On the evening of September 10, 1849, the great American actor, Edwin Booth, made his professional stage debut when a fellow actor chickened out. At the time, Booth’s father, Junius, was performing Richard III at the famed Boston Museum. Just before curtain a nervous actor named “Mr. Thoman” decided he’d had enough, couldn’t handle the pressure, and retreated to the comfort of his alternate role in the prompter’s box. As he was in full retreat backstage, Thoman passed the 18 year-old Edwin and urged him to take his place in the role of Tressel. Booth agreed, much to the dismay of this father, and filled in for the suddenly timorous Thoman. Despite the hasty and unexpected promotion to supernumerary, Edwin was a success and would eventually become the greatest star of the 19th century American stage. What’s interesting to note is that had the Booths been performing Shakespeare’s Richard III as we know it today, Edwin would have had no lines at all (Tressel is one of the play’s few non-speaking roles) and American theatre history might have been very different. Fortunately, his father’s preferred version (and the preferred version in much of the English theatre at that time) was Colley Cibber’s 1699 adaptation of Shakespeare’s original. In this shorter, more bombastic version, Tressel actually speaks, not many, but a few lines–enough to convince his father that his son had talent. And it all happened 164 years ago on this very day in theatre history–September 10.
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- Today in Theatre History: SHERIDAN’S FIRST PLAY, THE RIVALS, GETS A DO-OVER–January 28, 1775
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- Today in Theatre History: GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, “A THIRD RATE IBSEN”–January 9, 1905
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