If an argument could be made that an American mode of acting emerged in the 19th century, Edwin Forrest would be a lynchpinch of the case. A Philadelphian forced to play drag and minstrel roles because leading men were numerous, he decided to establish his career in the West. He had a genius for observing the varieties of human types, and in the South and West encountered an extraordinary range of characters whom he would internalize and reform in his roles. His abilities to pass for a black among blacks was legendary, and his uncle characters on the minstrel stage were typified by gravity rather than caricature. He translated this into his landmark 1826 presentation of "Othello" at the Bowery Theater. He was twenty at the time. Forrest encouraged American playwrights and did not shun appearing their creations; indeed, his personation of the Wampanoag Indian "Metamora" proved essential to the solid success of J.S. Stone's play in 1829.
"Othello" may have been the ideal vehicle for Forrest, especially he himself was moved by a spirit of jealousy. This passion led to his feud with the English actor William Macready, a contention that destroyed Forrest's credibility as a performer in England and inspired the Astor Street riots in New York against Macready. Jealousy also destroyed his marriage with Catherine Norton Sinclair, an accomplished English woman, whom he accused of sleeping with author Nathaniel Parker Willis.
In the 1850s and '60s he enjoyed immense regard as a Shakespearean in the eyes of American audiences. Landmark performances of Macbeth and Hamlet made him a legend. But performing periodically lost its charms for Forrest, as he dabbled in politics and building projects. Ill health dogged Forrest after the Civil War, and his increasingly odd appearance, lameness, and pained expressions alienated theater-goers. Those who saw him late in life witnessed only a shell of the man who galvanized the stage in the 1850s. David S. Shields/ALS