All the World’s a Stage

Comic actor Joseph Jefferson, one of the best-known American stage personalities of the nineteenth century, died in Palm Beach in 1905. Born into a family of actors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 20, 1829, Jefferson achieved one of his first major successes in 1858 in Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin. (While Jefferson was not appearing in Our American Cousin at the time, this popular play was on stage at Ford’s Theatre the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.) Jefferson is best remembered for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle in an Americanized version of a German folk tale popularized by Washington Irving in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentn. (1819-20). Jefferson took this play on the road for years after he originated the role, and became known throughout the United States for his portrayal.

Joe Jefferson [seated in front] at Palm Beach, Fla. c1904. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division
Joseph Jefferson [Rip Van Winkle]. Paris: Imp. Lemercier & Cie [189-]. Posters: Performing Arts Posters. Prints & Photographs Division

The first American theaters were built in the eighteenth century in Williamsburg, Virginia, (1716) and in Charleston, South Carolina, (1730). Many theater groups of that period were itinerant. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, there were many established theaters throughout the country and American actors were making a name for themselves on both sides of the Atlantic. Three of the most famous of Jefferson’s contemporaries were Edwin Booth, son of native Englishman Junius Brutus Booth and brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth—himself an actor of some note, Charlotte Cushman, and Edwin Forrest, who was known for his vocal power and athleticism on stage.

Edwin Booth, American actor…. [Boston: T.R. Burnham, photographer, ca. 1865]. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division
[Junius Booth,…in theatrical costume]. Studio of Mathew Brady, ca 1844-1852. Daguerreotypes. Prints & Photographs Division
[Charlotte Cushman, half-length vignetted portrait, facing right]. [ca. 1855]. Daguerreotypes. Prints & Photographs Division
Edwin Forrest, head-and-shoulders portrait… Studio of Mathew Brady, ca 1844-1860. Daguerreotypes. Prints & Photographs Division

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