Stage tribute to Booth family benefits Tudor Hall


On a bare stage with the simplest of lighting, a group of five actors gave life and breath last week to the Booths, one of Harford County's most memorable families.

Their performance, titled "What Dreams May Come . . ." and featuring British actress Lynn Redgrave, was the culmination of a day celebrating the life and work of the Booth family -- one of America's theatrical dynasties. It also helped raise funds to preserve Tudor Hall, their former home.

Opening with an antique recording of Edwin Booth reading "Othello," the play interwove the story of the Booth family with some of Shakespeare's classics. Using passages from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets and quoting from the Booths' private letters and diaries, the actors illustrated the Booth family's story. And at the end, the audience stood and applauded their efforts.

For everyone, the event was a labor of love.

The Preservation Association for Tudor Hall (PATH) is a volunteer organization, and even the actors donated their time and talents to the cause. The performance and the daylong workshops that preceded it were developed to introduce scholars and Shakespeare aficionados to the Booth family legacy.

The events raised almost $4,000 to help preserve Tudor Hall; 77 people participated in the workshops and almost 200 attended the evening performance.

"Here, once, many years ago came this little band of players -- all a family -- and they changed American acting," Ms. Redgrave said June 10. A scion of one of England's premier theatrical families, Ms. Redgrave is an ardent supporter of maintaining the Booths' home.

"I think all actors feel connected to the Booths," she said, "and I feel enormously connected because of my family history. I've felt strongly this business of the tradition being handed down from actor to actor. Being an actor is such a strange thing -- we don't go on except for being passed down in memory. Theater is a terribly exciting life and a terribly cruel life."

Ms. Redgrave was surprised and delighted when she recently learned that Tudor Hall had not been torn down. "I'd read about Tudor Hall, but didn't know if it was still standing. The discovery that this still existed was absolutely outrageous," she said. "But for the curious art of fate it might have been bulldozed or surrounded by condos."

Tudor Hall is tucked in a quiet side street near Bel Air, down a long, narrow dirt lane that winds past ponds and streams that once formed part of a 100-acre farm. Today, the white house sits on a much smaller farm, surrounded by a quiet suburban development.

For years it was all but forgotten, and for many people that was all for the best. Tudor Hall, along with being the home of a theatrical dynasty, was the home of a man known for his action off-stage, John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln's assassin.

"This is so much more than an assassin's home. It's really the birthplace of Shakespeare in America," said Gary Sloan, executive director of PATH, a nonprofit group formed in 1984 to preserve the house.

Tudor Hall was built between 1847 and 1849. The house, which has an unusual floor plan and distinctive diamond-pane windows, was the country retreat of Junius Brutus Booth, an English Shakespearean actor.

Junius Booth came to Bel Air in 1821 after living on Exeter Street in Baltimore and made his name and fortune by touring the United States playing Shakespeare's villains and heroes. Booth and his wife, Mary Ann Holmes, reared two sons, Edwin, the older, and John Wilkes, and a daughter, Asia, in Tudor Hall.

Running along the upstairs bedrooms of the house are two balconies, known as the "Romeo and Juliet" balconies, where the Booth children used to stage Shakespearean scenes.

While PATH's first goal is to preserve the house, its vision for the future of Tudor Hall goes beyond the walls of the original structure. The group hopes to construct a Junius Brutus Booth library housing Booth memorabilia and theatrical and Civil War research materials and eventually add an outdoor amphitheater that will be the site of a summer Shakespeare festival.

Until that goal is realized, however, Tudor Hall will remain open for tours twice a day from June through September. Bed and breakfast accommodations also are available. For more information, call PATH at 838-0466.

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