The Legacy of Edwin Forrest

The Legacy of Edwin Forrest, “America’s Greatest Actor”

In the early 1800s, Americans flocked to theaters as a source of entertainment and drama. During this time, American actors began to challenge the dominance of British actors and theater.

One of these actors, Edwin Forrest of Philadelphia, would become one of the most well-known and popular performers of the first half of the nineteenth century. Edwin Forrest was the first true star of the American theatre. 

Born on March 9, 1806 in Philadelphia to William and Rebecca Forrest. Edwin was fascinated with the theatre at a very early age and with his older brother William, practiced together before either took the stage. Edwin joined his first theater company at the age of twelve. William a modest actor, became a respected manager in Albany and in Philadelphia. He was the manager of the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, where he died prematurely.

In 1820 at the age of fourteen, Forrest made his professional debut at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.

Through most of the rest of the 19th century, American actors and other entertainers performed only in theatre, variety and traveling circuses, and members of the profession were not highly respected. During his long and successful career, Edwin Forrest did a great deal to change that perception.

In July 1826 Forrest debuted in New York as Othello. His Bowery Theatre performance in November in the same role was so successful that Forrest became the leading attraction for the remainder of the season. The fame of his initial triumph and the power of his performances brought him sold-out houses in city after city. Within two years, and still in his early twenties, Edwin Forrest had become the most highly paid performer in the United States. When he toured in England and throughout Europe, he was the first American to be acclaimed an international star.

Both a Shakespearean actor and a supporter of emerging American playwrights, his roles included Spartacus, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Metamora in Metamora; and The Last of the Wampanoags. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, Forrest’s reputation was damaged by a very public and bitter divorce from his wife Catherine as well as a rivalry with the British actor William Macready. The rivalry between the two actors culminated in the Astor Place Riot on May 10, 1849 when supporters of the two actors clashed in a conflict that left at least 20-25 people dead.

Alger, W. Rounseville. (1877). Life of Edwin Forrest, the American Tragedian. Vol. 1 Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.