismal name and that of his brother, Algernon Sidney Booth. Richard Booth, his father, the son of a silversmith, left England while a youth for the purpose of fighting against his country in the war of American independence, was captured, escaped apparently all punishment, and settled peacefully in Queen Street, Bloomsbury, as a lawyer. After learning printing, studying law in his father's office, accepting a commission as midshipman on board the Boxer (Captain Blyth or Bligh), and fortunately for himself not joining the ship, which soon after went down with all hands except one, Booth made in 1813 his first appearance as an amateur in a wretched little theatre in Pancras Street, Tottenham Court Road, in which he played Frank Rochdale in ‘John Bull.’ His first essay as a regular actor was made on 13 Dec. of the same year, under the management of Mr. Penley, as Campillo, a servant, in the ‘Honeymoon,’ at a theatre in Peckham. He was then transferred to the theatre in Deptford, and, after an incapacitating attack of illness, he joined (1814) his manager at Ostend, and played with him there and at various towns in Belgium and Holland. After undergoing many hardships, and, according to one biographical sketch, forming in Brussels a matrimonial or quasi-matrimonial connection, he returned to England and obtained an engagement for the winter season of 1815 at Covent Garden. During the summer he played at Worthing. On 18 Oct. he made, as Sylvius in ‘As you like it,’ his first regular appearance in London, the occasion being the début as Rosalind of Mrs. Alsop, a daughter of Mrs. Jordan. He was kept steadily in the background, and at the close of the season he retired to Worthing, at the theatre of which town he became acting manager. Here and at Brighton he played Sir Giles Overreach and other leading characters with sufficient ability to lead the management of Covent Garden to engage him as a rival to Kean. On Wednesday, 12 Feb. 1817, he appeared as Richard III, and, in spite of some opposition attributed to the partisans of Kean, obtained a success. After repeating the performance the following evening, he broke with Mr. Harris, the manager, on a question of payment. Kean, who heard the news of this dispute, visited Booth and brought him to Drury Lane, where liberal terms were offered and accepted. On Thursday, 20 Feb. 1817, accordingly, Booth appeared at Drury Lane as Iago to the Othello of Kean. The performance was not repeated. Finding that the management did not intend to allow him equal chances with Kean, and suspecting, probably not without cause, that the engagement was made for the purpose of shelving him, he again changed front, and concluded with the Covent Garden management an engagement on the same terms that were given him at Drury Lane. When, accordingly, on 22 Feb. an immense audience assembled to greet his reappearance at Drury Lane, Booth was not forthcoming, and an apology for his absence had to be made. The result of a proceeding by which in the course of less than a fortnight he had disappointed audiences at the two leading houses was to raise a great pother and to assign Booth a prominence he was unable subsequently to maintain. His resemblance to Kean in appearance, stature, and voice, and his close adherence to the style of his great predecessor, had attracted much attention to him, and his acting had met with general approval. Upon the reappearance of Booth at Covent Garden on 25 April a storm of opposition was encountered. ‘Richard III’ was acted in dumb show, and the attempted explanation of Fawcett, the stage manager, and the proffered apologies of Booth were rejected. Booth then printed his apology, and essayed again on 1 March to play Richard. A second tumult ensued. On the 3rd he was more successful, and the playbills for that date contain his thanks to the public which had pardoned him. Proceedings against the Covent Garden management and against Booth were commenced by the Drury Lane management, but were discontinued as Booth sank from the place he had occupied. On 8 March Booth played Sir Giles Overreach, and shortly afterwards appeared as Posthumus in ‘Cymbeline,’ Fitzharding in the ‘Curfew,’ and Mortimer in the ‘Iron Chest.’ From this period his fame declined, until, when for his benefit he appeared as Richard and Jerry Sneak in the ‘Mayor of Garratt,’ the house was almost empty. After playing during the following years at various country theatres and at the Coburg, he appeared on 7 Aug. 1820 as Iago at Drury Lane, supporting Kean, who was playing a farewell engagement previous to his departure for America. Booth's Drury Lane engagement terminated on 13 Jan. 1821. On the 18th of the same month, according to his daughter and latest biographer, he married Mary Ann Holmes. He shortly afterwards took his wife, viâ Madeira, to America, and landed at Norfolk, Va., on 30 June 1821. On 6 July he opened at Richmond as Richard; on 5 Oct. 1821 he played Richard III at the Park Theatre, New York. In 1825 he returned to England and appeared at Drury Lane as Brutus. The following year he played at Rotterdam, Brussels, &c., and returned to America. In 1828 he managed the Camp Theatre, New Orleans, and played in French Oreste in the ‘Andromaque’ of Racine. In 1836–7 England was again revisited, Drury Lane, the Surrey, and Sadler's Wells being the scenes of his London performances. After his return to New York he started for the south, and attempted to drown himself on the route, but was saved by means of a boat. In this unfortunate voyage, however, he broke his nose, and marred thus his appearance and his voice. During the last ten years of his life he withdrew to some extent from the stage, living on a farm he had purchased near Baltimore, but performing occasionally in Boston and New Orleans. His last appearance was at his benefit on 19 Nov. 1852 at the St. Charles Theatre, New Orleans. He then took the parts of Sir Edward Mortimer and of John Lump in ‘The Review, or the Wag of Windsor,’ a musical farce. While on his way by sea to Cincinnati he died on 30 Nov. 1852. His body was taken to Boston, and, after some change of sepulture, was ultimately placed in Greenmount cemetery, Baltimore. Booth was a good second-rate actor. The most competent judges of the day placed him below Kean, C. Kemble, and Macready, but before Wallack and Conway. His popularity was marred by his habit of disappointing audiences by non-appearance on nights for which he was announced. This was attributable in part to intemperance, in part to insanity. In his occasional fits of moroseness he attempted once, as has been seen, his own life, and more than once, it is said, that of another. Some wild tricks are assigned him, and once he made an effort to obtain the post of lighthouse keeper at Cape Hatteras lighthouse. Amongst his surviving children were Edwin Booth, still a favourite actor, Junius Brutus Booth, jun., John Wilkes Booth, mournfully celebrated, and Mrs. Asia Booth Clarke, his biographer, the wife of a well-known comedian.

[Genest's History of the Stage; Clarke's The Elder and the Younger Booth, Boston (U.S.A.), 1882; Dramatic Magazine, 1829; Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, vol. iv. 1826; Vanderhoff's Dramatic Reminiscences, London, 1860; London Magazine, 1820.]

J. K.