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David L. Rinear, Stage, Page, Scandals, and Vandals: William E. Burton and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, $55.00, 272 pages, ISBN 0-8093-2572-1)—Gerardo Del Guercio, Independent Researcher

Readers of nineteenth-century drama will enjoy David L. Rinear’s latest biography Stage, Page, Scandals, and Vandals: William E. Burton and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre. David L. Rinear explores the origins, private and professional life of nineteenth century America’s most prolific stage personality. William E. Burton’s rise to stardom was a systematic one driven by his popularity as a stage actor and brilliant theatrical adaptations of canonical British literary texts. My review will explore how Burton symbolized a conflation of British and American culture that was sustained throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The reason why Burton expatriated to America was to escape the public scandal caused by his adulterous affair with a seventeen-year-old.

William E. Burton fled from England to the US after his affair with Jane Hill was discovered. A rising career and family with Elizabeth Burton ceased immediately once Burton’s colleagues ensured that he “could never return to England without being arrested as a bigamist” [20]. England’s theater community united by donating proceeds generated from box-office sales of plays they staged to assist the newly impoverished Elizabeth Burton. Theater directors typically cast Burton in roles of significant characters from Renaissance or Restoration dramas. Most theatergoers who attended plays with Burton did so because he was acting in the starring role. The stage knowledge that Burton acquired in England and later brought to the American stage was his primary contribution to the emerging transatlantic cultural connection between the United States and Great Britain. American spectators now had an accurate visual representation of the literary texts that they admired greatly.

The reputation Burton had established in England quickly spread overseas as he was slowly becoming America’s first "great low comedian." Burton commenced his American acting career in Philadelphia by accepting roles like Guy Goodluck in J.B. Buckstone’s John Jones and Dr. Ollapod in George Coleman’s The Poor Gentleman. Robert C. Maywood’s Chestnut and Arch Street theaters were the first to cast Burton. Severe competition from rival actors vying for the same roles forced Burton to introduce “a wealth of objectionable low comedy figures to his performance” [30]. Low comedy was what actors and directors used to add comic relief to a serious play. Rehashing roles that Burton successfully portrayed in England offered American theatergoers the opportunity to witness what British audiences termed excellent variations of traditional English literary characters.

David L. Rinear’s study continues with an examination of Burton’s editorial career. William Burton began editing the Gentleman’s Magazine in July of 1837. The Gentleman’s Magazine was an innovative journal that was the first to publish, “print, and edit its own product” [44]. Other American periodicals simply reprinted texts that had previously been published in the United Kingdom. While editing the Gentleman’s Magazine, Burton hired Edgar Allan Poe for the position of the journal’s managing editor. Burton’s public persona took yet another blow when his periodical owed to charges of sponsoring “fraudulent contests in which prizes were never paid, charges that were lodged by the journal’s managing editor, Edgar Allan Poe” [xiii]. The Gentleman’s Magazine was later renamed and ultimately sold in view of the fact that Burton chose to dedicate his life exclusively to stage acting. Moreover, Burton’s hiring of the then unknown Edgar Allan Poe further demonstrates the ability he had to recognize up and coming talent.

Philadelphia’s New National Theatre was where Burton began his managerial career. Unfortunately for Burton, audiences were not impressed with the theatre’s production. Creditors gave Burton’s theatre a last chance to redeem its finances since they “knew that there was little chance of another theatrical management making that piece of land a paying proposition” [65]. The New National Theatre was unable to dissolve its debts after it was severely vandalized in January of 1842. Media sources suspected Burton of the vandalism that included the destruction of “all the scenery, auditorium décor, gas fixtures, lamps, seats, and other appurtenances necessary to operate a theatre.” Road acting became Burton’s only means of earning the large sums of money he needed to liquidate his remaining debts and resume theater managing. The popularity that Burton gained across the United States ensured that acting would always be a steady source of income for him.

William E. Burton’s administrative career was an inspiring one given that he operated several theaters simultaneously. Throughout the 1840s, Burton managed the New National Theatre, Baltimore’s Holliday Street Theatre, the Arch Street Theatre, the Olympic Theratre, the Front Street Theatre, and the Chambers Street Theatre. At every point of his professional life, Burton encountered incredible rivalry from other theater houses. In order to avoid such competition from decreasing his profit margin, Burton simply shifted his theater companies to areas that could attract a wealthier clientele. Another impressive characteristic of Burton’s career was his ability to run several playhouses and perform at the same time. Even though spectators reveled in Burton’s productions, the main attraction to his theaters remained Burton's performances. Burton was the feature role in plays like Esther Hughes's The Toodles, Sheridan's The Rivals, and William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale. Maintaining several playhouses increased proceeds and the longevity of the plays that Burton produced as the shows would shift from one theater to the next when spectators from a particular district grew tried of a certain performance.

David L. Rinear’s Stage, Page, Scandals, and Vandals: William E. Burton and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre is a valuable study that explores the life of one of the founders of "modern" American drama. Burton’s theaters exemplified a transatlantic relationship between America and Britain that presented American audiences with an English perspective of dramatic performance. William Burton died on February 10, 1860 from a weak heart that required “increasingly high doses of opium” [239] to relieve. The disreputable affair Burton had with Jane Hill was one he denied to his death. Burton never even mentioned Jane Hill in his last will and testament. Burton did leave his American wife Carolina Glessing and their three daughters a sizable annuity.

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