The last thing Lincoln ever saw: the play “Our American Cousin.”

our american cousin

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

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

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.

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8 Comments

  1. I recently read the Wikipedia article on “Our American Cousin”, and it gives an act by act summary of what is going on. It is sad to think the play is remembered for the tragedy connected to it, but in actuality it should not be recalled today at all. Nineteenth Century British and American drama is pretty dismal (so for that matter most of the drama in Europe – it was a terrible century for it), except for a handful of people from roughly 1870 to 1900, and a smaller handful prior to 1870. Mr. Taylor, despite his success at writing plays then, is not one of them. The ones from before 1870 would be Dion Boucicault (for his play about mixed parentage, “The Octoroon”, his true crime melodrama from Ireland , “The Colleen Bawn”, and his comedy of manners – which has been revived in the 1990s with Donald Sinden, “London Assurance”); Victor Hugo (possibly for “Hernani” and Alexander Dumas Pere and Fils (the latter for “Camille”, which as “La Traviatta” is an opera mainstay); and Nicolai Gogol for his satiric farce on corruption, “The Inspector General”. After 1870 floodgates of ability began to arise. There were still hacks, but talented ones, like Victorien Sardou of France, but more living theatre arouse. Britain would produce T. W. Robinson (who died early) who tried to treat the lower classes realistically(“Caste”), W.S. Gilbert (of Savoy Opera libretto fame), Arthur Wing Pinero (“The Second Mrs. Tanqueray”, “Midchannel”), H. A. Jones, Oscar Wilde (“Lady WIndimere’s Fan”, “The Importance of Being Earnest”, and best George Bernard Shaw (“Mrs. Warren’s Profession, “Arms and the Man”, “The Devil’s Desciple”, “Caesar and Cleopatra”). Scandanavia produced two titans: Hendryk Ibsen (“Ghosts”, “A Doll’s House”, “An Enemy of the People”) and August Strindberg (“Miss Julie”, “The Captain”, “The Dance of Death”). Russia produced another stage titan (Anton Chekhov – “The Three Sisters”, “The Cherry Orchard”), France still had it’s romantics, but good ones (Edmond Rostand – “Cyrano de Bergerac”, “L’Aiglon”), as well as the best of farceurs (Georges Feydeau – “A Flea in Her Ear”). Germany also produced similar quality playwrites as well.*

    [*Note the absence of the Americans. The U.S. had native dramatists, but none were really good (Poe tried writing a play called “Politian” based on a major political murder in 1826 Kentucky, of which we have fragments – and it is not great). One of the big early hits was Robert Montgomery Bird’s “Nick of the Woods”, which was a hit of the 1830s and 1840s, for discussing the frontier. Oh well. We did not have any dramatist worth talking about until after 1900 when George M. Cohan wrote some clever melodramatic comedies (“Seven Keys to Baldpate”, “The Tavern”) and then came Eugene O’Neill finally in the teens. We were late, but we got there at last.]

    Why it took a full century seems pegged on the atmosphere of the drama in the 19th Century. Many still considered actors and actresses as undesireable types. But in the 18th Century many of them became celebrities, like David Garrick and Sarah Siddons. This would continue in the 19th Century. It did not necessarily bode well for theatre. If you had a major actor manager like Sir Henry Irving, his approval on new plays was needed. Irving did do very nicely in Shakespear, but he kept appearing in melodramas too, most notably Leopold Lewis’ “The Bells”, and in “The Lyons Mail” (his best scene was when he appeared as two separate characters who look alike, one headed for the guilloutine for a robbery murder the other committed, while the other watches from a window – I have read how he did this and it is clever). Irving repeatedly turned down offers of plays for himself and his co-star Ellen Terry from George Bernard Shaw, for whom Irving apparently had a deep contempt for. This kind of thing was frequent all over the theatrical world. You will notice how Taylor did not seem to mind that Southern kept adding bits of adlibbed business to the text (probably improving it) to build up the role of “Dundreary” until it took on a life of its own. The first English dramatist to end this kind of nonsense was Gilbert, who was also a remarkably gifted director. He insisted his actors and actresses stick to the lines he wrote, and to his characterizations. It was revolutionary, believe it or not!

    With all this in mind one can see how easily “Our American Cousin” would be a typical comedy of it’s era, and now be dated as a dodo. But there is a final word for Tom Taylor. He was sickened at the assassination taking place at a production of his then leading comedy. But what added to his feeling of bitterness was the behavior of his fellow British regarding how to treat the murder of Lincoln. You see, during the American Civil War, many of the aristocracy and many literary figures supported the South. Occasionally a voice, like the poet and philosopher Matthew Arnold, would speak for general humanity regarding the huge waste of life as “our children” (as Arnold put it) “killed each other”. Most did not. One who had been vicious was the cartoonist John Tenniel. We know Tenniel today for his cartoons in the “Alice” books of Lewis Carroll, but he was on the staff of “Punch” and had been turning out really nasty anti-Northern cartoons for most of the war. After Lincoln’s death, he drew a classic picture of Lincoln’s blanketed body on a bier, with the figure of “Columbia” kneeling and crying, while “Britannia” lays a wreath on the body and tries to comfort her sister. Taylor was not moved by this thirteenth hour apology for hate by Tenniel, and wrote a blistering poem attacking “Punch” and it’s cartoonist as hypocrites. To me, for that action, Tom Taylor deserves our memory and thanks.

    1. This comment is an article unto itself! Thanks, I didn’t know much about 19th century drama, but I had wondered why so little of it is performed today. They made me read Ibsen in 10th grade English class and despite my interest in Norwegian culture I’m afraid I just can’t get into Ibsen as a result of that experience.

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