It was on this very day in theatre history–December 24, 1860–that Joseph Jefferson first performed his famed Rip van Winkle on the New York stage at the Winter Garden Theatre. And the opening was a rough one. Critics were tepid at best. While many acknowledged Jefferson’s excellent comic abilities, some were skeptical that he was ready to become a leading star. Worse still, the vehicle, adapted by Jefferson himself from Irving’s original, was deemed by acclamation to be less than stellar. The New York Tribune, for example, called the script “weak and tame to an unexpected degree… overstrained and ineffective… utterly unworthy.” Even worse, the New York Times declared that “comedians seldom succeed as stars,” and called Jefferson’s performance, “…cold and overwrought, going through the egoisms of a star engagement. The applause was hollow, and will not, we fear, contribute to the fortunes of the engagement.”
Defying the critics, Jefferson persevered and both the play and the character would soon become one of the greatest successes on the American stage. During the next 40 years, Jefferson toured the world, performing the play countless times–even recreating the role on film and recording Rip on early wax cylinders. But admittedly, his success came at a price. Jefferson was too often locked into the role by popular demand and soon became known as a “one-part actor.” Francis Wilson noted that ultimately, “He was Rip and Rip was he.” Despite having demonstrated a wide acting range and receiving praise for his abilities in other roles, the audiences continued to demand Rip night after night. And thus, acknowledging the preference of his fans, he made his fortune playing the part for the rest of his life. In doing so, Jefferson created one of the most enduring characters in popular American culture and reenforced both the viability and dangers of actors becoming identified with a single role.