One hundred and forty-nine years ago tonight, April 14, 1865, was the most famous “night out” in American history. On that Friday evening Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, went to Ford’s Theater with his wife and some other guests. It was the first entertainment Lincoln felt he had time for in a long time–the Civil War had happily ended the previous Sunday with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Of course, we all know what happened to Lincoln at the play that terrible night; it’s the final scene (or almost the final scene) in almost every movie made about Lincoln, most recently Spielberg’s 2012 film, and the final chapter in every biography of the Great Emancipator.
Although Our American Cousin is the answer to one of the most often-asked trivia questions in American history–“What play was Lincoln watching when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth?”–not many people know that much about the play itself. In all the inevitable Lincoln assassination memorials that will take place today and tomorrow, probably not many will focus on the play.
Our American Cousin was a light comedy written by playwright Tom Taylor, who was British. The comedic subject of the play concerns social, linguistic and cultural differences between Americans and Britons. In a nutshell, the play is about an American, Asa Trenchard, who is distantly related to some British socialites who have recently fallen on hard times. Asa is left some property in the will of one of his British relatives, and goes to England to claim the estate. Hilarity ensues, or at least, hilarity by 1860s standards.
Tom Taylor, the author of Our American Cousin. He wrote more than 100 plays. He survived Lincoln by 15 years, dying in 1880.
Tom Taylor, an upper-class Briton himself, was a stalwart of the English theater scene beginning in the 1840s. He wrote over 100 plays in his career, many of them light farces like Our American Cousin. This particular play was first performed in New York City in October 1858. Although not the star of the show, the real draw was British actor Edward Sothern, who portrayed the supporting role of Lord Dundreary, a bumbling British nobleman. Audiences howled in laughter at Sothern’s performance which became more elaborate, with extensive ad-libs, as the successful run of the play continued. Lord Dundreary proved so successful a character that he recurred in numerous other plays of the time, eventually becoming something of a stock character. Sothern was eventually typecast in these sort of roles. Oddly enough, although he made the play famous, Sothern was not playing the role of Dundreary that night.
The real star of Our American Cousin was Laura Keene. Also British-born, she moved to the United States in 1853 and not only acted but became a theater manager and impresario. It was at her theater, owned by her and stocked with her troupe, where Our American Cousin premiered and became a hit in 1858. The ownership and licensing of the play was a source of conflict and eventually litigation, with various dueling companies performing it. Ms. Keene and her troupe later took the show on the road. One of the venues for the traveling show was a grand new theater built in Washington, D.C. by John T. Ford, an actor. Ford initially built his theater in 1862 but it burned down. He reconstructed it on a grander scale, and the theater as it was when Lincoln visited it opened in 1863. One of the people who hung around Ford’s Theater, and kept a mailbox there, was John Wilkes Booth.
Despite the long planning of various plots against Lincoln and other federal officials, Booth cooked up the assassination almost on the spur of the moment, that very afternoon. No one at the theater knew Lincoln was coming until late that day. The handbills printed up to advertise the final show of Our American Cousin made no mention of him, but as soon as they found out he was coming a new batch was printed. Booth heard from Ford’s brother than Lincoln was coming to the show that night.
Booth knew the play well, though he had never acted in it. He waited until the third and final act, when a line by Asa Trenchard, played by Harry Hawk, was expected to get a big laugh: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal–you sockdologizing old man-trap!” When the audience laughed, Booth, who was at that moment sneaking up behind Lincoln’s chair, pulled the trigger of his Derringer. Contrary to what you see and hear in almost every recreation of the assassination, the sound of the shot was not audible to most of the audience. That was the point of waiting until the big laugh in Act 3.
Laura Keene, the star of the show, cradled Lincoln’s head in her lap shortly after the fatal shot was fired. The bloodstained dress she was wearing that night is now in a museum.
Despite the national horror of what happened during this particular performance, Our American Cousin continued to be performed even after April 1865. A rival to Keene’s company opened the play at the Winter Garden Theater in New York in September 1865, and another round of litigation over it ensued. Keene died in 1873. Our American Cousin continues to be performed once in a while, mainly as a result of its association with the Lincoln assassination, and various adaptations have been made of it, such as an opera in 2008 that incorporates the assassination into the story.
In a curious twist of fate, 98 years later another piece of visual entertainment became part of the story of a presidential assassination. In 1865 John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in a theater and was eventually apprehended (killed, actually) in a warehouse; in 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of John F. Kennedy, shot Kennedy from a warehouse and was apprehended in a theater. On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, Oswald hid from police in the Texas Theater in Dallas after shooting Kennedy and Dallas police officer J.D. Tippitt. The cops caught up with him there. The movie being shown at that time was called War Is Hell, but this film has none of the notoriety that Our American Cousin gained as a result of its coincidental placement as the backdrop of one of the most tragic events in American history.