Alas, poor Edwin Booth. America’s greatest actor of the 19th century was almost at a loss for words when he performed in the Ohio hamlet of Akron.
A minor actor nearly upstaged the master thespian.
Booth was renowned for his work in Shakespearean tragedies, particularly in the title role of Hamlet, which he performed in theaters across the United States and Europe. He maintained his impeccable reputation despite being the older brother of presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, whom he publicly repudiated and utterly disavowed following the 1865 slaying of Abraham Lincoln.
Akron residents were thrilled when Edwin Booth and his 30-actor troupe appeared March 9, 1882, in Hamlet at the Academy of Music on the northeast corner of Main and Market streets.
Owned by John F. Seiberling, the brick-and-stone hall was the pride of the canal town. The opera house stood 3½ stories tall with a theater taking up the top floors and a bank and dry-goods store occupying the lower level.
A life-size statue of William Shakespeare stood in an alcove near the roof, welcoming patrons to the show.
“The Academy was completely filled with the very best people of our city, and representatives from Cleveland, Canton, Massillon, Navarre, Medina, Doylestown, Kent, Wadsworth, Western Star, Hudson, Cuyahoga Falls and Ravenna,” the Akron Daily Beacon reported. “It is very seldom that so fashionable and also appreciative an audience assembles in the Academy, and it was again illustrated that our citizens have a taste for histrionic art of the highest order.”
As the Danish prince Hamlet, the 48-year-old Booth stalked the Akron stage in a caped costume, reciting Elizabethan dialogue with plaintive gestures, an emotive voice and precise elocution. He knew every nuance of character, every subtle phrasing, every dramatic pause.
“Mr. Edwin Booth is acknowledged to be the pre-eminent exponent, not of America alone, but of the world, of Shakespearian characters, as his masterly impersonation of Hamlet last evening fully demonstrated,” the newspaper noted.
What Booth hadn’t anticipated was the popularity of actor Newton Chisnell, 25, an Akron son who played a minor character at the opening of Act V, Scene 1. When the crowd recognized the jovial face of the second gravedigger, the hall shook with cheers, laughter and applause.
The uproar caught Booth off-guard as he waited in the wings. Something was rotten in the state of Denmark.
Chisnell, a Greensburg native who grew up in Akron, was the son of former Summit County Sheriff Jacob Chisnell. He attended Akron Public Schools, graduated from Buchtel College, worked as a stenographer for Buckeye Mower and Reaper Co. and claimed to be the first Akron man to practice shorthand.
Interested in theater as a boy, Chisnell organized amateur troupes and staged plays in communities around Akron. He began his professional acting career in 1877 with a stock company in Columbus.
On a theater trip to New York in 1881, Chisnell was invited to join Booth’s company and tour the nation in Hamlet.
“The alacrity with which I jumped at this proposition would give points to the gamiest trout,” Chisnell recalled years later. “I came home with a contract in my pocket for a season of 30 weeks with the greatest English-speaking actor of this generation.”
The two gravediggers appear in only one scene in Hamlet, but it’s pivotal. The comic-relief characters unearth the skull of a court jester in a churchyard, leading to Hamlet’s famous lamentation: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest; of most excellent fancy.”
During the Akron show, Booth watched with confusion as the second gravedigger received a rapturous ovation before Hamlet could begin his soliloquy on death. The actor collected his thoughts, proceeded with the iconic scene and regained control of the stage.
The Shakespearean play concludes with swordplay, poison and, of course, tragedy. When the curtain fell in Akron, the enthusiastic audience shouted for encores.
To be or not to be?
Without hesitation, Booth grabbed Chisnell by the hand, led him to the front of the stage and allowed the second gravedigger to bask in the glory of a curtain call.
“The audience recognized the compliment bestowed upon Akron’s young actor, and were profuse in their praise,” the Daily Beacon reported the next day.
That performance was hailed as one of the greatest evenings ever at the Academy.
Before the tour ended in April, Chisnell presented Booth with a bottle of 71-year-old brandy in thanks for his tutelage.
Chisnell moved to London where he performed two seasons with Italian actor Tommaso Salvini and two seasons with French actress Marie Aimee. He later appeared on the New York stage with Frank Mayo in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson and wrote the comic plays Caught in the Act, The Cigarette and A Thrilling Item.
The actor returned often to Akron to visit friends and relatives. His family lived in the old Richard Howe House at Exchange and High streets. In 2008, the historic building was moved west to serve as the headquarters of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition.
Chisnell always credited Booth with giving him the experience necessary to perfect his stagecraft. One evening in particular stood out.
“That was the happiest night of my life when I appeared with Booth down at the old Academy,” he said.
Edwin Booth’s final role, appropriately, was in Hamlet in 1891 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He died in 1893 at age 59 in New York City.
Akron lost an old hangout when a fire ravaged the Academy of Music in 1897. The statue of Shakespeare toppled to the ground and shattered. Owner S.T. Everett rebuilt the hall in 1898 as a five-story office complex. The Everett Building still stands today at Main and Market.
In failing health, Newton Chisnell moved back to Akron with his wife, Susan Parker, a New York actress, in the late 1890s. The actor was only 44 years old when he died of cirrhosis of the liver April 9, 1901. He was buried at Glendale Cemetery.
In 1930, Akron Times-Press reporter John Botzum recalled being a cub reporter when he was assigned to interview a frail, sickly Chisnell at home. The actor’s final performance was as tragic as a Shakespearean play.
“At the time of my call, his mind was clear,” Botzum wrote. “He was himself. Seated in his big chair, he told me the story of his life …
“Then something went wrong with his mind. He was living the old days over again. His room was the theater. He strutted about and oh! What a voice he had!
“He was playing Hamlet. He dug up an imaginary skull and then jested and laughed. He was at his best. What acting! A nurse came in and took me away.
“The curtain dropped a few days later. The make-believe play was over. Chisnell was dead.”
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.