Today is the birthday of the great American actor Edwin Forrest (1806-1872). How amusing to note that his birthday is a just a few days away from that of his arch-nemesis William Macready. I don’t suppose they held any joint birthday parties.
Forrest began his theatrical career as a teenager in his native Philadelphia. As a young man he undertook a grueling tour of the far west, returning to conquer New York and Philadelphia in the mid 1820s. He first made a name for himself playing African American characters in blackface**; his first breakout success in New York was as the lead in Othello at the Bowery Theatre. His first trip to London was also a success. It was only on his second in 1845 that audiences hissed his MacBeth. Convinced that Macready was behind the insult, Forrest publicly hissed a Macready performance the next night, forever alienating him from the British public. The rivalry was afoot, which saw its full flowering in the Astor Place Riots of 1849 which we have described here.The biggest triumph of his career was his Hamlet in 1860.
Starting in 1865 ill health began to seriously impair his ability to act. He retired in 1871, although in his last months he attempted to give a series of public readings with little success.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.