GW Explores Civil War Through Booth Brothers’ Bitter Rivalry

Event examines Edwin, John Wilkes Booth and American performing arts culture in 1850s and 1860s.

John Wilkes Booth
Nicholas Ong, right, in the role of John Wilkes Booth in "The Actor and The Assassin."
February 26, 2014

By James Irwin

The rivalry between actors and brothers Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, staged against the backdrop of the American Civil War, reflected a changing performing arts culture in the United States, and serves today as an example of a divided America during the 1850s and 1860s.

The brothers' bitterness toward each other and the landscape of music and theater during their careers was the focus of an event Monday night at the George Washington University, part of GW's ongoing participation in the National Civil War Project. The seminar featured a reading of the play, “The Actor and the Assassin,” and a faculty panel facilitated by Professor of Theatre Leslie Jacobson and comprising Professor of History Richard Stott, Professor of Music Karen Ahlquist and visiting artist Stephen Wade.

The play, which takes place in realistic and spectral settings, used letters and diary entries to create dialogue between Edwin Booth -- one of the leading Shakespearean actors of his time -- and the ghost of his brother, John Wilkes Booth, played by GW students Matthew Nickley and Nicholas Ong, respectively.

“The Booths, the story goes, divided the country: Edwin took the North, and John Wilkes the South,” Dr. Stott said. “And the fact is that was a deal in which Edwin got, by far, the better draw. Edwin Booth was a star.”

Though the characters in the play existed in their own settings, they frequently passed into each other’s worlds, including a sword fight that demonstrated their resentment of each other. Edwin Booth was furious of his younger brother’s disregard for others. John Wilkes Booth was bitter over his older brother’s neutrality during the Civil War, and jealous of his success in the more lucrative North, which dominated American popular culture.

John Wilkes Booth identified with the Southern cause in many ways. “I could never compete with that,” he told his brother at one point. He was talking about Edwin Booth finding the type of love in a woman he could never aspire to achieve, but he also was referring to their respective careers, and a larger sibling conflict brewing in America. The South, John Wilkes Booth believed, was an underdog that deserved better, and had the right to rise up against Abraham Lincoln in order to protect its rights.

“Sic semper tyrannis, which Booth yells after killing Lincoln, is from the state seal of Virginia,” Dr. Stott said. “It means ‘thus, always, to tyrants.’ If you look at the seal there is a guy in Roman dress with a sword and a dead tyrant on the ground. That action was considered acceptable in the defense of liberty.”

The Booth brothers were part of a performing arts shift in America. Issues of slavery, patriotism, freedom and the collision of North and South infiltrated every morsel of culture. “Dixie,” credited to Daniel Decatur Emmett, originated out of minstrel theater and became an adopted song of the Confederacy. But, Mr. Wade said, Emmett may have heard it first from a black family in Ohio, the Snowdens, and the songwriter may have been the family matriarch, Ellen Cooper Snowden, originally from Maryland.

“This is a song that divides, and at the same time, there is cross-racial content in this research,” Mr. Wade said. “Did the Snowdens write this song? We don’t know. But there’s circumstantial evidence that this is how it went down.”

Music, like theater, was an instrument of current events, and even war.

“Music is one of the areas where the South was on par with the North, especially with patriotic songs, or ‘munitions of war,’” Dr. Ahlquist said. “Flag songs and recruiting songs -- ‘when Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah’ -- were incredibly popular.”

Abrupt change in the arts coincided with the end of the war. When the South surrendered in 1865, the war songs ceased with it -- “they stopped as though they had been shot,” Dr. Ahlquist said. Meanwhile, the troubled John Wilkes Booth exchanged his theater props for a pistol, and on April 14, he upstaged his more talented brother forever.

“You were like a boy playing at war,” Edwin Booth said to his brother’s ghost. “It was always the romance of it all, like a Shakespearean battle scene full of flashing swords and a flag waving, followed by a noble death and a brilliant soliloquy. That’s how you planned it, isn’t it?”

The specter of John Wilkes Booth smiled arrogantly.

“Of course,” he said.