Sunday, July 17, 2011

An actor's life

Footlights and Spotlights, Otis Skinner

My interest in the American theatrical family the Skinners continues.  I'm glad, though, that I read Cornelia Otis Skinner's Family Circle before reading this, her father's account of his acting career over almost fifty years.  As his daughter does, Skinner describes his family and his early life growing up in Massachusetts and Connecticut.  On a visit to New York City, his brother took him to a performance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and while absorbed in the play he suddenly realized, like a religious conversion, that acting would be his life's work, his vocation.

It wasn't easy for a small-town boy to break into acting, even in the 1870s.  A letter of recommendation from his father's former parishioner, P.T. Barnum, finally got him a place at a struggling Philadelphia theater as a general utility man, playing different characters every day and scrambling to learn new parts between each performance. From there, Skinner would move on to increasingly distinguished companies, and he would also organize his own companies, taking them on grueling road tours across the United States.

The subtitle of this book, "Recollections of My Life on the Stage," perfectly describes it.  It is an account of actors and theaters and plays, a true theatrical history.  Reading this, I realized how little I know about the literature of the drama.  I didn't even recognize the names of most of the playwrights, let alone their works.  Skinner pays tribute to the managers and actors with whom he worked, especially those who helped his career, and he is generous even to those with whom he disagreed and parted company.  Two extended sections discuss Edwin Booth, whom Skinner greatly admired, including an eerie account of Booth burning a trunk of costumes and properties belonging to his brother, the Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

This is a book about the theater, and it includes very little of his life outside the theater.  It was Cornelia's book that provided much of the context and fleshed out some of the stories.  Otis briefly describes his parents in a couple of pages; he does not even mention a sister who died in infancy. Cordelia recounts the death and its effects on the family. The sight of his father pacing the house, clutching his sister's tiny body, taught Otis "that his Olympian father was capable of profound emotion," while his mother "bore the tragedy with desperate stoicism."  Otis discusses at length his tenure with the Augustin Daly company, one of the most distinguished in New York in the 1880s.  He mentions the temperamental star, Ada Rehan, but it is Cornelia who explains that her volatile liaison with the married Augustin Daly caused many of the problems in the company.  His wife Maude Durbin generally appears only in the context of her acting career, and there are only three references to Cornelia.

Skinner's book was published in 1923.  Cornelia published Family Circle in 1948, after the death of both her parents.  The greater frankness of her book may reflect a different attitude toward biography and autobiography, in the changes those 25 years brought.  Of course, hers is also a family's story, rather than an individual's.  I'm glad to have read Footlights and Spotlights, but in the end it's the Skinners themselves that interest me, more than the theater, and it's Family Circle that I will re-read, with pleasure.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!