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BRUCE ERWIN WOODRUFF, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In the last few years of his life, tragedian John Henry McCullough was one of the most popular and successful actors on the American stage, earning an average of $50,000 a year. His career followed the ideal rags-to-riches theme: a poor, uneducated Irish immigrant, through hard, diligent work, rises to a position of national prominence. Born in the small village of Blakes, Londonderry Province, Ireland, on November 14, 1832, McCullough immigrated to New York in the spring of 1847 and settled in Philadelphia. He learned how to write, and read extensively to educate himself. He became interested in the theatre and began his first professional engagement at the Arch Street Theatre in the fall of 1857. Beginning with the 1861-62 season, McCullough played second leading roles in support of Edwin Forrest for five years. In the spring of 1866, McCullough accompanied Forrest to San Francisco; he remained to open the California Theatre in January of 1869, turning the California into one of the best managed stock theatres in the country, and establishing himself as a favorite actor on the west coast. McCullough began touring the country in 1873; by 1878 he had become so successful that he formed his own combination company, with which he toured until his career ended in September, 1884. He died in Philadelphia a year later, on November 8, 1885. McCullough acted in the majority of the tragedies popular during those days, among them Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, King Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Richelieu. His most popular play was Sheridan Knowles' Virginius. John Ranken Towse of the New York Evening Post described his characterization of the Roman father as "robust and manly, his face Roman, his gestures strong and dignified, and his voice full and generally musical." Called "Genial John" by his close associates, McCullough gave freely of both his time and money. In private life, he had a reputation for being as honest and straightforward as the Roman characters that became his specialty. As long as Victorian society clung to the values represented in characters who were heroic, honest, loyal to family and country, and noble, Virginius would seem to offer essential truths for all time. While McCullough sought to make his acting more subtle like Edwin Booth's by studying Delsarte techniques, the romantic style of both actors was to disappear from the stage by 1900, to be replaced by a style that adhered more closely to the appearance of everyday life. (Abstract shortened with permission of author.)

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Recommended Citation

WOODRUFF, BRUCE ERWIN, ""GENIAL" JOHN MCCULLOUGH: ACTOR AND MANAGER" (1984). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI8509879.