Philadelphia — BRAD and Angelina and George and Reese will likely never achieve the stature of Edwin Forrest, but they can learn from the man's last couple of weeks.
We need not weep that so little attention was paid to the 200th birthday of the actor who inspired thousands to riot in the streets of New York -- 20-plus dead over Shakespeare! -- for he at least had a delegation from the Edwin Forrest Society to lay a wreath on his grave two Thursdays ago, in a cemetery where time has sandblasted most other names off the tombstones.
Then last week they unveiled a new play based on his life in the historic Walnut Street Theatre, where he first took the stage at just 14 and once performed Hamlet and Lear, and where his marble statue still holds court and where a glass case displays a lock of his hair, clipped off his head on his deathbed.
Edwin Forrest thus is not faring badly for a celeb at 200, except for the minor detail of where they're showing this play about him -- in the narrow theater upstairs, with seating for all of 80 -- and what part of his life it portrays. That would be his divorce from Englishwoman Catherine Sinclair and the weeks of testimony about their mutual philandering, hers with the Iago from his "Othello," his with professional ladies of the night.
So for Brad, Angelina et al., the lesson is ... if you're lucky, and really make it, the vultures will still be picking over your scandals two centuries from now.
When Edwin Forrest died at 66 in 1872, of what they used to call apoplexy, now a stroke, the New York Times obituary said: "In the life of Mr. Forrest is to be found much of the history of the American stage. Before his time no American actor had appeared whose delineations of Shakespearean characters equaled those of the best actors on the English boards. With his debut as Othello, in the summer of 1826, the previously undisputed superiority of the English actors ceased. Edwin Forrest, at twenty years of age, became a 'star.' "
Almost overnight, Forrest was earning $200 a show, funding new plays by American writers -- then performing in them to ensure their success -- and buying mansions here in his hometown and along the Hudson. He collected art as well, including a portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, who naturally painted him too. Sculptor Thomas Ball captured him larger-than-life in marble, in the robes of Coriolanus, Shakespeare's ill-fated Roman warrior.
Forrest's popular roles included Spartacus, the gladiator, and Metamora, an Indian chief who tells the White Man, "I do not want to live in a world you are in." But the Shakespearean parts defined his rivalry with the English tragedian William Charles Macready.
Some of their enmity was substantive: the barrel-chested Forrest was said to have perfected a more physical and melodramatic style than the cerebral -- he might say foppish -- Brit. Some was class-based: Forrest played to the masses, which in New York meant the Irish immigrants, not the evening-coat elite.
And some was personal: Forrest was convinced that an envious Macready had undermined his bid to play Paris. Soon after, he personally booed Macready's Hamlet in Edinburgh, then mocked the Englishman for complaining of the actions of "an American actor." Forrest wrote, "Why not openly charge me with the act? For I did it
The spat escalated in late 1848, when Macready came to the States for a tour. The two men at one point offered competing Macbeths in New York, where it climaxed in May 1849 when Macready began a run at the Astor Opera House. Forrest's lower-crust "Bowery Boys" supporters bought up many of the seats so they could throw rotten eggs at him and shout, "Down with the codfish aristocracy," while a rival faction yelled back, "Shame!"
Days later, 10,000 to 15,000 "Friends of Forrest" gathered outside the opera house and soldiers fired into the mob, leaving 22 or 23 dead, depending on the account, before Macready fled, disguised as a policeman.
After the Astor Place Riot, New York's mayor distributed fliers saying that "the peace of the city must be maintained," a copy of which is displayed, 157 years later, over the souvenir counter of the theater that also has, under glass, Edwin Forrest's hair.
"I won it," explains Bernard Havard, artistic director of the Walnut Street Theatre, which advertises itself as the longest continuing-running stage "in the English-speaking world."