At 8 p.m. on the evening of Wednesday, April 30, 1890, the curtain rose on a production at Green’s Opera House “amid a flutter of expectancy,” as the Vincennes Daily Commercial described it.
Appearing on stage that night was the famed Edwin Booth, considered the greatest actor of his day, in the title role of William Shakespeare’s five-act tragedy, “Hamlet.” On the bill with Booth was Helena Modjeska in the role of Ophelia. The show came to Vincennes for one night only.
Edwin Booth was part of a family of actors. His father and brothers, including Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, all pursued acting careers. Hamlet was the role Edwin Booth became best known for.
Helena Modjeska was a Polish American actress who also became identified with her Shakespearean roles.
When it was learned that the famous pair’s appearance in the city was a certainty, the Commercial was overly effusive in its praise of the actors, writing, “The names are synonymous of everything that is great in dramatic art. What Caesar and Napoleon were in warfare, Booth and Modjeska are in legitimate drama.”
Green’s Opera House was built on the corner of Second and Busseron Streets in 1885, after an earlier opera house burned. It was owned by William Green and was managed by his son, Frank. The building seated 1,250 people.
Opera House Manager Green scored a real coup by getting the famous performers to come to Vincennes. People in Evansville lamented the fact that the pair didn’t come to that city. One Evansville paper wrote in frustration “It is very funny, indeed, that we, with our new grand Opera-house, can’t get such people as Booth and Modjeska here, when little Vincennes, with her cow-shed of a theatre, can get them.” Another Evansville paper encouraged that city’s residents to attend and praised the Vincennes theatre. Some 25 to 30 Evansville residents did come for the show.
An enormous crowd turned out that night, what the Commercial called “A brilliant and distinguished audience” that was “the most fashionable ever seen in Vincennes.” Trains brought people from all over southern Indiana and Illinois to see the production. More than 60 people came from Washington. Just some of the other communities outside of Knox County represented that night were Bridgeport, Sumner, Robinson, Olney, and St. Francisville in Illinois and Sullivan, Carlisle, Petersburg, and Princeton in Indiana.
Many of the out-of-town theatergoers spent the night at the nearby LaPlante House on the corner of First and Main Streets.
The show was not inexpensive. Those who bought tickets paid either $1.50 or $2 for balcony seats and $2.50 for seats on the lower floor. Two dollars in 1890 would be the equivalent of $60 today.
Booth’s performance certainly lived up to expectations. The Commercial’s review raved that his “impersonation was nearer Shakespeare’s ideal than the author could himself have created.”
The Daily Sun gave this grandiloquent description of the great actor’s ability: “Mr. Booth’s acting is not merely symmetry of form, poetry of motion, grace of pose and beauty of musical elocution, but he goes farther and illumines the whole figure with a tremulous light of agonized vitality.”
Edwin Booth’s career was nearing its end when he made his Vincennes appearance. Booth performed on stage for the final time in Brooklyn, also in the role of Hamlet, in 1891. He died in New York City on June 7, 1893, after having suffered a stroke earlier that year. He was only 59 years old. Booth is interred in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Helena Modjeska died in California in 1909. She was 68 years old.
The Riverfront Pavilion is now located on the site of the old opera house, which was later known as the Grand Opera House. A plaque on the brick wall to the right of the Second Street entrance, placed there by the Vincennes Historical & Antiquarian Society in 1966, notes the site as the one-time location of the Grand Opera House and lists some of the notables who performed there, those names including that of Edwin Booth.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.