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McKee Rankin and the Heyday of the American Theater

MCKEE RANKIN burst upon the theatre world in the l860s. By the age of twenty-one, Rankin, a Canadian by birth, had become leading man at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, considered to be the best theatre in the country. A matinee idol and a superb character actor, he formed one of the first combination companies to tour America. He wrote successful Western dramas, in which he and his wife, the famous Kitty Blanchard, created unforgettable characters. He built a theatre in New York City and one in San Francisco where, in the 1880s, he created a nationally famous repertory theatre. Persevering, intelligent, and dedicated, his passion for the theatre brought him into conflict with the commercial attitudes of managers. Throughout his ups and downs, from riches to poverty, from handsome man to obese alcoholic, he continued to create great roles. When Rankin died in 1914 the brilliant innovations of this actor-manager, playwright and director had changed theatre forever.

This thoroughly documented biography is also a lively story of one of the most important but least known periods of American theatre, encompassing a wealth of information about great but forgotten actors, a fascinating account of the relationship between the stage and its audience, and several rediscovered, once famous plays. Students of acting, historians of the theatre and those interested in the cultural development of a continent will find the book invaluable. All readers will be entranced by a world from which today's entertainment emerged.

University of Toronto Quarterly

David Beasley. McKee Rankin and the Heyday of the North American Theatre. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. xvii, 520.

To be a prominent man-of-the-theatre in America between the Civil War and the First World War was to be at both the heart and the margins of a burgeoning public culture. The life of Canadian-born McKee Rankin, matinee idol, character actor, director, playwright, entrepreneur, provides a fascinating model of this duality. Born in 1844 on a border, near Windsor, Ontario, facing Detroit, while his father was in England promoting a Wild West show, Rankin straddled geographical, national, and ethnic borders as well as tuming points in social and political history. Part Shawnee, Rankin played not only ethnic roles (Native, Irish, Arab, Jewish, Chinese) in burlesque houses and vaudeville but also romantic leads in Westerns such as his principal vehicle, The Danites. Rankin turned to theatre instead of enlisting in the Union Army in 1863. Three years later he ran into the actor John Wilkes Booth shortly before Booth assassinated President Lincoln in a theatre. After the murder Rankin became possessed of Booth's wardrobe.

David Beasley's biography presents the intense, if self-sabotaging, Rankin in copiously detailed terms. Yet despite lists of nearly every performance, and legal and financial imbroglio, and speculations about a wide range of personal experiences, Rankin himself remains a curiously elusive figure. Beasley is consistently sympathetic to, if not apologetic for, his subject though he provides both flattering and unflattering accounts of Rankin's character. But Rankin was embroiled in one court case after another, one financial disaster (or scam) after another. 'I have met many deadbeats in the world,' said one of his business partners, but Rankin is the biggest of the lot.'

Rankin's life with women was similarly fraught. Though it was often unclear when he was married or to whom, he and his wife and fellow-actor Kitty Blanchard 'would come to symbolize to Americans the ideal married couple in the theater.' That Rankin would come to be such a symbol was especially ironic given that, as the critic Amy Leslie wrote in 1914, 'He was constantly in trouble with one woman or another. Not that he ever ... let any of them worry him in the least, but he seemed to have a faculty of making grief and mouming and misery for them.' The fourth chapter of the book is devoted to Rankin's protegee Nance O'Neil, to whom he was, many contemporaries claimed, a Svengali. Together they toured not just the United States but also Australia, New Zealand, South Africa during the Boer War, Egypt, and the East African Coast, where they played not only La dame aux camélias but also Hedda Gabler. The nature and reasons for Rankin's hold over O'Neil are murky. And though the chapter is titled 'The Reign of Nance O'Neil' with melodramatic subtitles, such as 'Star Rising,' it is also unclear just how great O'Neil's stardom was or to what degree she was handicapped by Rankin's possessiveness.

What kind of actor was Rankin? Beasley acknowledges that Rankin was 'not a great actor.' Yet, he says, Rankin 'initiated the quiet, restrained quality of acting on the American stage, which soon took over the New York theaters,' a claim that is later contradicted, for Rankin was commonly said to have played 'in the old demonstrative style.' The trouble is that it is difficult for a reader to steer through the evidence to form an accurate assessment of various aspects of Rankin's life and work. Indeed, it is hard to tell just what audience this book is intended for. Academics will not find it a work of sophisticated historiography, but the causal reader will not find in the book a clear and compelling narrative. Oddly, the most authoritative voice on Rankin to emerge from these pages is that of Amy Leslie, who is given the book's last word. The value of Beasley's work is that it is a mine of information about an extraordinary person. Rankin was connected with most of the major names of American popular culture of his day, working with Forrest, Boucicault, Jefferson, Daly. He was especially intimate with the Barrymores (his daughter married Lionel) and embroiled with Belasco and the Shuberts, with whom he feuded financially. D.W. Griffith, who began as a young actor in Rankin's company, made one movie from a play, Judith of Bethulia, that he saw staged by Rankin, who was expert in directing crowd scenes. Rankin's plays were attended by the likes of Brigham Young (surrounded by forty of his children). And Rankin performed around the globe for cosmopolitan audiences and audiences who brought their guns into the theatre. The book never explicitly justifies its title The Heyday of the Americar Theater, which appears again only in the book's epigraph, but McKee Rankin justified it in his life. A hard-living huckster, who made his living by the force of his personality in a historical moment when actors had to face their audiences, he died in 1914 with the dawn of motion pictures.

Alan Ackerman