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Mr. Booth Goes to Washington

It might be said that John Wilkes Booth was America's first political actor: Long before Paul Robeson, Jane Fonda and Warren Beatty - or, for that matter, before R.W. Reagan - Booth had carved his name into the national bark through one ideologically driven deed. True, murder is not considered part of the political process (or at least it wasn't back in Booth's day), and this Confederate loyalist was no "activist" in the Hollywood sense of the word, but he genuinely believed that assassinating Abraham Lincoln would upset the tactical balance of power, stimulate debate, change minds - the classic goals of any political campaign. Before the Civil War, actors were content to butcher Hamlet in the territories and grow fat on public attention, but after Booth literally broke a leg in Ford's Theater, they sensed they could do something more - they could get "involved."

Actor-writer Brendan Hughes cleverly exploits Booth's prototypical role in Glamorous Assassin, his informative one-man show now running at Glaxa Studios. He begins, mercifully enough, with the assassination and, having got that out of the way, climbs down the Booth family tree to lay the groundwork for John's last appearance onstage.

John's father, Junius Brutus, was an English actor who'd immigrated to Mary-land, seeking his version of the American Dream - by becoming an absentee gentleman farmer and slave owner. In the New World he raised a family of 10 children, toured the country with bombastic performances of Shakespeare and eventually drank himself to death. Junius believed that only his older son Edwin had inherited the full set of his acting genes, and so discouraged John from adopting the craft, nudging him instead to work more suited to his talents - i.e., tending the family acreage. In time Edwin became his generation's biggest star, but, while he was building this illustrious career, John, tired of farm drudgery and ever drawn to the city delights of Baltimore, eventually entered the theater himself. If he and some present-day historians are correct, John was, by the start of the 1860s, earning $20,000 per year and was well on his way to surpassing Edwin in the hearts of the theatergoing public.

But there was that little matter of the Civil War, which made John, who sided with the South, the odd man out in a family of Union supporters. Chalk it up to a bizarre twist of fate - or to the small size of the United States at the time - but John, as a casual volunteer in the Virginia militia, was present at the hanging of abolitionist John Brown following the debacle at Harpers Ferry. According to Hughes' interpretation, the execution electrified Booth - not so much for its pro-slavery theme, but for its scaffold pageantry and Brown's dignified performance. Against this curtain, all other exits would be judged, as far as Booth was concerned.

Yet for all his adoration of the Richmond secessionists and hatred of Lincoln, John spent the war to the north of the Mason-Dixon Line, where mutton, wine and coal were kept in good supply throughout the war. He stayed quite busy, however, for while Booth never responded to his cause's colors, he did use his charm to pass back and forth, seemingly at will, to bring much-needed supplies to the South, and evidence suggests his close familiarity with the Confederate spy networks that honeycombed the border regions.

Hughes' two-hour show dances between historical confession and psychological memoir, delivering Booth to us with a light drawl, self-consciously melodramatic gestures and a stare that is more melancholy than mad. He swaggers and staggers across a Spartan stage whose barrenness is relieved by only a few props: a flag-draped steamer trunk, a dressing table that is home to a crucifix and a decanter of brandy or bourbon, and a bed. These shape the claustrophobic diorama of Booth's life, which, as he paces about, seems to belong more to a cornered animal than to a successful performer. For Hughes' sack-coated Booth, despite his growing popularity as "the handsomest man in America," sees himself trapped on a small planet of actors and sexually magnetized fans - all while he chills in the penumbra of his older brother's fame.

Before long we begin to feel that had the War Between the States not happened, John would have needed to find some other apocalypse to delay his apparent disintegration. And, at the height of his fame, and not yet 28 years old, John is pushed over the top when he hears of Lincoln's plans to allow black suffrage. Up until this point, his contribution to the Confederacy was limited to petty smuggling, playing amateur spy by having an affair with the daughter of a former Yankee senator and by attending Lincoln's second inauguration. But now, with the South on the verge of surrender, he lays plans with a group of fellow rebels to seize the president and ransom him for Southern POWs. When this scheme falls apart, he turns to the act that will enshrine him in the pantheon of American villainy.

Glamorous Assassin awakens in us an interest in one of our country's great pivotal moments and reminds us that Booth, far from the common perception of his being a desperate, failed actor, was one of the top leading men of his time. Still, Hughes twists the facts about somewhat. He implies, for instance, that Booth's dalliance with Lucy Lambert Hale was strictly a war-time measure designed to win access to Union secrets through her father, a former New Hampshire senator; but the record shows that he truly loved Miss Lucy and was, in fact, engaged to marry her. Hughes also repeats the legend that Booth's accomplices had set out to waylay Lincoln's coach and kidnap him, but as far as historians know, the would-be abductors never physically set forth to carry out their plan. Finally, the performer-playwright has Booth actually meeting Lincoln in the White House, although this is highly speculative, to say the least.

In the end these and other factual contortions don't really matter to Glamorous Assassin, for its lesson is not one of addresses and dates but of the American character. A flag, crucifix and bottle of booze - these could well be the inventory of a modern crime scene as props for a historical one-man show, for in some ways Booth was also the first angry white man, his conspiracy predating by several years General Nathan Bedford Forrest's founding of the Ku Klux Klan. Booth became the villain of the hour immediately after shooting Lincoln, but today he occupies a much more ambivalent place in our minds. To our thinking, Benedict Arnold may rhyme with treason, but Booth, whose act was far more heinous for its total lack of abstraction (he committed murder in a public place) and its abject futility, has receded into the misty bayou of folklore.

Booth was a dreamer, we reason, a drinker, a romantic, a Southerner - he didn't act with the contemptible sangfroid of General Arnold. And for some in this paranoid age, when even a baseball score is greeted with the suspicion once reserved for the Warren Commission Report, Booth has joined that eternal lineup of sympathetic patsies who had been set up by awesome conspiratorial forces. (It goes without saying that some even believe he escaped his Union pursuers following the assassination, finding in Richard Garrett's razed tobacco barn the smoke screen of a cover-up.)

Perhaps it's more accurate to describe Booth, who, after all, was no coalition builder, as our first politicized actor rather than our first political one. He certainly was the first to entwine fame, politics, violence and celebrity sex appeal (his captors found the pictures of five women on his body); it's difficult to recalculate the sensation value his crime would have in today's electronic, celebrity-mad America. An equivalent event might be one in which one of the Baldwin brothers murders Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Perhaps the lesson we should get from Glamorous Assassin is that celebrity is politics by other means.