"I was in Blue Bicycle books and I saw the book Life and Art of Edwin Booth, and I remember thinking how that would make a great one-person show," says Rodney Lee Rogers, writer and actor of the recently renamed play, Sic Semper Tyrannis (formerly The Tragedian). "He was someone people saw so much but didn't really know about."
Edwin Booth is known to history as the brother of John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Both brothers were successful stage actors during the 1850s and '60s, and the two were often compared to each other as well as to their deceased actor father. The brothers would play the roles their father had performed years before, drawing both congratulations and criticism from critics. The constant comparison forced Edwin into the bottle — he showed up at some performances dead drunk.
Rogers wrote the original version of the play, The Tragedian, in 2008, with the help of then-producer and director Peter Karapetkov. The show played on and off at the Circular Church for about a year, and while Rogers says that he loved the qualities of that space, he's excited to perform the newly revised show in PURE's theater. This new version of the play is comparable to the bonus section of a CD, says Rogers. Thanks to additional research, he's added more facts about Booth's life to the show, as well as opening music that matches the music that opened Booth's longest running performance of Hamlet. "It's the show that won't die," says Rogers.
The play incorporates a lot of Shakespeare, delving into "To be or not to be," in the first few minutes. Rogers masterfully intertwines Hamlet with Booth, Booth's letters and critical reviews with his personal life, and perhaps most significantly, John Wilkes' political inclinations and his disagreements with Edwin. Rogers sets up the foundation for Booth's future endeavors by balancing the play on the unsturdy foundation of the actor's desire to please his father, and the emotional toll his father's death took on the 17-year-old Booth.
"Is my father dead?" says Rogers as young Edwin. The character then transitions to his role as Hamlet immediately. "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!"
Booth speaks as himself and as the roles he has played on stage — most notably Hamlet and Richard III. He also plays his younger self, his father, his brother, and a few other characters, distinguishing each character from the previous one by slight movements and actions with props. "All of a sudden that person's there," says Rogers. "It's a complete metamorphosis."
Recently, the show was translated to Bulgarian and performed in Bulgaria, where Rogers says that, despite some historical facts lost in translation, it was very well received. "It's a very theatrical culture," says Rogers. And the play is about as theatrical as they come. "It's Edwin's interpretation of people, so I'm not actually playing different people. I can do an impression of an impression," says Rogers.
The playwright only uses a few props on stage, but he says that if handled properly, they can speak volumes. "There's a trunk that can become a grave and then a train. The cape is everything from a rug to a baby. The thing almost becomes magical," he says. Rogers says that his play is for all audiences, but that people entering with an appreciation for Shakespeare will experience the play on another level. He also suggests that older viewers may appreciate Booth's various triumphs and tragedies. "The older you are, the more loss you've had, the more it rings true," says Rogers.
Despite his well-documented life, not many people have a working knowledge of Edwin Booth. Why did such a successful actor just fade into the haze of history? "He's not a part of history that will last," says Rogers. "The only reason his brother was, was because he interacted with history." The actor points out that well-documented people are not always well-remembered. "The most common reaction is people come out of the play saying, 'Wow, I didn't know that,'" he says.
If anything, Rogers is paying tribute to a fascinating man lost among the theatrics and crimes of his brother. "It's amazing the way an actor can be more of a storyteller," he says.