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The Man Who Was Rip Van Winkle

The Man Who Was Rip Van Winkle: Joseph Jefferson and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    The Man Who Was Rip Van Winkle
    Book Description:

    The most beloved American comedic actor of the nineteenth century, Joseph Jefferson made his name as Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle. In this book, a compelling blend of biography and theatrical and cultural history, Benjamin McArthur chronicles Jefferson's remarkable career and offers a lively and original account of the heroic age of the American theatre.

    Joe Jefferson's entire life was spent on the stage, from the age of Jackson to the dawn of motion pictures. He extensively toured the United States as well as Australia and Great Britain. An ever-successful career (including acclaim as painter and memoirist) put him in the company of the great actors, artists, and writers of the day, including Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth, John Singer Sargent, and William Dean Howells. This book rescues a brilliant figure and places him, appropriately enough, on center stage of a pivotal time for American theatre. McArthur explores the personalities of the period, the changing theatrical styles and their audiences, the touring life, and the wide and varied culture of theatre. Through the life of Jefferson, McArthur is able to illuminate an era.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15018-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    Actors, according to a melancholy and self-pitying theatrical proverb of the nineteenth century, “carve figures in snow.” Joseph Jefferson understood this unhappy truism, belonging as he did to the generation of performers whose careers preceded the transforming impact of recorded drama. He shared the experience of earlier stage actors, for whom any success was temporary since their art died with them. Perhaps Jefferson felt the stab of drama’s ephemerality as he neared the end of his career. Perhaps he welcomed the opportunity to achieve a measure of artistic permanence through the inchoate tools of a mass media, which in 1900...

  5. 1 Cradled in the Profession
    (pp. 1-28)

    “I may almost say that I was born in a theatre,” Joseph Jefferson confides at the opening of hisAutobiography. “At all events, my earliest recollections are entirely connected with one.” In an age when the socially conscious considered such origins déclassé, Jefferson embraced his thespian pedigree without a hint of self-consciousness or embarrassment. Nor was the man who had delivered the famous paean to the “Little Church Around the Corner” for its kindness to a deceased and outcast fellow actor one to apologize for his own theatrical roots.¹

    Those roots reached down as far as anyone’s in the American...

  6. 2 Marking the Progress of Civilization
    (pp. 29-53)

    While Joseph Jefferson II and his family labored in the theatrical vineyards of New York, Alexander MacKenzie headed west. Through Cleveland and Columbus he trouped with a company, then on to Detroit, where he was joined by Jefferson’s sister Mary-Anne and her husband David Ingersoll. After a short summer season in 1837, Ingersoll left the company for good, heading to Nashville, where his downward spiral of alcoholism culminated in death a year later. Taking his place in the troupe was the steady if unspectacular Harry Isherwood, who itched to join “the misery of management.” Isherwood scouted out Chicago for MacKenzie...

  7. 3 Behind the Cart of Thespis
    (pp. 54-84)

    The embracing arms of kinship were never more evident then when the middle Jefferson died. In addition to Elizabeth Richardson, two other sisters, their husbands, niece Jane Germon, and her spouse—company members all—rallied around Joe and his family. The Mobile theatre closed for two nights to allow its endogamous company a decent period of mourning.

    Joe Jefferson’s autobiographical treatment of this sudden disaster is purposefully terse. Determined “not to cloud the narrative of my life with the relation of domestic sorrow,” he simply notes the distress it brought his family. He and sister Cornelia continued their entr’acte dance...

  8. 4 An Actor Prepares
    (pp. 85-106)

    Joe Jefferson stepped off the gangplank onto a New Orleans wharf sometime in November 1846. To say he returned as a man rather than a boy may be stretching the truth. For all of Joe’s travels and wide-ranging experiences, his life thus far had been spent in the sheltering fold of his immediate and extended family, and it had been a bare few months since his humiliation on the St. Louis stage. But he was approaching his eighteenth birthday in an era when most males had by then assumed the yoke of adulthood. Unlike his father, who when financial misfortune...

  9. 5 Echoing the Public Voice
    (pp. 107-133)

    “There is nothing a young actor enjoys more than itinerant theatricals,” Joseph Jefferson proclaimed from the safe distance of stardom. “It is so grand to break loose from a big tyrant manager in the city and become a small tyrant manager in the country.” With his good-natured hyperbole Joe described himself in hisAutobiographyas a “juvenile theatrical anarchist” stirring up trouble in the greenroom and egging on compatriots to join him on the road. “Let’s all be equal, and I’ll be king!” His revolutionary credentials are doubtful, yet it is true that for Jefferson, now that he had accrued...

  10. 6 Triumphs in Comedy and Melodrama
    (pp. 134-162)

    When Joseph Jefferson joined Laura Keene’s company in August 1857, he did so by invitation; Keene had never seen him perform. His reputation as an accomplished low comedian had preceded him to New York City, which by now had emerged as the nation’s theatrical center. In joining Keene’s family-oriented theatre Joe left behind the Bowery environs he had known at the National and Olympic. Scrambling days were over. Joe would never again lack for work. Already a prudent steward of his finances, he quietly began his steady climb toward great wealth.

    At age twenty-eight Joe was physically unimposing. Certainly not...

  11. 7 Nibbling at Stardom
    (pp. 163-183)

    By late winter 1860 the fortunes of nation and actor appeared to diverge. The political fallout of Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott, and John Brown cast a pall over the upcoming national political conventions and subsequent fall elections. The trajectory of Joseph Jefferson’s career, however, described a bright arc above the troubled landscape. Now thirty-one (on 20 February), he knew he had far surpassed his father’s professional achievements and could realistically expect to equal his grandfather’s acclaim. For the moment, Joe was something of a shooting star. Acclaim in early 1860 gave way to box office distress later that year and...

  12. 8 A Mighty Nimrod of Theatrical Touring
    (pp. 184-212)

    As Joseph Jefferson packed his bags for California, Congress was still a year away from voting to underwrite a transcontinental railroad. Six years would pass before the Golden Spike was driven. Consequently, the only “comfortable” means of transportation to California in June 1861 was by sea. What a mass of emotions must have knotted Joe’s stomach as he boarded the ship at a Hudson River dock. Pain over his first extended separation from his children contended with excitement regarding the venture. He continued to believe in his destiny as a star and sold himself to San Francisco managers as the...

  13. 9 Mr. Jefferson and Rip Van Winkle
    (pp. 213-240)

    The fifty-seven-day journey from Australia in a freighter across nearly seven thousand miles of tropical sea gave palpable definition to a condition Joe rarely knew: tedium. When they arrived at the port of Callao in Peru, Joe and Charley encountered a diffident Yankee who gave them news of the Civil War’s end and of Lincoln’s assassination. The latter news, according to son Charley’s recollection some forty years later, jolted his father and threw him into uncharacteristic despondency. Predictably, Joe reveals no reaction in his record of events. In theAutobiographyhe tells of learning about the war’s end in a...

  14. 10 Bringing the “Sleepy Piece” Home
    (pp. 241-268)

    TheSunrise, with Joe and his children aboard, docked in New York harbor on 12 August 1866. During the sixty-two months he was away, Joe had seen his son and traveling companion Charley, now fifteen, move into adolescence. But his other children—daughter Margaret, just turned thirteen; Thomas, nine; and Josephine, approaching seven—had only recently become reacquainted with their father. Per usual, in hisAutobiography, Joe tells his readers nothing about his homecoming.¹

    Joe settled comfortably at the Brevoort House on Fifth Avenue between Eighth and Ninth streets. The hotel, cobbled together out of three adjoining houses, had become...

  15. 11 A Fellow of Infinite Jest, of Most Excellent Fancy
    (pp. 269-304)

    By the late 1860s Joseph Jefferson’s star was firmly planted in the theatrical firmament. When Olive Logan identified America’s wealthiest actors in 1869, she named Joe along with Edwin Forrest and Edwin Booth. Twenty years later, a Boston paper claimed he was the richest actor in the world. He began collecting houses from Massachusetts to Louisiana, establishing his family in comfort that bordered on opulence.

    With the increasing respectability of the acting profession, Joe’s theatrical renown was readily translated into more general social prominence. He became the subject of features in magazines—Appleton’s, Harper’s, theNation, Lippincott’s(two), theAtlantic...

  16. 12 Are We So Soon Forgot?
    (pp. 305-349)

    “No man should write his autobiography but himself,” Joe Jefferson facetiously observes at the opening of his life’s story. He wastes no time in setting a tone of good-natured unpretentiousness, an act of self-definition both genuine and contrived. Not that this autobiographical exercise of late middle career was unserious. To the contrary, Jefferson sought to take as firm control of his legacy as he could. Such concerns were not uncommon. In a letter to Henry James, Henry Adams called hisEducationa “shield of protection in the grave,” advising his friend to “take your own life in the same way,...

  17. Epilogue: A Shy Thing Is Comedy
    (pp. 350-356)

    Not all members of the Jefferson clan had gathered about Joe when the end came. In truest family tradition, the show went on throughout his final illness. Only at their father’s death did Tom, on tour withRip, and Willie and Joe Jr., touringThe Rivals, leave their respective companies to return to Buzzards Bay. A special train was chartered to carry Joe’s body from Florida back to Massachusetts, his chosen site of rest. Henry Flagler, who owned the Florida East Coast Railroad, put his private car at the disposal of the Jeffersons. The northward journey was a true funeral...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 357-422)
  19. Index
    (pp. 423-438)