In this first modern book-length biography of native Englander William E. Burton, theatre historian David L. Rinear explores Burton’s diary, letters, published reviews, and various reminiscences to reveal the tumultuous personal and professional lives of the mid-nineteenth-century actor/manager and his role in American literary history. Stage, Page, Scandals, and Vandals: William E. Burton and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre also provides insight into the cultural and artistic climate of an early period in American history when the country was still forming a national identity.
Burton fled England in 1834 and came to America in the wake of a public scandal caused by his marriage to a sixteen-year-old orphan. Burton was then already married with a ten-year-old son. Settling in Philadelphia, the thirty-two-year-old actor rapidly established himself in the city’s theatrical productions and quickly became an audience favorite.
In 1837, while continuing to act, Burton founded and edited The Gentleman’s Magazine, a monthly literary publication later called Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. Burton hired struggling author Edgar Allan Poe as coeditor, and the journal achieved literary acclaim as it first published many of Poe’s short stories and poems.
Burton sold the journal in 1841 and used the money to build a new theatre, which he managed, although the depression of the early 1840s soon drove his venture out of business. After declaring bankruptcy the following year, Burton worked as a touring actor before returning to theatre management in 1845. For the next thirteen years, Burton managed a succession of theatres in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York.
Burton’s work as a producer of Shakespearean comedies and romances marks him as the first of the intellectual theatre managers to raise the theatrical experience from mere popular culture to high art. Burton made a fortune in his ventures, amassed the finest private Shakespearean library in the country, and built a grand seaside estate in Glen Cove, Long Island. Shrewd in his personal affairs and in business, Burton also had a violent temper, which led him to viciously attack his competitors. His peculiar domestic relationships marred his brilliant career as an actor, manager, and man of letters; he may have been married to three women at once and lived with two of these women simultaneously.
Fully revealing Burton’s contributions to American culture, Rinear traces Burton’s personal and professional pursuits from his emigration to his death in 1860. Bolstered by twenty-two illustrations, Stage, Page, Scandals, and Vandals sheds light on the history of American entertainment during the antebellum era, exposes the ruthless business practices required to succeed in theatre and literary magazine publishing, and reveals a sense of what constituted celebrity status in mid-nineteenth-century America.