Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Actors and Actresses
Author:
Meyer, Susan M.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The American theater and its actors were an important cultural influence on Walt Whitman. He attended the theater most regularly as a teenager from 1832–1836 and as a journalist from 1841–1849, and he wrote often about the early American theater in his waning years (1885–1890). During his theater-going years, Whitman attended productions featuring such favorites as Junius Brutus Booth, Charlotte Cushman, Edwin Forrest, Thomas Hamblin, Fanny Kemble, and William Charles Macready as well as lesser-known actors and actresses such as James H. Hackett, Henry Placide, T.D. Rice, Ada Webb, Adah Isaacs Menken, and Clara Fisher. Specimen Days (1882), November Boughs (1888), and Good-Bye My Fancy (1891) are important Whitman sources for the names of plays, theaters, and actors. They may also be found in his early newspaper articles.

Whitman was most impressed by Junius Brutus Booth (1796–1852), the leading tragedian of antebellum America, who was best known for his Shakespearean villain and mad-man roles: Richard III, Iago, Lear, and Othello. Whitman often commented upon the genius of Booth and called him "one of the grandest revelations of my life, a lesson of artistic expression" (Prose Works 2:597). Booth was born in England and in his teen years became the recognized rival of Edmund Kean as a tragedian. He was married twice and came to America in 1821, where he lived a traumatic life. He was most likely a manic-depressive with a serious alcohol problem that finally contributed to the eclipse of his artistic reputation. Booth was the father of the acclaimed tragedian Edwin Booth and the infamous John Wilkes Booth. The elder Booth is a key figure in the development of an American style of acting as was a precursor to Edwin Forrest. Booth was a fiery performer who could scare both audiences and other actors by the vehemence of his acting, and Whitman was impressed by the power of Booth's acting and his ability to totally immerse himself in a role. When acting Iago or Richard, he became those figures in much the same way that Whitman would "become" any number of personae in "Song of Myself."

Another important artistic influence on Whitman was Charlotte Cushman (1816–1876), the first American actress of note. Cushman began her career in Boston and New Orleans before moving to the New York stage. Her most famous roles were as Charles Dickens's Nancy Sykes ("the most intense acting ever felt on the Park boards" [Gathering 2:326]), Meg Merrilies in Scott's Guy Mannering, and Lady Macbeth. Cushman was equally famous for her portrayal of men: Hamlet, Romeo, and Oberon of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Whitman called Cushman the greatest performer he had seen and admired her for playing any role that would further her career.

America's first native-born star was Edwin Forrest (1806–1872), a committed Jacksonian Democrat and patriot who was best known for his muscular, booming style in such roles as Othello, Lear, Shylock, and Spartacus. Forrest was at the forefront of an international dispute over British vs. American styles of acting. The British style was best exemplified by William Charles Macready, subdued and rather tame, as opposed to the American style of Forrest, which was much more aggressive and sought to dominate audiences by the sheer force of voice and physique. This dispute came to a head in the infamous Astor Place Riot in 1849. Whitman initially favored the acting style of Forrest and claimed that the actor's performances strongly affected him and "permanently filter'd into [his] whole nature" (Prose Works 2:593). He ultimately cooled toward Forrest, however, and barely mentions Macready in his articles.

Thomas Hamblin (1800–1853) played Hamlet in 1825 but was best known for his management of the Bowery Theater. Whitman considered Hamblin great in his role as Arbaces, the Egyptian in The Last Days of Pompeii, and called his portrayal of Faulconbridge in King John the best performed on the stage. Whitman found Hamblin's comparatively small role superior to that of Charles Kean's King John, but it seems probable that Whitman confused Hamblin's role with that of Booth as King John in 1834. Because Whitman occasionally confused performances, biographical work concerning his interactions with the theater is difficult.

The English actress Fanny Kemble (1809–1893) impressed Whitman in his early days; he claims to have seen her every night she played the Park Theater. Kemble is best remembered by Whitman for her portrayal of Bianca in H.H. Milman's Fazio, Lady Townly in Colley Ciber's The Provoked Husband, and Marianna in Sheridan Knowles's The Wife. Whitman wrote that Kemble's performances "entranced us, and knock'd us about" (Prose Works 2:695).

Although Whitman commented upon performances, actors, and the theater in his essays, it is difficult to find instances of their direct influence on his poetry. On the other hand, critics have noted the multiple roles, or personae, assumed by the speaker in "Song of Myself" and throughout Leaves of Grass. In his notebooks, Whitman makes the connection, likening his poetic self to an actor and his literary audience to the audience of the theater. The immediate concern of the nineteenth-century American theater and its actors was to develop a style of drama and acting that was specifically American, a concern which Whitman shared, not only for the theater, but also for American literature in general.

Bibliography

Bogard, Travis, Richard Moody, and Walter J. Meserve. American Drama. Vol. 8 of The Revels History of Drama in English. London: Methuen, 1977.

Odell, George C.D. Annuals of the New York Stage. 15 vols. New York: Columbia UP, 1927–1938.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Stovall, Floyd. The Foreground of "Leaves of Grass." Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1974.

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963-1964.


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