Scott Thornton had been left fatherless at age 10, replaced as the longtime baby of the family by his sister Mary’s birth in the same year, brought up amidst the horror and deprivation of war and the chaos of Reconstruction. A bright boy utterly indifferent to school, he idolized his brilliant, improvident oldest brother Marcellus, and the artificial paradise of DeGive’s Opera House, where he could watch the country’s best traveling companies play Shakespeare as well as the tragedies and melodramas of Tom Taylor, Sheridan Knowles and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, immensely popular in their time and almost entirely forgotten in our own.
The play that made the deepest impression on the young Scott, and the one who protagonist would become inextricably associated with him in the minds of Atlantans in years to come, was Bulwer-Lyttons’s Richelieu. It was during the 1870s, each time with one of the great actors of the century in the title role; in December 1870 with Edwin Forrest, in January 1874 with Lawrence Barrett, and in February 1876 with the legendary Edwin Booth, making his first tour in the South since 1859.
The author, Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton, is perhaps best known today for an annual contest offering a prize for the best parody of his prose, each entry required to begin “Twas a dark and stormy night.” He is also known for having successfully prevailed upon Charles Dickens to give Great Expectations a somewhat cheerier ending. His name has become, not entirely undeservedly, a byword for the excesses of Victorian popular literature.
Richelieu was one of the most popular plays in the United States in the second half of the 19th century, many of its lines passing into the commonplaces of oratory and the clichés of everyday speech. Its plot is mechanical and implausible, the characters flat, most of the dialogue wooden. The great actress Modjeska described Julie, the principle female character, as “a ninny.” Bulwer-Lytton wrote the play as a showcase for the actor George Macready, and the character of Cardinal Richelieu gets all the lines.
The other plays that most fascinated Scott Thornton were Shakespeare’s Richard III and Tom Taylor’s The Fool’s Revenge. Taylor is know today only, if at all, as the author of Our American Cousin, and for that only because it was the play Lincoln was watching when he was shot. The Fool’s Revenge seems to have concerned the settling of accounts by a wronged and ridiculed court jester.
Thornton was less fascinated with these plays themselves than with their leading roles, , all of which involved a fallen or outcast character, aged, crippled or mad, who wreaks vengeance on his tormentors. Each part is also rich in thunderous speeches and other opportunities for the leading man to show his stuff, be he so inclined. Strangely, Thornton never played Hamlet, though often asked to. He sometimes gave recitations of soliloquies fromt he play, but refused to act a role that would seem to have been much to his taste. One possible explanation is that he needed a personal identification with his characters, and that the play’s mother-son antagonism sat ill with him, his relationship with his own mother being very close.
Scott Thornton devoted his life to the theater at an early age, but opportunities for learning the craft were limited in Atlanta. He read and memorized plays and attended every performance he could, but Atlanta had little in the way of hometown professionals under whom he could study. Scott could have packed up for the north, or even for Mobile, Charleston or Savannah to work his way up through the ranks of a real theatrical troupe, but he was reluctant to leave his home and his mother. Moreover, he had no intention of wasting years as a spear-toting understudy; his self-assurance amounted to self-deluding mania. He gathered a group of starstruck amateurs, christened them the Atlanta Dramatic Company, and in 1886 went out on the road across the Southeast.
His reception seems to have been favorable, if a little puzzled. Early reviews of his performances stressed his determination and occasional flashes of brilliance. His supporting cast was handled a little less gently. Scott’s first leading lady was Emmie Shackleford, the stagestruck daughter of a prominent Atlanta family who had performed under the name of Emie Thorne. A correspondent to the Augusta Chronicle reported that “her gestures were crude, her carriage faulty, and her voice too weak for the stage. Beauty in a woman, however, covers many shortcomings…”
This polite correspondent refrains from detailing the gaffes that had led to “too exuberant merriment on the part of the audience,” but as Scott Thornton’s fame grew, newspapermen and audiences would grow bolder in making their feelings known.
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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