February 12, 2010

Drama between Bird and Forrest

The Broker of Bogota premiered on the stage of the Bowery Theatre in New York City on February 12, 1834. The play was written by Robert Montgomery Bird specifically for Edwin Forrest, one of the best-known actors of the day (pictured at right). After its first performance, Forrest wrote to the playwright: "I have just left the theatre — your tragedy was performed and crowned with entire success. The Broker of Bogota will live when our vile trunks are forgotten." Forrest continued to perform the piece, off and on, for many years, though it was never published in Bird's lifetime.

Bird became, for a time, a frequent collaborator with Forrest. The duo even did some traveling together, planning to go as far as Mexico (though they never actually made it). Forrest, however, had specific demands for any character he would play and frequently called for Bird to re-write scripts. Forrest created for himself a stock character — a brawny (but often rash) hero with more lines than any other character, and who often had a shirtless scene or two.

The Broker of Bogota, however, took a slight turn. Bird put aside his typical epic hero plays (often in exotic locals) and instead created a more domestic drama. Forrest played Febro, a middle-class man with three children, including his wild son Ramon, who is disowned from the family. Ramon is led by the villainous Cabarero to steal money from the Viceroy, in a set-up to make Febro look like the criminal. Febro is brought to trial before the Viceroy, but Ramon does not confess to save his father.

The play, which some modern critics call Bird's finest, is complicated and it's not entirely clear who the real villains and heroes are. Bird biographer Curtis Dahl also notes that the play fleshes out and humanizes even the minor characters in the plot. Nevertheless, Bird's interests as a playwright (and in Forrest) were waning. He was experimenting with various other literary forms on the side; after The Broker of Bogota, most of his fiction came in the form of novels, including Sheppard Lee.


  1. Hello Rob,

    Love the new blog, Rob! Thanks for continuing after the Poe Bicentennial. Today's column about Bird and Forrest called to mind another nineteenth-century actor, the notorious George Frederick Cooke. The Pennsylvania Collection of Fine Arts in Philadelphia has a fine Thomas Sully portrait of him in the role of Richard III.

  2. George Frederick Cooke? That's one I actually don't know! (Though, to save face, I do know Thomas Sully... maybe I'll give him a day on the blog too.)

  3. Yeah, Sully's worth a mention. He was a pretty prolific portrait painter, including some notables, and very much a member of the nineteenth-century "scene."