The actor Edwin Forrest (1806-1872) was the first great American-born tragedian. Heroic in technique, he was acclaimed by the popular audience but often scorned by the cultured. His career had important social and political implications.
Edwin Forrest, the fifth child of a destitute Philadelphia family, left school when he was 10. At 14 he gained his first professional role. Though his talent was immediately apparent, there was no place for him on eastern stages, so he joined companies that played in the West and South. Returning to the prestigious theaters of the East in 1825, he was inspired and praised by Edmund Kean, the English actor, and made a great success acting Othello. At the age of 21 Forrest was a star, playing all the important Shakespearean roles. He was the only American actor who could challenge the English domination of the stage.
Forrest offered prizes for original American plays, especially with parts he might play. Metamora (1828), The Gladiator (1831), and The Broker of Bogota (1834) were the most successful. Forrest became wealthy, partly from these roles, but he paid the authors no royalties beyond the original prize.
While touring England in 1837, Forrest met and married Catherine Sinclair. He also met William Macready, the English actor who competed with Forrest for preeminence.
Forrest's technique, like his temperament, was heroic and physical rather than subtle. As an actor, he embodied all the robust, uninhibited majesty that Americans saw in themselves as a nation. His voice could make the pits tremble; his eloquence was marvelous for the large theaters of the time; and his furious realism, especially in scenes of combat, terrified his stage opponents. William Winter later said he was a "vast animal bewildered by a grain of genius." Forrest's heroic pose and strong nationalism were not lost upon the popular audience, which felt a traditional cultural inferiority to England.
In 1849 the long-standing competition between Forrest and Macready exploded into riot. Forrest insisted that Macready had insulted him; Forrest's followers insisted that the Englishman had insulted America. Macready versus Forrest became a struggle of England against America, rich against poor, the elite against the common. A mob stormed the Astor Place Theater in New York City, where Macready was playing; and the militia in quelling the riot killed at least 22 persons. Forrest's reputation was tarnished by the tragedy.
That same year Forrest accused his wife of adultery; the long and sordid litigation came to the divorce court in 1851. Though Catherine was vindicated, America had its first actor's divorce scandal, and Forrest's Othello was more popular than ever.
Forrest soon retired. Though he returned to the stage in 1860, his grandiloquent, strenuous style of acting was passing from favor. Some critics still insist, however, that he was the greatest actor America has ever produced.
William R. Alger, Life of Edwin Forrest, the American Tragedian (1877), is the standard biography. Lawrence Barrett, Edwin Forrest (1881), is an account by an actor. For a negative view of Forrest as "always the slave of his ignorance" see William Winter, The Wallet of Time, vol. 1 (1913). Lloyd R. Morris, Curtain Time (1953), gives an excellent brief evaluation of Forrest.