Daguerreotype of Edwin Forrest by Mathew Brady
March 9, 1806|
|Died||December 12, 1872
Edwin Forrest (March 9, 1806 – December 12, 1872), was a prominent nineteenth-century American Shakespearean actor. His legendary feud with the British actor William Charles Macready helped spark the deadly Astor Place Riot of 1849.
Forrest was born in Philadelphia, the son of William and Rebecca (née Lauman) Forrest. His father, a merchandise peddler, came from Dumfriesshire, Scotland to Trenton, New Jersey in 1791. Later a business set back led him to relocate to Philadelphia where after to his marriage to Rebecca, a daughter of an affluent German-American family, he was able to secure a position with a local branch of the United States Bank. 
As boys, Forrest and his brother William joined a local juvenile thespian club and participated in theatrical performances staged in a sparsely decorated woodshed. At the age of eleven he made his first appearance on the legitimate stage at Philadelphia’s South Street Theatre playing the female role Rosalia de Borgia in the John D. Turnbull melodrama, Rudolph : or, The robbers of Calabria. After Forrest’s father died in 1819 he attempted, in short procession, to apprentice with a printer, a cooper and finally a ship chandler. When attending a lecture early the following year he volunteered to participate in an experiment on the effects of nitrous oxide. While under the influence of the gas Forrest broke into a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Richard III that so impressed John Swift, an eminent Philadelphia lawyer, he arranged an audition at the Walnut Street Theatre that led to Forrest's formal stage début on November 27, 1820 as Young Norval in John Home’s Douglas.
The theatres of New York and Philadelphia were already crowded with trained and successful actors. Forrest therefore set out at once for the south and west. His tour through a rough country — with the inconveniences of long distances, the necessity of presenting his plays in rude halls, insufficient support, and poor scenery — was not altogether successful, but the discipline to mind and body was felt in all his subsequent career. He soon gained fame for portraying blackface caricatures of African Americans. Constance Rourke wrote that his impression was so believable he often mingled in the streets with African Americans unnoticed. He allegedly fooled one old black woman into taking him for a friend and then convinced her to join him in his stage performance that night.
In 1826 he had a great success at the Bowery Theatre in New York City as Othello. The management employed him at a salary far below his worth, and he was at once offered increased payment at another theatre; but he refused to break his word, and carried out the contract to his own detriment. This strict sense of honor was characteristic of him throughout his career. His New York success was repeated in every city he visited. In 1829 he was featured as Metamora in the play Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags by John Augustus Stone. After a few years of profitable labor, during which he had encouraged native talent by liberal offers for new American plays, he went to Europe for rest and travel and larger observation, and was received with much courtesy by actors and scholars.
He returned to Philadelphia in 1831, and played there and in New York and elsewhere with triumphant success until September, 1836, when he sailed for England, this time professionally, and made his first appearance at Drury Lane as Spartacus in the Gladiator in 1836. The play was not a success, although his own role was noted favorably. During a season of ten months he performed in that historic theatre the parts of Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear. His social triumphs were as great as were his professional; he was entertained by William Macready and Charles Kemble, and at the end of the season was complimented by a dinner at the Garrick Club, presided over by Thomas Talfourd. During this engagement he married, in June 1837, Miss Catherine Norton Sinclair, daughter of John Sinclair, a popular English singer. He returned to Philadelphia in November of the same year and began an engagement. His wife made a deep impression wherever she was presented, and it was argued that domestic happiness would be the fitting crown of his public career. But these predictions were disappointed.
He visited London a second time in 1845, accompanied by his wife, who was welcomed in the intellectual circles of English and Scottish society. He acted at the Princess's Theatre in London. He met with great success in Virginius and other parts, but when he attempted to personate Macbeth, a character unsuited to his physique and style of acting, the performance was hissed by the audience. Forrest attributed the hissing to the professional jealousy and machinations of Macready, although that artist had been kind and helpful to him when he first came before London audiences. A few weeks later, when Macready was playing Hamlet in Edinburgh, Forrest stood up in a private box and hissed the English actor. This act evoked reproaches from the British press and destroyed the respect in which he had been held by the public. A letter that Forrest printed in The Times aggravated, instead of justifying, his offence. The incident was fatal to his popularity in Britain. His jealousy of Macready resulted in the Astor Place riot in May 1849.
In 1850, Forrest and his wife sought divorce, after Forrest's affair with actress Josephine Clifton; he claimed that he had found a love letter to his wife from fellow actor George W. Jamieson. Forrest and Catharine separated in April 1849 and he moved to Philadelphia where he filed for divorce in February 1850, though the Pennsylvania legislature denied his divorce application. Under the advice of Parke Godwin, Catherine hired Charles O'Conor as her lawyer. The divorce became a Cause célèbre and the well-known writer Nathaniel Parker Willis was caught in the middle. Willis defended Catharine, who maintained her innocence, in his magazine Home Journal and suggested that Forrest was merely jealous of her intellectual superiority. On June 17, 1850, shortly after Forrest had filed for divorce in the New York Supreme Court, Forrest beat Willis with a gutta-percha whip in New York's Washington Square, shouting "this man is the seducer of my wife". Willis, who was recovering from a rheumatic fever at the time, was unable to fight back. Willis's own wife soon received an anonymous letter suggesting that Willis was, in fact, involved with Forrest's wife. Willis later sued Forrest for assault and, by March 1852, was awarded $2,500 plus court costs. In the divorce case, Charles O'Conor was the counsel for Catherine, the defendant, with John Van Buren representing Edwin. Throughout the Forrest divorce case, which lasted six weeks, several witnesses made additional claims that Catherine Forrest and Nathaniel Parker Willis were having an affair, including a waiter who claimed he had seen the couple "lying on each other". As the press reported, "thousands and thousands of the anxious public" awaited the court's verdict; ultimately, the court sided with Catherine Forrest and Willis's name was cleared. O'Conor won a national reputation by winning the case, and secured a liberal alimony for Catherine. The whole affair hurt Forrest's reputation and soured his temper.
In 1853 he played Macbeth, with a strong cast and fine scenery, at the Broadway Theatre for four weeks — an unprecedented run at that date — and at the end of this engagement he retired from the stage for several years. He became interested in politics, being spoken of as a candidate for congress, and did not return to professional life until 1860, when he appeared at Niblo's Garden, New York, as Hamlet, and played the most successful engagement of his life. Hereditary gout developed itself in a malignant form in 1865, during an engagement at the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland the sciatic nerve was paralyzed, and he never regained the use of his hand or his steady gait. His California tour in 1866 was a failure. He played his last New York engagement in February, 1871, the plays being Richelieu and King Lear. The weather was cold, and the houses empty. On the night of 25 March 1871, he appeared in Boston, Massachusetts at the Globe Theatre, as Lear, played this part six times, and was announced for Richelieu and Virginius, but on the intervening Sunday he caught cold. He struggled through the role of Richelieu on Monday night, and rare bursts of eloquence lighted the gloom, but he labored piteously against the disease which was fast conquering him. Being offered stimulants, he signed them away, with the words, “If I die, I will still be my royal self.” This was his last appearance as an actor. He eventually recovered from the severe attack of pneumonia. The craving for public applause, which was his only happiness, induced him to give readings from Shakespeare in several large cities. The scheme failed, and was abandoned, to his deep mortification.
A stroke of paralysis ended his life suddenly and without pain. His servant found him dead, alone, and apparently asleep, in his home in Philadelphia. The large sums that he had earned on the stage were judiciously and fortunately invested, and resulted in his amassing a large fortune. He had purchased, about 1850, a site on the banks of the Hudson, on which he erected a castellated structure. This estate, which he named Fonthill, he afterward sold at a large advance for a convent, which later became the College of Mount Saint Vincent. In 1855 he purchased his mansion in Philadelphia, to which he retired after his temporary abandonment of the stage. There he collected the largest dramatic library in the United States. By avoiding New York and by legal evasions he succeeded in escaping the payment of alimony to his wife, but left his estate heavily in her debt.
His love of the theatre was unbounded, and he is one of the few whose memory survives to this day, for he used his considerable accumulated wealth to support his fellow actors, perhaps in appreciation of the fact that supporting actors need themselves to be supported as they get older.
This began in 1865, the year of Lincoln's assassination by the actor John Wilkes Booth, a time when the public held those in the acting profession in low regard, if not contempt. He sheltered actors at his summer home near Philadelphia, and in 1876, four years after his death at the age of 66, his will instructed that there should be formed the Forrest Home for retired actors in Philadelphia, which was to last for over one hundred years before being folded into the much larger Actors Fund facility in Englewood, New Jersey. There his name lives on, in the Edwin Forrest Wing.
In the 1920s, architect Herbert J. Krapp was chosen to design two new theatres, one in New York City and the other in Philadelphia. Both were initially named the Forrest Theatre in honor of Forrest and his contributions to the theatre world. While the Philadelphia location is still called the Forrest Theatre, the building in New York has changed names over the years and is currently known as the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.
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