Edwin Forrest, the 19th-century Philadelphia actor, was arguably the first American superstar. Critics praised him, politicians wanted him to run with them and working men fought -- even died -- defending him.

If he were alive today, his popularity would equal Paul Newman's, Warren Beatty's and Ricky Martin's put together. Like Newman and Beatty, he was a matinee-idol actor who dabbled in politics. He actually gave the main oration at the Democratic-Republican Convention on July 4, 1838, when that party's leader, the un-charismatic Martin Van Buren, was president of the United States. Like Ricky Martin, Forrest represented the ethnic groups which were becoming an increasing percentage of the American population. And he was as scandal-plagued as any modern superstar, with an ill-fated marriage and an infamous riot he inspired.

Forrest's name is known to Philadelphians for a theater on the 1100 block of Walnut Street named after him. Knowledgeable fans also are aware of the 11-foot statue of Forrest in the lobby of the Walnut Street Theater. The real Edwin Forrest wasn't that tall, but he figuratively towered over other performers. And his outsized, over-the-top personality made him a controversial public figure with oversized human strengths and frailties.

His career is worthy of note not just for the mark it made in theater history. Looking back at the life of Edwin Forrest, one can discover the early stirrings of a national self image, a definition of Americanness that has renewed resonance today.

The street just off Second and South where Edwin Forrest was born is now known, appropriately, as American Street. But in 1806 it was called George Street -- named for George Washington. Edwin's father was an immigrant from Scotland who worked as a clerk at the First Bank of the United States and died of consumption when Edwin was 12 years old. Edwin, or Ned, as he was called, got a job working with a ship chandler. He spent all his spare time reading the works of Shakespeare. At age 14, in 1820, he made his acting debut at the Walnut as Norval in James Home's Douglas. The critic of The Aurora, a Philadelphia newspaper, wrote of his performance:
"We were much surprised at the excellence of his elocution, his self-possession in speech and gesture, and a voice that, without straining, was of such volume and fine tenor as to carry every tone and articulation to the remotest corner of the theater."

But good reviews weren't enough for William Wood, the manager of the Walnut. He called Forrest into his office and told him that theater needed star actors to draw audiences. Forrest, in Wood's estimation, lacked that star quality, and the Walnut would not re-engage him. Forrest perceived that the quality he lacked was English birth. Woods didn't say so explicitly, but to Forrest, the implication was clear. This helps explain Forrest's resentment of British actors. In later years, after some provocation, he began to wage his personal Revolutionary War against the British.

After leaving the Walnut, Forrest joined a company that toured Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington and then New Orleans, where he stayed for a year, had great success on stage and an intense romance with an older, French-American actress.

The United States was 45 years young. Jefferson and Adams were still alive. Most actors working in America were either British or Americans of British birth. Even the few that were native-born copied the English acting style. But Forrest was individualistic. He thought the plays of Shakespeare were his own birthright. Appearing in Albany, Forrest met the most famous Shakespearian of the era, the British Edmund Kean (1787-1833), playing Richmond to Kean's Richard III. Kean was so impressed that he got Forrest the role of Iago opposite his own Othello in New York City. According to Forrest's letters, he received a standing ovation "with deafening applause," and a salary increase to forty dollars a week.

When Forrest played Iago to Kean's Othello in December 1825, he changed the characterization from the normal brooding malevolence. Instead, Forrest played Iago as "a superficially gay, dashing and lighthearted fellow" according to biographer Richard Moody. An example: Iago's "Look to your wife. Observe her well with Cassio" was spoken in "a frank and easy fashion, suddenly changing to a hiss into Othello's ear" on the last words of the speech. The audience reacted with gasps to Forrest's delivery and Kean's startled expression. According to an Albany reporter, Kean said to Forrest afterwards: "In the name of God, where did you get that?" and Forrest replied that it was instinct.

Kean urged Ned to move to England and continue his career there. But Forrest stayed in America and, within one year, in 1826, took on the title role in Othello at Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Theater. At age 20, he now was a star.

His salary in January, 1827, was $200 a night. Within a few more years, it reached $500 a night, making him the highest-earning actor in the world in the entire 19th century, making more than Kean, Macready or any of the Booth family. It was at this early point that he started offering annual cash prizes to authors who would write new plays on American subjects with American characters.

Shakespeare's plays were at the heart of Forrest's repertoire. He loved the title role of Coriolanus and chose that character for his sculpture. "The Roman manliness of his face and figure, the haughty dignity of his carriage and the fire in his eye render his Coriolanus one of the most finished, striking and classical performances that was ever exhibited on the American stage," wrote James Rees about Forrest in 1874. But it never was a popular success. (In Forrest's defense, it should be noted that no actor has ever made a hit out of Coriolanus, and it's as Coriolanus, in marble, that today's theatergoers see Forrest, looming high above his onlookers.)

There are no recordings of Forrest's voice; he died five years before Edison invented the phonograph. But there are detailed contemporary descriptions of his performances. "He had head tones that splintered rafters," rhapsodized the New York World. His voice was deep and husky according to others. "He soared above all the Hamlets of the day," wrote James Rees in 1827. Near the start of his career, Forrest played Hamlet's mad scenes with intentional artificiality, as if he were feigning madness. This was counter to the prevailing tradition that Hamlet actually went insane. Forrest later changed and played the madness as real. It's interesting to note that our generation validates Forrest's first instincts and sees Hamlet as a rational man who feigns madness to fool the king.

His Othello, Macbeth and King Lear were said to be fierce. Congratulated for his Lear, Forrest once replied indignantly: "For God's sake, sir, I do not playLear. I am Lear!"

While he toured the United States and Europe, Forrest kept returning to Philadelphia as his home base. It was America's main city for theater at that time. His productions played at the Walnut, the Arch Street Theater, the Chestnut Street Theater and at the Academy of Music, which was frequently used in those days for drama.

His style was bold and brassy, like the upstart nation itself. While English performers favored an elegant, intellectual style, Forrest pioneered an extroverted, heroic approach. This made him popular not only inside the theater but in barrooms and on the streets as well. He was a cultural rebel, striking a blow against British tastes that echoed America's political rebellion against the Brits.

Forrest's chief rival in acting was the Englishman William Macready, who epitomized the elegant English stage traditions. Forrest's fans -- known as Forresters -- called Macready effete. They bragged about their hero's "manly," barrel-chested build and his virile voice. They praised his "vital, burly Americanism." These arguments clearly went beyond acting and involved Americans' definitions of themselves. Anglophiles showed their opinions of Americans by calling Forrest's acting "vulgar and arrogant." Macready's friends included Wordsworth and Dickens. In contrast, Forrest said he was proud to be the friend of plain working men. Think, perhaps, of Sir John Gielgud vs. the young Marlon Brando.

[David Howey, a veteran of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company who now teaches voice and speech at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, says that the differences between Macready and Forrest carry over even today. "We were taught the "Macready pause" -- his method of elongated pauses for dramatic effect. And we were taught "RP," meaning "received pronunciation," the standard dialect. There is an artificiality in British delivery. Sanford Meisner disparagingly called Olivier a "line actor." Even Sir Peter Hall criticized British actors for being "talking heads":
"We British still focus our speech far forward in the mouth, which makes for more clarity. We are verbal and we feel the language must be played. We put our emphasis on communicating the words, whereas Americans put feelings first. That difference is more important than how one pronounces 'r's and 'a's. You know, it was only in the reign of George III in the 1700s that the Duchess of Devonshire decided that flat 'a's and hard 'r's at the ends of words were vulgar, as in 'mother' and 'father' -- and she had things changed. Macready probably used softer 'r's than Forrest, but Forrest may have been closer to what was spoken in Shakespeare's time."]

When Forrest appeared in London's Princess Theater in 1845, Macready's partisans hissed him. To get even, Forrest bought a box seat to a Macready Hamlet and stood up to hiss the Brit. Matters escalated when Macready came to America for the 1848-49 season. Forrest partisans disrupted a Macready performance at Philadelphia's Arch Street Theater. Macready sent notes of protest to the newspapers, and Forrest responded with a note calling Macready "a superannuated driveler."

Macready -- only age 56, not really superannuated -- wrote: "I cannot stomach the United States as a nation. Let me get out from this country, and give me a dungeon or a hovel in any other, just so I be free of this."

The Macready-Forrest feud exacerbated anti-British sentiment that still festered among Americans. A few months later, both actors brought productions of Macbeth to New York City, a mile away from each other. At Macready's opening night as Macbeth, May 7, 1849, Forresters got into the theater and threw objects on the stage, knocking over props and temporarily halting the play. At Macready's next performance, on May 10 at the Astor Place Opera House, guards were ready and stopped young people who tried to get into the theater without tickets. A thousand Forresters gathered on the street and tried to break down the doors. They carried signs and leaflets saying "Workingmen: Shall Americans or English aristocrats triumph?" The Mayor of New York called troops to disperse the mob. In a scene reminiscent of Kent State, they fired on the crowd and 22 died. 100 were arrested. A newspaper said the crowd was made up of stevedores, pipe fitters, sailmakers, plumbers, butchers. The working class, in other words. They were mostly young, and the mayor said that many were "gang members." Macready put on a disguise to flee the theater and the United States.
Right after the Astor Place riot, a fellow American actor said that the government should give Forrest a medal for driving Macready out of the country. But Forrest was disappointed to find that many newspapers criticized his followers for causing trouble and blamed him for inciting them. Confused and upset and feeling some guilt, he retired from the stage for a year. Perhaps he regretted the growth of xenophobic, anti-British feeling. In any event, he refused requests that he run for Congress and thereafter avoided political involvement.

Not that he wasn't wooed. Forrest was friendly with Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812 against the British who later was elected to two terms as president. Forrest visited the retired Jackson at his home, The Hermitage, in Tennessee, and Jackson adherents asked Forrest to run for office. They thought that Forrest, because of his public stand against British acting, would attract votes from anti-British ethnic groups, including the rising number of Irish-Americans. His staunch patriotism and his identification with heroic characters would have made him an attractive candidate, but he declined.

Forrest biographer Richard Moody said: "No one carried the democratic fever to the stage with such fierce passion." His style was unsubtle, aimed at the galleries, and fans equated his style with masculine and American virtues. Reviews praised Forrest's "fine face, manly figure and frank, honest stage deportment." His most famous roles were Shakespeare's tragic heroes, plus Spartacus, Damon in Damon & Pythias and the anti-British Irish rebel, Jack Cade. Forrest personally selected the Cade drama as a winner in one of his new-play competitions.

Instead of running for office, Forrest used his fame and wealth to help American playwrights. From 1829 to 1847 he sponsored contests for new plays about Americans, paid cash to the authors and put the winning works on stage with his own acting company. He left his fortune to establish a home for ill and aging actors. This Forrest project was the subject of a television documentary in 2001.

The first site for the Forrest home for actors was Edwin's summer residence, Springbrook, which he built in 1865 on 100-plus acres in Northeast Philadelphia. He stipulated that it be made into a retirement home for actors after his death. In 1926 the city bought that acreage and Forrest's estate opened a new home at 4849 Parkside Avenue, adjoining Fairmount Park, which remained in use until 1986.

The residents were from all aspects of theater: vaudevillians, Shakespeareans, comedians, extras. There was a maximum limit of only 12 residents at a time, because Forrest wanted it to be a real home, not an institution. The residents lived among souvenirs of Forrest's career -- photographs of Forrest by Matthew Brady, costumes, suits of armor, daggers, dueling pistols and knives, including some Bowie knives given to Forrest by their inventor, Jim Bowie, who was one of his friends. There also was a huge statue of Forrest as Coriolanus, which later was purchased by the Walnut Street Theater, where Forrest had made his debut.

The Forrest Home merged with the Actors Fund of America in 1986, and its residents moved to the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey. On Shakespeare's birthday each year a luncheon is given there, with entertainment by noted Broadway stars.

Gloria Justin, past president of the Edwin Forrest Home, explains: "He was a wonderful benefactor for his fellow actors," she says. "And the beautiful thing is that he started his good works in his youthful days when he built his mansion on Broad Street and said he'd donate it to elderly actors. But he lost that house in that messy divorce."

"Messy" is an understatement. Forrest married a young British actress, Catherine Sinclair, in 1840. They met on one of his first trips abroad when he was 34 and she 19. Forrest's growing problems with Macready and the British public may have had a corrosive effect on the marriage. Certainly the problems between Edwin and Catherine escalated as the feud with Macready became intense. The split-up occurred just a few months before the Astor Place riot. Forrest was appearing in Cincinnati as Othello and his Iago -- the man who inflames Othello's jealousy -- was an actor named George Jamieson. One afternoon in December 1848, Forrest went to a portrait artist for a sitting, leaving his wife alone in their rooms at the City Hotel.

Forrest told the story himself, in an affidavit: "When I came back and entered my private parlor, I found Mrs. Forrest standing between the knees of Mr. Jamieson, who was sitting on the sofa with his hands upon her person. I was amazed and confounded and asked her what this meant. She said, with perturbation, that Mr. Jamieson had been pointing out her phrenological developments." This eyewitness description astounded readers.

Forrest took no action that day, but in January 1849, while his wife was visiting her sister, Forrest broke into a locked drawer and found a romantic letter to her from Jamieson. After that, Forrest ordered her out of the house. Her lawyers claimed that Forrest had had affairs with actresses and that one of them went to a doctor for an abortion. The eventual court ruling gave Mrs. Forrest all she asked for in property and alimony. She stayed in the United States -- in fact later becoming manager of a theater in San Francisco.

Forrest never had any children. Forrest's brownstone mansion at Broad & Master Streets is now the home of the respected black company, Freedom Theater.

In his sixties, Forrest was impaired by arthritis. Sometimes he had to lie prone on stage before the curtain went up and had to be helped into position for each scene. He saw his popularity challenged by Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, who used a less declamatory and more conversational delivery. The elder Booth brother, ironically, was named Edwin in honor of Forrest. In his last years, the infirm Forrest limited himself to dramatic public readings. He died in December of 1872 at age 66.

Those who remember his exploits are ardent. Theater personalities Hal Prince, Celeste Holm, Barnard Hughes and Hope Lange are among the 240 members of an Edwin Forrest Society, pledging their money to help ill and aging actors in the Forrest tradition.

"Forrest was a big, over-the-top man who was representative of the tempest of his times, " says writer/actor Will Stutts. "He was America's first native-born actor and a bounder who fell madly in love with a woman who was unfaithful." A group of admirers gathers at Forrest's tomb in Philadelphia on his birthday every March 9, to lay a wreath and drink a toast to his memory. Others observe a provision of Forrest' will by gathering to read the Declaration of Independence aloud each July 4.

Stephen Sell, retired manager of the Annenberg Center, has led the graveside ceremonies in a courtyard at Third & Spruce Streets for several years. "We come together to honor him because he was important to Philadelphia and to the theater," he says. Another devotee was Frank McGlinn, veteran supporter of the arts, who said: "This man was the first American actor to achieve fame in Europe. He was the highest-paid actor in the world and he used his fortune to help other actors."

But perhaps the highest tribute to Forrest is the fact that, as recently as January 2000, fans bid against each other to buy a lock of Forrest's brown hair that was clipped by a friend when the actor died. Bernard Havard, producing artistic director of Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre, outbid all others at Lancaster, Pennsylvania's Smythe Auction House to bring some Forrest memorabilia back to his theater. The final price for Forrest's curl: $325. In addition, Havard bought a glass caster from underneath Forrest's bedpost, a calling card, a photo and playbills. The hair is already in a frame and will be exhibited in the Walnut lobby across from the Coriolanus statue.

This might seem to verge on enshrinement, but it's a deserved tribute to an actor whose life was a legend even before his death and whose impact lasted far beyond the end of his career. Even the British seem to have forgiven him. He's the only American actor to have his picture hanging in the venerable Garrick Club in London's West End.


Key Subjects: 
Edwin Forrest, Philadelphia, George Macready, Walnut Street Theater, Forrest Theater
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
Steve Cohen's 2006 story about Edwin Forrest, The Light from the Forrest, is also published in this Periodica section.
May 2002
Edwin Forrest: America's First Native-Born Stage Legend