July 18, 2018

During a visit to Mount Auburn Cemetery outside Boston in the early 1980s, Drama Professor Gary Sloan lay on the grave of famed Shakespearean actor Edwin Thomas Booth. Sloan, who reveres Booth, remembers the moment as “poignant, like visiting a great-grandfather.”

The visit was one of many Sloan made to Booth’s grave part of his research for a one-man play about the American actor whose brother, John Wilkes Booth, killed President Abraham Lincoln. Sloan has been researching the actor ever since, working on a show that captures the genius of a man whose theatrical career was overshadowed by his brother the assassin.

Drama Professor Gary Sloan performs

On June 14, Sloan performed the latest iteration of the play, “Haunted Prince: A Requiem for Edwin Booth,” at the Brian Friel Theater in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A Q&A with Sloan followed the performance, which took place on the opening night of the 2018 conference of the British Shakespeare Association.

Sloan, co-head of the Master of Fine Arts in Acting program, has appeared in 30 Shakespeare productions. In his play, he uses Booth’s own words and those of the Shakespearean characters he portrayed to enact crucial moments from Booth’s life until his death on June 7, 1893. Material for the play has come from Booth’s letters, stories, and soliloquies.

Booth employed a more naturalistic style of acting than typically was used in his day. “Booth was extremely lyrical. He sounded like [British actor] John Gielgud,” says Sloan. “In the play, I’m trying to find the poetic bridge between then and now.”

Booth and his brothers, John and Junius Brutus Booth Jr., were members of an American theatrical family. Their father, Junius Brutus Booth Sr., was a London-born lawyer’s son who left England in 1821 and settled in Harford County near Baltimore. In their heyday, “Junius Sr. was like [actor] Kirk Douglas and Edwin was like his son, Michael,” says Sloan.

Sloan, who’s still tinkering with a scene between Booth and his father, says that he’s planning to add another 15 minutes to the play. He’s scheduled to perform the show again in November at D.C.’s Metropolitan Club. Sloan also hopes to take the show on tour to Shakespearean festivals and universities around the country and perhaps to film a version of it in the future. He performed an earlier adaptation at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. in 2007.

Of his dedication to Booth’s story, Sloan says, “We choose heroes to inspire us and after a while we realize their stories may have chosen us. I confess that I feel compelled to tell the world that an actor by the name of Edwin Booth was not his brother the assassin, but rather America’s most celebrated Hamlet.”