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Winter 1997

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 96 > Article

The Other Booth
by Catherine Gianaro

A father's rejection, the untimely death of two wives and a child, bankruptcy, alcoholism.

And if that weren't enough, renowned 19th century actor Edwin Booth endured the legacy left him by his brother: the infamous assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

That's why John Ammerman chose to portray Edwin's remarkable life not only on paper but also on stage.

"It's the struggle of a human being who encountered tremendous tragedy and overcame it," Ammerman said. "It's about living beyond loss and finding a greater purpose."

The University of Georgia drama professor and Shakespearean actor titled this one-man play Booth, Brother Booth.

"The personal tragedy that this man endured -- as well as his perseverance through it all -- is extraordinary," Ammerman said. "Not to mention that he also became one of the greatest American actors of our history."

The drama revolves around Edwin's destruction of John Wilkes Booth's acting trunk while he reflects on his own life. "I don't see it as a historical journey, but more of a personal story.

"I didn't want it to be a play simply about him sitting down on his chair talking about his life," he said. "It has as much to do about his reputation as an actor and what he performed as it does about what happened to him with John Wilkes and some of the other tragedies that occurred."

As Edwin removes objects from the trunk, they trigger memories. As he burns each item, he wrestles with his family's legacy. For example, in the opening scene, Ammerman shows a link between a play Edwin was performing, The Iron Chest, and Edwin's true-life drama.

Where is my honor now? Mountains of shame have piled upon me." I said that. In fact, I contentedly delivered it at the very hour my brother Johnny assassinated Mr. Lincoln.

As the play unfolds, Edwin is reminded of his first wife. He removes a handmade handkerchief they gave his brother and recalls the occasion.

Look, JWB. Sewn with great delicacy by my beloved Mary. Mary Devlin -- July 7, 1860. A day I know by heart. It was the day that I married Mary Devlin. It was also the day that Johnny served as my best man, and the day that this -- a blessing from us both -- became the possession of my troubled brother.

Later, he pulls out a costume worn by his father in Richard III, and he ends up talking about working with his father on stage.

"I tried to jump back and forth a little bit for him to fight with his own demons," Ammerman said.

While Ammerman based these and many other scenes on fact, he wove fiction into the story to illustrate the irony of Edwin's life.

For example, Ammerman wrote that Edwin's father died at the same time that he was starting to perform Hamlet. "There's a line in which Hamlet says, And my father died withinst two hours.' But I fabricated the coincidence in this instance," Ammerman said. Although it's very likely Edwin was performing the tragedy at the time of his father's death, by including this particular element in the play, he said it shows the parallel between Edwin's professional career and personal life.

Ammerman credits his wife Kathleen for bringing Booth's tragic life to his attention.

"She read a biography of Edwin Booth 10 years ago and noticed a strong physical resemblance between Edwin and me, and she kept on prodding me to read about him," Ammerman said. "I finally picked up the biography and was absolutely taken by his life."

Drawing upon a spectrum of experiences -- from classical training as an actor to writing and performing pantomimes and short stories -- Ammerman incorporated famous lines from many well-known tragedies. The Bard's plays figure prominently, with lines from great tragedies, such as Macbeth, King Lear and Richard III.

After finishing the script in September 1994 and refining it the following summer at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, Ammerman was invited to perform it on the stage of the Globe theater in London. Although the reconstructed theater will not open officially until this summer, Ammerman said he was "thrilled" to receive an invitation during its preliminary season.

"It was an extraordinary experience, finding myself not only inside this [theater] but on stage performing my play," he said. "To find myself reciting To be or not to be' from Hamlet -- it was almost too much for me.


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Edwin Booth