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Home » Culture and Criticism

Lust For Fame: The Stage Career of John Wilkes Booth

Submitted by on February 8, 2014 – 8:37 AM10 Comments


The curtain fell on Romeo with a sprained thumb, a good deal of hair on his sleeve, Juliet in rags and two white shoes lying in the corner of the stage! — Kate Reignolds, Booth's co-star, on her experience as Juliet (91)

Lust for Fame: The Stage Career of John Wilkes Booth sets itself the task of disproving the commonly held idea that Lincoln's assassin was a crappy actor who merely aspired to his father Junius's and brother Edwin's fame and talent. Gordon Samples supplies a large quantity of evidence in support of Booth's abilities, buuuut sometimes what Samples may think is proof that Booth was innovative, too brilliant to constrain himself with "typical" interpretations of roles, actually seems more like symptoms of bipolar disorder — or, well, actor bullshit:

He was such a perfectionist and a thorough artist that he could not tolerate an inadequate or sloppy performance in his company. To say that Booth intended to kill the prompter [who missed cueing Booth] as some have claimed would be a gross misunderstanding indeed. (108)

Welllll, but you wouldn't necessarily think a drama queen prone to dark moods was really going to kill the president, either. You definitely wouldn't think a rigid "perfectionist" would get so ripshit before performing that he'd pass out onstage and have co-stars bellowing cues directly into his face.

Mostly, though, Booth sounds to the modern ear like an annoyance, the friend of a friend you check the Evite attendees list for before RSVPing yes. "A compulsive actor, Booth would draw his own audience wherever he found it that summer. He was always ready with a poem or a characterization" (158)? He sounds reeeeally fun, you guys! …Not, he sounds like a twerp.

Samples is an academic (…I assume; the book is from McFarland), and in addition to undertaking a defense (of sorts) of an uninviting subject, Lust For Fame suffers from various academic-writing maladies: repetition; inconvenient end-noting; garbage-y prose that didn't have the benefit of a commercial copy editor: "As to girl friends, we get an idea of one girl whom Booth indicated as the 'serious one.' This might mean one would could do him the most good politically, since he had had numerous advantages to choose from all areas of society" (166). Wh…at? And this isn't getting into the sheer volume of references, 95 percent of them contemporary (all of them sweaty to the point of making the reader kind of uncomfortable), to Booth's unbelievable handsomeness. Samples cites one guy who's like, maybe you had to be there because it doesn't translate to photographs, and it really doesn't.

It's a fine idea for an academic paper, and nobody ever went broke printing books related to Lincoln's murder — but between the writing that yaws between dry and overtired and a subject who's an overwrought douche, it's impatience-making, and at the end of the slog, you're still looking at the man through frosted glass.

This article also appears at The

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  • attica says:

    When I was a kid, I bought one of those paperback Scholastic books on the Lincoln Assassination, complete with illustrations. The drawing of Booth's leap from the presidential box post-shooting depicted his spur catching on the flag bunting, and completed the tableau with a word balloon: "Aiiiieeee! Death to Tyrants!"

    It's the helpful translation of the Latin that makes it fun. It's the "Aiiiieeee!" that makes it immortal.

    I so wish I still had that book.

  • Megan T says:

    I'm in the middle (for at least the fifth time) of Sarah Vowell's "Assassination Vacation", a well-researched, scholarly, and funny look at presidential murders in the 19th and technically early 20th centuries-Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. She addresses Booth's attractiveness, although another conspirator to the assassination is nominated for "most handsome," but primarily she addresses the political implications. Booth was secretly engaged to Lucy Hale, the daughter of the new ambassador to France, at the time of the murder.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    1) "Aieeeee" is never not funny. 2) I for one regret bunting's role in this chapter of American history.

  • Jane says:

    I've seen some pictures of JW where I get the handsomeness thing, and others where he looks like a caricature of Poe. I think in real life it would have depended on your twerp tolerance and distance from the stage.

  • pomme de terre says:

    Assassination Vacation was my first thought, too, Megan T! Love that book, and Vowell in general.

    JWB sounds like a dipshit.

  • Sarah says:

    I'm assuming this Kurt-Cobain-lookin'-dude is the "most handsome" Lincoln conspirator?

  • Sandman says:

    "As to girl friends, we get an idea of one girl whom Booth indicated as the 'serious one.' This might mean one would could do him the most good politically, since he had had numerous advantages to choose from all areas of society"

    Wow, Victian hottie.

  • Sandman says:

    Er. "Victorian."

  • Megan T says:

    Yes, Sarah, it was Powell (who bears a disturbing resemblance to my neighbor in high school). Thanks for digging that up! And Sars, bunting was directly responsible for catching Booth *and* another of the conspirators! Buntings everywhere should be proud of their historic heroism!

  • LSol says:

    Holeee shiiiittt….Powell was hot.

    Booth? Eh, can't get past the period hair to make a judgment.

    Is his hand in his coat ala Napoleon?

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