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Jefferson, Joseph 1829-

Actor; born in Philadelphia, Pa., Feb. 20, 1829; is descended from several generations of actors; made his first appearance on the stage when three years old; played in the old Spanish theatre in Matamoras, Mexico, two days after that city was taken by the Americans; and in 1857 established his reputation as a comedian by his performance as Asa Trenchard in Our American cousin, in New York City. In 1865 he appeared for the first time in his inimitable role of Rip Van Winkle, in the Adelphi Theatre, London, and, although he has since played in many of the most popular comedies of the day, and in various parts of the world, he will be remembered longest for his presentations of that character. Mr. Jefferson has also distinguished himself as an orator and a painter. For many years his chief diversions were fishing and painting, and in 1899 he permitted an exhibition of sixteen of his landscape-paintings in oil in the national capital. He published an autobiography in 1890.

As the representative of the dramatic profession, Mr. Jefferson was invited by the faculty of Yale University to deliver a lecture on Dramatic art, which was given on April 27, 1892, in the course of which he says:

If I am asked to reason from my knowledge and engraft it on the history of the past, I would unhesitatingly declare that the stage is in a much better condition now than it ever was before. The social and moral status of the whole world has undoubtedly improved, and gone hand in hand with scientific and material progress; and permit me to assure you that the stage in this respect has not been idle, but that, to my knowledge, it has in the march of improvement kept pace foot by foot with every social advance.

Even the coarse dramas of the olden time were in keeping with the conditions of the social and literary society that surrounded it. Those plays that appealed to the lowest tastes were not only welcome but demanded by the court of Charles. Old Pepys, who lived during this time, says in his diary: “I went last night to see A midsummer night's dream; it was a great waste of time, and I hope I shall never again be condemned to see such a poor play. Ah, give me a comedy of Ethelridge, and let us have no more of this dull, vague Shakespeare.” It was not, therefore, that there were no good plays, but that the vicious public wanted bad ones, and while rakes and unprincipled gallants and vile women were the heroes and heroines of the stage, the plays of Shakespeare had been written for a hundred years. Such lovely creatures as Rosalind, Desdemona, Beatrice, Ophelia, Imogene, Portia, and Juliet, together with [130] their noble mates, Orlando, Benedict, Hamlet, Romeo, and a host of pure and marvellous creations, were moulding on the shelves, because the managers had suffered bankruptcy for daring to produce them. Shakespeare says that the actors are “the abstract and brief chronicles of the times.” And so the people insisted that the actors should give them an exhibition of the licentious times rather than the splendid lessons of Shakespeare. As the social world improved in its tastes the drama followed it—nay, in some instances has led it.

Jefferson, Thomas

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