The History of Theater - In One Amazing City

"See the Players Well Bestowed"

The residents of the Edwin Forrest Home for Actors, sitting in the front entrance hall on Parkway Avenue in West Philadelphia, 1960.

The photo was taken by historian Richard Moody, for his book Edwin Forrest, First Star of the American Stage. The statue of Forrest as Coriolanus can be seen in the background.

Below, the house on North Broad and Master Street, in the year 1860. Forrest had already added the picture gallery and little theater in the wing to the left. The interior of the wing was renovated to hold the performance space of the New Freedom Theatre in the late 20th Century.

Above, Edwin Forrest sits in the library of his mansion on Broad Street - it's the most intimate portrait of him I've ever seen. It doesn't appear often in most internet searches for images of the actor. (I found it only recently, in the digital archives of the New York Public Library.) The actor looks relaxed and proud of his surroundings, but he's not portraying a character - other than that of a man of leisure and learning. His back is to the large central bay window that we can see jutting out of the second floor of the home. This room was his favorite one in the house. I'm guessing that might be his most prized possession - a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio - open on the table behind him.

But only a few friends and servants saw this private Forrest. Most of the American public knew him from his stage persona, which by this point in his life had become so well-known that he was a target for easy satire. Below, a variety of caricatures of Edwin Forrest, mostly from New York humor magazines and dramatic publications of the 1850s and 60s. At the upper right is the tragedian as Spartacus in the Gladiator, after he has received the bill from his lawyer John Van Buren for his divorce trial in 1854. At lower left is Forrest as Metamora, speaking to the manager of Niblo's Garden Theatre in New York. This was during the period when he would do three shows a week in New York and then take the train back to Philadelphia for the weekend. His bags are already packed.

As we mentioned in the podcast episode, Forrest staged a huge production of Coriolanus at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in 1864. He had recruited Madame Ponisi (Elizabeth Ponisi Wallace, 1818-1899), the distinguished English-American actress, to play the role of Coriolanus' mother, Volumnia. The actor John McCullough (1832-1885) played the title character's great rival, Aufidius. McCullough had become a protegee of Forrest in the last years of Forrest's career, & would be given all of the star's prompt books in his will when he died in 1872.

Below, three illustrations by Brooklyn writer and painter Gabriel Harrison of Forrest in three of his most iconic roles: Virginius, Othello, and Metamora. Harrison based the images on photographs taken of Forrest in costume by the famous Mathew Brady. The actor hired Brady to create an extensive documentation of him in all of his roles. I've written and posted about these photographs in another blog, on Patreon, for supporters of the show.

Below left, the photograph of Forrest as King Lear taken in Mathew Brady's New York studio in 1861. To the right is the painting Gabriel Harrison made based on the image. Notice how he has reset Lear on a storm-swept barren heath - the only difference from the original photo is that now Lear's beard is blowing in the wind.



Above, one of the final photographs ever taken of Edwin Forrest. (He never did seem to like combing his hair for portraits!) To the left is the gravestone over the Forrest family crypt in the churchyard St. Paul's in Philadelphia. Both his parents and almost all his siblings are there, too - missing is his oldest brother, Lorman, who went to South America and was never heard from again.

Below, the former Edwin Forrest mansion as it looked, in the late 19th Century, when it became the home of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art & Design). The main building was doubled in size by the addition along Master Street.


Above, the first Edwin Forrest Home for Decayed Actors in Northeast Philadelphia, as it appeared in the late 19th Century. Below, the second Edwin Forrest Home on Parkside Avenue in West Philadelphia, as it appeared in 2021. The flagpole where the residents gathered on the Fourth of July, according to the instructions in Forrest's bequest, still stands, for the moment. The stone inscription, "See the Players Well Bestowed" is still over the front door. The property, as of this writing, is for sale.


Above, the facade of the Forrest Theatre on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Built by the Shubert Brothers in 1927, it was designed by their house architect Herbert Krapp. It still hosts touring Broadway shows - I myself have seen both Book of Mormon and Hamilton there.
Walk down Walnut Street a few blocks to the east, and you can see the statue of Edwin Forrest as Coriolanus, now installed in the lobby of the Walnut Street Theatre. There are many more items of Forrest memorabilia on view throughout public areas of the theater, thanks to the longstanding interest of the longtime Producing Artistic Director of the Walnut Street Theatre, Bernard Havard.

Selected Bibliography:

Alger, William Rounseville, Life of Edwin Forrest, American Tragedian, J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 1876. (Digitized and available online via Project Gutenberg)

Cliff, Nigel, The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth Century America, Random House, 2007.

Davis, Andrew, America's Longest Run, A History of the Walnut Street Theatre, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010, pp. 57-148.

Durang, Charles, History of the Philadelphia Stage, Between the Years 1749 and 1855, Volumes 5-6.  Arranged and illustrated by Thompson Westcott, 1868. (Available online courtesy Penn Libraries, Colenda Digital Repository.)

Harrison, Gabriel, Edwin Forrest, the actor and the man: Critical and Reminiscent, Brooklyn Eagle Printing Department, 1889. (Digitized 2009 and available via The Internet Database.) 

James, Rees ('Colley Cibber'),
The Life of Edwin Forrest, with Reminiscences and Personal Recollections, T.B. Peterson & Brothers, Philadelphia, 1874. (Digitized 2005 and available via Google Books)

Moody, Richard, Edwin Forrest, First Star of the American Stage, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1960.