Today in Theatre History: RIP VAN WINKLE AWAKENS IN LONDON–September 4, 1865

English: "Dis von don't count." U.S....

Jefferson in the role that defined his career and established a trend in professional acting that continues today.

It was on this day in theatre history–September 4–in 1865 that the American actor, Joseph Jefferson, first appeared on stage in the role that would define the rest of his life and give rise to the great character roles of many such actors for at least the next century.  The play (and role) was Rip Van Winkle, based, of course, on Washington Irving’s famous story.  And Jefferson would continue to play the part for the rest of his very long career.  Oddly enough, the show’s premiere was not in New York, but rather London at the Adelphi, where Jefferson had gone following a four-year tour of Australia.  He went there in order to commission the great Dion Boucicault to write up a vehicle that would showcase his particular talents.  Jefferson had actually performed in an earlier version of the play years before and while he loved the story, the script was inadequate.  So Boucicault took up the challenge and the result made stage history.  Jefferson performed the play countless times over the next 45 years and established the tradition in American theatre of actors “owning” a role.  A number of other great performers soon followed Jefferson’s lead and the late nineteenth century American stage became flooded with actors who were now identified with specific roles, performing them again and again to audiences that simply wouldn’t tolerate seeing their stars playing any other parts.  Even Eugene O’Neill’s father fell into the trap, playing the Count of Monte Cristo for most of his life–a choice that become both a great boon to his financial bottom line while being a great hinderance to his aesthetic integrity (read A Long Day’s Journey into Night to see just how far Jefferson’s influence extended).  Jefferson died in 1905 in Palm Beach, Florida, having last play Rip the year before in Paterson, New Jersey.  In honor of his great and lasting influence on American theatre, Chicago’s “Jeff Awards” were named after him.

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