Prof. Nora Johnson on melodrama, Shakespeare, and Edwin Booth

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Thursday at 4:30 in Kohlberg’s Scheuer Room, the Faculty Lecture Series continued with Professor Nora Johnson of the English Department’s lecture, “Shakespearean Melodramas: Edwin Booth and High Culture in America.” The lecture focused on how Booth, brother of assassin John Wilkes Booth, portrayed Shakespearean characters and was himself portrayed by Kitty Maloney in her memoirs. Johnson discussed how the melodrama of Kitty’s vision and Booth’s career mirror the underlying melodramas in how scholars distinguish high and low culture.

Johnson began by explaining her interest in the division of high and low culture as perceived by Lawrence Levine in his suggestion that beginning in the twentieth century, Shakespeare was no longer enjoyed on the level of “low culture” but instead became the domain of “high culture.” Prior to this point, Shakespeare was performed in virtually every venue to just about every kind of audience. Johnson, however, would argue that this model is not as absolute as it might seem, one notable example being the case of Edwin Booth.

Booth, whose immediate family members all worked in theater, worked his way from basic “lowbrow” productions on the West Coast to the East coast where his interest in “artistic integrity” set him apart as what might be called a proponent of “high culture.” He came to be greatly acclaimed as an actor, his popularity and talent apparently strong enough that his career withstood his brother’s assassination of President Lincoln.

By examining the diaries of Katherine Goodall, an aspiring actress whose stage name was Kitty Maloney, Johnson revealed the ways in which the “high culture” attitude of Booth was manipulated by his manager to more profitable ends, often through such melodramatic schemes as convincing the innocent but enamored Kitty to persuade Booth to make more “commercially expedient” choices. The revealing and often amusing memoirs of Kitty reveal the role of melodrama in defining the difference between low and high culture.

Johnson concluded that the situations seen in Kitty’s memoirs parallel the way modern scholars interpret Shakespeare. Johnson observed that the image we have today, of low Shakespeare being exiled from our society, is in itself a melodramatic one. Ultimately, Johnson did not choose to judge melodrama as either good or bad, but instead urged scholars to recognize its presence and consider its implications. “We need a deep engagement with literary form,” a communication that Johnson argues can be aided by melodrama which allows us to communally “regret and replicate.”

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