'To Bury Caesar' explores the psyche of Marylander John Wilkes Booth

June 18, 1993|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,Contributing Writer

At the age of 26 he was one of the most popular actors of his time.

Then he chose to murder a U.S. president. Bad career move.

John Wilkes Booth is the focus of "To Bury Caesar," a one-man historical play scheduled for today and tomorrow in the Theatre Outback at Howard Community College.

The production is part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, which begins today and runs through June 27.

Written by Columbia resident Chris. Dickerson and first performed in 1983 in Spartanburg, S.C., the play looks at Booth ** to understand how a man of his stature could be driven to commit the most celebrated killing of the Civil War.

The play begins and ends in a hotel room in Washington the evening Abraham Lincoln is shot at Ford's Theater.

Motivations for Booth's action include hatred of Lincoln's wartime powers, white supremacist beliefs and doubt at his meager contribution to the Confederacy.

During the play, he discusses subjects that range from his career to his family and his politics. An actor who played classical and contemporary dramas, Booth performs soliloquies from "Richard III," "Julius Caesar" and "Hamlet" with relevance to his situation.

One soliloquy, taken from "Richard III," speaks of anticipated peace with the houses of York and Lancaster reunited after the War of the Roses, 380 years before Appomattox Court House.

Controversy latched onto "To Bury Caesar" in 1984 when the play, originally titled "Booth," had its scheduled performances at Ford's canceled after objections from the Ford's Theater Society's executive director.

Booth, a Bel Air native buried in an unmarked grave in Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore, was an actor who loved the --ing display of melodrama.

Booth's father, Junius Brutus Booth Sr., was much the same as his son.

"John never saw the old man perform," Mr. Dickerson said. "The father died on tour when Wilkes was only 14. A lot of his style was pretty much what his father did."

As one who played dramatic assassins such as Brutus and Marc Antony, Booth's boundary between reality and drama was tenuous. To him, "All the World's a Stage" was more than a humbling analogy. It was a challenge.

The stereotype of him as a frustrated actor doesn't stand up to scholarly research, said Dr. Terry Alford.

"The fellow was a helluva actor. The guy was one of the top actors, both in popularity and making money. . . . John did Shakespeare, but he liked melodrama," said Dr. Alford, professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale.

He is writing a biography on Booth for Oxford University Press.

Dr. Alford found through his research at the National Archives, Library of Congress and the Harvard Theatre Library that Booth was a better actor than his brother Edwin Booth, considered by many as the greatest actor of the American theater.

"He would have been a serious rival to his brother," Dr. Alford said.

"Both were great actors," said Richard Pilcher, who plays Booth and is an adjunct faculty member in the theater department of the Baltimore School for the Arts.

One point of the play is to treat Booth as a person committing a political conspiracy for the defeated Confederacy, not the crazed lone gunman cartoon that screamed, "Sic Semper Tyrannus."

"There's no string of criminal record," Dr. Alford said. "He's not like James Earl Ray [who assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King], who had a criminal record. His colleagues were shocked."

Donald Hicken, who directs the play and is artistic director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, hopes the play serves two purposes: showing Booth's political motives and what kind of man he was.

"The story has a Maryland appeal" with a Maryland assassin and a Maryland playwright, said Mr. Hicken. "The festival is an amalgam of events, both imported and indigenous."

Dr. Alford will participate in a symposium on Booth before tonight's production at 6:30 p.m. in the Theatre Outback.

"It's always fun to come to Maryland because Booth was first and last a Marylander," Dr. Alford said. "He went to school at Catonsville. He went to St. Timothy's Episcopal School."

Behind the stage, the production of "To Bury Caesar" is remarkable for its lack of acrimony among the playwright, actor and director.

A Sunday rehearsal had the director tailoring the script with the playwright readily accepting the suggestion. The common outburst was laughter among the three.

"It's unusual to have this collaboration at all," Mr. Hicken said.

"I thoroughly trust any suggestion they come up with," Mr. Dickerson said.

The Columbia Festival of the Arts will present "To Bury Caesar" at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow at the Theatre Outback at Howard Community College in Columbia. Tickets are $8 for adults, $4 for students. A discussion into the mind of Booth and his family will begin at 6:30 p.m. today with the participation of Dr. Alford. Information: 715-3044.

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