May 6, 2010

Bird and Forrest: Spartacus

The actor Edwin Forrest had very specific requirements when taking the lead role in new plays. He started offering prizes to well-written plays which met his standards; one such contest was won by Robert Montgomery Bird. However, Forrest did not want to produce the winning script, Pelopidas, or the Fall of the Polemarchs, a play set in Thebes in 378 B.C. So, he put Bird to work on an entirely new play, instructing him carefully on the requirements of the lead character.

On May 6, 1831, Bird completed The Gladiator, a play which tells the story of the revolt of Roman slaves under Spartacus. Forrest was pleased and set about producing it. By the fall, it opened in New York at the Park Theatre. Its success was instantaneous despite all of its problems: It was raining heavily on opening night, its scenery and costumes were poorly done, and secondary players were bad actors. Soon, however, the play traveled to Philadelphia, Boston, and elsewhere — all on the strength of the lead actor, Edwin Forrest.

Forrest's strengths were superficial, and certainly not "high" art. His "muscles" as an actor were not metaphorical and he made sure he was shirtless for much of The Gladiator. He loved melodrama and was overly emotive — full of fierce passion and rending grief. He wanted the spotlight, quite literally, and his Spartacus character easily outweighed all the other roles combined. Spartacus, the leader, is a tragic warrior, fighting to free his wife and child from slavery, but whose foil is a fellow revolting slave who wishes to ransack Rome rather than merely return home free. Through his treachery, Spartacus's family is killed and later dies himself, with sword in hand.

As playwright, Bird was likely surprised. He had low expectations for the play and noted the performance itself was "a horrid piece of bungling from beginning to end." One reviewer disagreed, calling it "the best native [i.e. American] tragedy extant." By the end of Bird's life, it had been performed over 100 times. Forrest and Bird continued to work together for much of their careers.

*The image above depicts Forrest as Spartacus later in his career, when weight gain forced him to cover his body more.

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