Monday, January 24, 2011
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
as always for Marcia
What’s in a Name?
My first and middle names are the same as the great Nineteenth Century American actor, America’s first superstar of theater, Edwin Forrest. His fame far eclipsed his contemporaries – including Edwin Booth, John Wilkes’ uncle – and similarly, all who came before. Forrest so loved America that the chauvinist within – chauvinist as in one who demonstrates excessive love of country – prompted him to sponsor a playwriting competition that fostered the first major wave of truly “American” playwriting, out of which came Edwin’s signature production of John Augustus Stone’s 1829 drama Metamora, an audience pleaser of a tale that depicts both the genocide by British forces and the native nobility of the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts. Edwin’s portrayal of Metamora, the Wampanoag Chief, in terms of its dramatic intensity and audience appeal, rivaled his portrayals of his renowned Shakespearean leads, Lear and Macbeth. Edwin is credited with inventing the notion of Method acting, a technique Forrest came up with after out-swimming a shark in the Caribbean. Forrest often recounted how he would summon the emotion of those moments when called upon to express fear while acting on stage.
Imagine an audience of theatergoers in 1830 in a culture and time where theater is the only game in town. Picture the gangs of New York in Forrest’s pit, as Metamora faces off against the British Empire. Everyman born to poverty, every outsider, every immigrant takes heart in Metamora’s noble defiance of authority. We’ve always had class warfare but some two hundred years ago, even more so. In the final scene of the tragedy Metamora and Nahmeokee, his wife, are on a promontory. English ships are afire in the bay below. His tribesman and his own son are dead. Metamora had tried to co-exist with the “civilized” invaders but to no avail. The British are inching up the surrounding landscape, their weaponry aimed. Rather than let the British kill his wife, he slits Nahmeokee’s throat with his knife as they have their final kiss. He’d rather she died at his hands than theirs. And then the British open fire. Dig the gas lamp lighting and the rifle smoke through which Forrest as Metamora somersaults to unseen depths below the stage as if into coastal waters. Imagine Forrest as he triumphantly reappears and takes his bow in full Metamora regalia to the thunder of applause. It is no wonder that Forrest was photographed, etched, sculpted and painted by his contemporaries more than was Abraham Lincoln. Hell, the classic cigar store Indian of Nineteenth Century tobacconists was a folk, wood carved take on Edwin as Metamora. His fans, many amongst the poorest of Americans, absolutely adored Edwin Forrest. In 1849 they even rioted in his name and, for the first time in American history, American militia, in this case New Yorkers, fired upon its protesting citizenry leaving, thirty-seven theater dissidents dead on the streets of Manhattan in front of Astor Place where Forrest’s British acting rival for the title of Greatest Shakespearean Actor of the Era, William Charles Macready, was doing Macbeth. Macready had slandered and slighted Forrest some years before in London, and the Bowery Boys – as fans of Edwin’s were called – would not politely abide the presence of Macready on an American stage. The Englishman was performing for the New York elite at John Astor’s upper-class theater while Forrest across town at The Bowery Theater was doing the same play for his poor and admiring fans.
But enough about Edwin Forrest. I want to talk about my odd connection to the tragedian.
First time I hear of Edwin is when I learn to read. Across from the Catholic elementary school I attended, there was a public school whose name was Edwin Forrest Public Elementary School. Walking past the school, my six-year-old eyes could not help but notice my first and middle names carved into the stone facing of the building. When I asked my mother about this coincidence she told me that that Edwin Forrest had nothing to do with me as I was named after my father’s father, Edwin Forrest Ward, as he was named after his grandfather. Our world was staunchly Catholic and she dismissed Edwin as a “public,” imbuing the word with a distinct parochial disdain. I put the coincidence out of my mind until I was eighteen and in college.
I was taking an English literature class with a Drexel University professor by the name of Lawrence Stern. Professor Stern had arranged for us, his students, a viewing of some incredibly monumental and rare manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book Room: an illuminated Boccaccio, a fire charred fragment of the oldest extant Shakespeare folio, a William Blake manuscript and other such literary delights. At the conclusion of the tour for which we were accompanied by security - I mean the manuscripts we purview-ed were priceless – the librarian in charge, an elderly former professor herself, asked Professor Stern if he would like to see something by his namesake, Lawrence Stern, the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman that was published in nine volumes over a decade’s time beginning in 1759, a series that in toto is considered to be the first novel in the English language. After we got to spy Stern’s hand written masterpiece, I jokingly asked if our esteemed archivist had anything by my namesake.
“And who might that be?” she asked. And then, she about passed out when I tell her “Edwin Forrest.”
“Class dismissed, Professor Stern,” she announces before telling me, with a voice that brooked no dissent, to “Come with me!” Well as it turned out, the librarian some sixty years prior had written her doctoral thesis on Edwin Forrest fifty years after his death, and she probably knew more about the actor than anyone alive; furthermore, the collection of Forrest artifacts at the University of Pennsylvania was extensive as his will had named the library heir to his personal possessions: original playbills, his personal correspondence, photographs of him in his greatest roles, assorted costumes and props, his will, his scripts, his entire paper trail was stored beyond the locked door we stood in front of. And then she unlocked it and shared with me the Forrest collection, all of it, allowing me to rummage amongst the papers of my namesake. First thing I notice that sets the hair on the back of my neck to standing is the similarity of Forrest and my father’s handwriting. I’m no handwriting analyst, but both penmanships expressed the same face to the world, the same slant and stance, the same demeanor, the same precision. And the second startling observation is how similar they are, my and Forrest’s visage: the eyes, the hairline, the brood, the frown, the smile, the stare, the curly hair of youth. Even the librarian commented on our likeness as some hours later she locked up the Rare Book Room and sent me on my way. It’s been some forty years since then and I’m still on the trail of Edwin Forrest.
A decade after catching that first real glimpse into the nature and importance of Edwin Forrest I move to Denver whose Main Branch Library, I discover, housed on its basement shelves all the contemporary works written about Forrest, the works of William Alger, Lawrence Barrett, Gabriel Harrison, and those written well after his death by Montrose Moses, James Rees, and Richard Moody. For years I check them out to read then check them out to read again. All of them maintain Forrest died childless, one reason besides his charitable nature, that the bulk of his estate went into founding The Edwin Forrest Home (for Decayed Actors) in what is now Mayfair and which later moved to West Philadelphia across from Fairmount Park, an institution which housed in their final years – those lucky enough to be selected to live there - the crème de le crème of the American stage. In fact, the trust, which Forrest started to fund the home that functioned for almost a century, was so substantial and important that to be Mayor of Philadelphia one had to serve on the Board of the Edwin Forrest Trust, an official obligation mentioned in the duties of the Mayor. I also read between the lines of the staid biographies and would give credence to the innuendo that uber masculine Forrest must have had many mistresses. I mean, by today’s standards, he is Marlon Brando and John Elway rolled into one, great actor and athlete. Yes, Edwin was childless, as his wife the actress Katherine Sinclair could not bear children, although she certainly did conceive them. She just never was able to bring the unborn to term. And behind closed doors in the 1890s, many a claim to his fortune was settled, leaving me to wonder about the nature of those claims. Paternity? Likely. Debts-owed? Unlikely. Thus, that Forrest might have had illegitimate children is not beyond the realm of possibility. He was the most famous practitioner of dramatic arts America had ever seen - its first idol, if you will - and the nights on the road might easily have involved some hanky panky, no matter the Victorian practices associated with his lifetime. My grandfather’s grandfather would have been a contemporary of Edwin in his middle years. As would his wife. That someone might have named their child after the great actor is not unlikely, and that might be all there is to the coincidence of our names. But then again, I cannot help but wonder.
And there’s more. One day in 1988 when I was living in what is now called Lodo I’m reading the last Forrest book available at the Library, one written in 1960, some eighty-eight years after Edwin’s death by Richard Moody, Edwin Forrest, First Star of the American Stage, and I come to realize that the Edwin Forrest Home might still exist. I call telephone information in Philadelphia and dial the number they give me. I speak with a woman and tell her my name is Edwin Forrest, that I was born and raised within walking distance of Edwin Forrest School, that I am an actor, and that I am researching my possible connection to Edwin Forrest. These revelations incite a silence on the other end that I can hear, before being broken with a question and pronouncement, “What is your phone number? I’ll have someone call you back.”
An hour later I’m on the phone with a lawyer who just years before brokered the deal to dissolve the Edwin Forrest Trust which had done nothing but grow to the tune of millions since Edwin’s death in 1872. Right off, he’s pushy and to the point, a trait associated with being a Philadelphia lawyer. “Edwin,” he asks, “are you trying to throw a last minute monkey wrench into the workings of the deal that has already been done? Are you now making some sort of claim?” before asserting “You must know the dissolution of the Edwin Forrest Trust is already a fete accompli, that the funds the were sent to Actor’s Equity and The Edwin Forrest Wing of Actor’s Equity Hospital in Englewood New Jersey has already been built.” I realize he thinks I’m some sort of gold digger, and I assure him that I am just curious about the coincidences of Edwin’s life and my own. And there are many, little and large, besides our names.
For instance, one of Edwin’s dearest friends was an actor by the name of John McCullough. At the time of my aforementioned phone call, my best friend and godfather to my second son, Zenith Star, was one JW McCullough, and yes, the J was short for John. But ah, what’s in a name? Well, both John’s, as well as John Stone who wrote Metamora, committed suicide, the latter John’s untimely end the result of his jealousy of Forrest who made a fortune off his play, which Forrest had purchased outright from him in 1828. The Mayfair neighborhood where I lived growing up was once part of Edwin’s country estate, the lands of which were donated to the City of Philadelphia by Forrest – hence the school where Forrest’s country house once stood. You might say Edwin and I shared the same geography, albeit with a century and a half in between. Oh, and did I mention that I now live on Forest Street in the Mayfair neighborhood of Denver?
And just last week, the week after my January birthday, I am corresponding with a classmate of mine from prep school, one Albert Brancato. Albert has read some of my Philadelphia stories and had written to ask me about my affinity for all things Delaware River. I write him that yes I loved the Delaware and that many of the rituals of my youth - smoking, drinking, making out with girls, etc. - occurred along its banks. And in the course of explaining my fascination with the Delaware, I mention Edwin Forrest and my curious knowledge of him, writing to Albert that sometimes while acting on stage I feel that Edwin Forrest “informs my technique.” I also close my post to Albert with a mention of my latest story, What I Always Knew, which is a story of reconnecting via a novel I wrote with a lovely girl who I once adored, and about how writing makes present in the here and now the ghosts of our lives. What I Always Knew practically wrote itself in one Sunday afternoon’s sitting, and, in an intimate moment, I mention to Albert that I felt so inspired during the writing of What I Always Knew, that “the muse was palpable, watching over my shoulder as I wrote,” a statement wherein I used the word “palpable” for the first time in my writer’s life, inferring that my muse for the story was the young woman l I had traveled with almost forty years ago.
Five minutes after emailing Albert I leave the house for my weekly game of pinochle with my good friends Tom and Clare Cavanaugh. When I arrive Tom gives me a belated birthday gift, a scanned reprint of a book now in the public domain that he had found online, Gabriel Harrison’s 1889 biography, Edwin Forrest, The Actor and The Man, Critical and Reminiscent. Now keep in mind, not five minutes earlier I had written a brief biopic summary of Edwin’s life for Albert and had mentioned the influence of one’s muse in our lives. To bring home the notion, as I told Albert, that Edwin Forrest “informs my technique,” here is the fifth sentence in Harrison’s bio of Edwin Forrest: “It is in the night time, when the noises of the day are hushed, and all around seems wrapped in the arms of sleep, that an incident of the past, or some dear dead friend, or a lovely girl that we once adored, will stand so boldly before us in form and color that they seem palpable.”
Hmmm, maybe I was entitled to a share of Edwin’s millions after all. If nothing else, I know in my subconscious Edwin’s story as well as I know my own, and, it would seem, he informs my writing as well as my acting.