The uniquely American melodramatic saga of the theatrical Booth family has been told before, but historian Nora Titone focuses on the rivalry between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth as the catalyst for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Raised on an isolated farm in the wilds of Maryland, John Wilkes grew up with a steady diet of the blood and thunder melodramas of the time, while his older brother Edwin saw more of the world, toiling as dresser and keeper to his father, the celebrated, troubled actor Junius Brutus Booth. Both of Booth's sons would follow in his footsteps. Edwin, by virtue of hard won lessons learned by close observation of his father's work, inherited his mantle as the premier actor of his generation. John Wilkes, who bore an uncanny resemblance to his father and shared his impressive physique, emerged as a cut rate Booth, more suited to pyrotechnic displays of stage combat - which on more than one occasion turned real - than verse.
A major theme of interest here is the actor's position in society. Edwin Booth's successful Boston engagements placed him firmly in the literary circle of Samuel and Julia Ward Howe who hosted several salons with Edwin as guest of honor. Edwin became a social acquaintance of several members of Lincoln's cabinet and a fervent union supporter in the Civil War. John Wilkes Booth's career was less glamorous, and his tribulations touring the hinterlands are a study in darkly comic misfortune (Edwin forbade his playing in major cities). He was wounded in the rear by his manager, stabbed by a jilted mistress, and almost lynched by malfunctioning stage equipment in Buffalo. Through his travels he also developed a view of the Union as oppressors imposing their way of life on the South - and more than one person who disparaged Jefferson Davis in his presence was rebutted with physical force.
This is a fine work that lays out the intersection of theatre, politics, and the sibling rivalry that culminated in the death of a beloved president.