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‘Our American Cousin’: The Play That Lured Lincoln to His Doom

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JAMES AND HENRY CLAY FORD had an issue. Their brother John had booked into the theatre he owned in Washington, D.C., a two-week run by well-known actress Laura Keene and her touring repertory firm. Keene and fellow gamers had executed nicely with well-liked classics equivalent to “She Stoops to Conquer and Faculty for Scandal,” however ticket gross sales had been sluggish for the ultimate providing of the Washington stand—a preferred comedy, “Our American Cousin” — the night time of April 14, 1865. John Ford had decamped to Richmond, leaving his brothers in cost, having ignored the truth that April 14 was Good Friday, not a night on which the pious would attend a theatrical efficiency—or one on which the much less pious would need neighbors to see them attending the theatre.

James and Henry Ford had an inspiration. They’d hand delivered to the White Home a private be aware to Mary Todd Lincoln, inviting the primary girl and her husband to be friends that Friday night time. The Civil Warfare had ended with Robert E. Lee’s give up on April 9, and the president was exhausted, looking for the technique to reassemble the nation. He simply wished to remain residence, however his spouse persuaded him that a night of laughter was the tonic he wanted. Her acceptance in hand, the Fords circulated a handbill trumpeting that the Lincolns could be attending “Our American Cousin”; the information made the early version of that day’s Washington Night Star. Ticket patrons rushed the field workplace and stuffed the 1,700-seat home.

The president might need wanted a lighthearted respite after the tribulations of the Civil Warfare, however the first couple’s choice to see this explicit play would show tragic. The pull of “Our American Cousin,” in actual fact, would result in probably the most infamous assassination in American historical past.

Midway via Act Three, actor John Wilkes Sales space, 26, an ardent supporter of the Confederacy, entered the Lincolns’ field and shot the president. Pandemonium broke out, however Keene got here onstage, managing each to calm the viewers and arrange an orderly emptying of the theater. Sales space obtained away and was not captured till April 26. Lincoln died of his wounds at 7:22 the morning after the capturing, the primary time an American president had been assassinated.

“Sic semper tyrannis!” After capturing Lincoln, Sales space leaped to the stage, injuring his leg and quoting a phrase from Roman instances earlier than making his getaway down an alley behind Ford’s.
(Granger, NYC)

From Flop to Franchise

The tragedy made “Our American Cousin” a footnote in American historical past. However the play had already achieved a noteworthy spot in well-liked tradition as arguably the best-loved script of its period.

“Cousin” was a mid-career work by prolific British author Tom Taylor, for many years a daily contributor to Punch and creator of some 100 performs. “Our American Cousin” debuted as a critical drama in London in 1852 — and flopped. However Keene noticed the present, acknowledged the humor hidden within the story, and grasped the way to recast “Cousin” as a comedy that might tickle American audiences. She purchased the U.S. rights for $1,000. 

Keene reopened her comedic reboot in New York in October 1858. Critics rated “Cousin” as formulaic however with a lot to please less-discriminating theatergoers. Fitz-James O’Brien, reviewing the opening efficiency in Saturday Press, discovered a lot fault however ended his evaluation, “’Our American Cousin,’ regardless of all these drawbacks, was enormously relished by the viewers, and could also be pronounced profitable.”

Profitable certainly. The authoritative multi-volume Annals of the New York Stage printed by Columbia College in 1931 noticed, “The present set new requirements for New York theatre and theatrical success.” The reworked model’s two-week run stretched to 150 performances. A number of profitable productions got here and went for the following seven years.

“It was a type of performs that confirmed American ingenuity,” notes Noreen Brown, a theatre professor at Virginia Commonwealth College. “It mentioned one thing constructive in regards to the American spirit.” Inside a 12 months well-liked playwright Charles Gayler had penned a rip-off that he known as “Our Feminine American Cousin,” in time unveiling “Our American Cousin at House.”


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What’s the Story of ‘Our American Cousin’?

Photo of Laura Keene
The Lady to See. Laura Keene had a full home of theatrical playing cards that she didn’t hesitate to play: expert and seasoned performer, deft and devoted impresario, theater proprietor.
(Nationwide Portrait Gallery)

The actual “Our American Cousin” takes place on the English nation property of Sir Edward Trenchard. The baronet’s friends embrace Lord Dundreary, a quite befuddled type, and widowed Mrs. Mountchessington, towing two daughters for whom she is relentlessly searching husbands.

Issues abound: Sir Edward is busted, and Richard Coyle, his property agent, is threatening to plunge him out of business if he doesn’t repay an previous mortgage. Coyle gives an out: he’ll destroy the mortgage doc offered Sir Edward lets Coyle marry Sir Edward’s daughter, Florence. Florence, in fact, not solely detests Coyle, however is in love with Navy Lt. Harry Vernon. The couple can not marry till Vernon will get his personal ship; Lord Dundreary has the connections to make that occur however refuses to assist.

The play begins with the Trenchard household absorbing startling information. Sir Edward’s Uncle Mark, who had quarreled along with his youngsters years earlier than and moved to the US, has died. Within the States, Mark reconnected with a Vermont department of the Trenchard household that had moved to the New World within the mid-1600s. Nonetheless offended at a now deceased daughter for marrying with out his consent, Uncle Mark, quite than let his British holdings — now value some $400,000 — go to the useless daughter’s youngster, has left the inheritance to a younger man from the American department. And that fellow, Asa Trenchard, is at that second on his method to acquire the fortune.

Asa, described by one author as “noisy, coarse, and vulgar, however truthfully forthright and colourful,” arrives and throws everybody right into a tizzy along with his peculiar vocabulary and apparently full ignorance of the manners of society.

Not-So-Ugly American

However over the following two acts his inventiveness and good coronary heart handle to unravel the Trenchard household issues.

“I’m a tough kind of character, and don’t know a lot in regards to the methods of nice people,” Asa muses. “However I’ve obtained a cool head, a stout arm, and a keen coronary heart, and I feel I may also help.”

Asa finds and filches Dundreary’s hair dye, holding the goop hostage till the peer will get Florence’s beloved command of a Royal Navy ship. He sneaks into Coyle’s workplace and finds documentation that the debt Coyle has been holding over Sir Edward’s head has lengthy since been retired. He threatens to show Coyle’s skullduggery except the property agent covers all of Sir Edward’s money owed after which resigns so Coyle’s a lot put-upon clerk can develop into Sir Edward’s property agent.

And to cap the night, Asa even aids Mrs. Mountchessington in getting one in every of her daughters betrothed to Dundreary.

this text first appeared in American historical past journal

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There’s yet another character: Mary Meredith, Uncle Mark’s shortchanged granddaughter. She’s dwelling on the property too, as a milkmaid, tending a small herd of cows and a flock of chickens and promoting butter and eggs. She’s poor however an uncomplaining and completely happy soul. Fairly, too. She so enchants Asa he burns the desire leaving him the English fortune. With no will, the boodle goes to the late Mark’s subsequent of kin, Mary. Asa’s selflessness has a payoff when Mary accepts his proposal of marriage.

New England Stereotype

It’s not random that Cousin Asa hails from New England. The unsophisticated however intelligent and compassionate Yankee had lengthy been a staple of American stage comedies by which a protagonist solves issues bedeviling people richer and higher educated however a lot much less imaginative. Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural historian Howard Mumford Jones famous that this inventory character had “the center of gold which the Individuals affiliate with a shagbark exterior.” The mix of simplicity and practicality was the best way residents of the brand new nation appreciated to see themselves. The character could have been customary however in that capability served as “a generic people determine capably illustrating cheeky traits of the American mood,” defined Richard M. Dorson, long-time director of the Folklore Institute at Indiana College. “His phrases, like his manners, smacked of the farm and the countryside,” chock-full as they’re of vernacular slang and social goofs, Dorson mentioned.

The stereotype’s origins lay within the first produced play by an American citizen, Royall Tyler’s 1787 “The Distinction.” As an avatar, the character Jonathan, an sincere bumpkin working as a servant to a Revolutionary Warfare hero, is peripheral to Tyler’s story of mismatched engagements.

However Jonathan’s comedian woes navigating Manhattan and interacting with higher crust Gothamites grew to become a template for later playwrights. He errors a streetwalker for a deacon’s daughter. He roars boisterously at something he finds humorous and proves an incapable scholar when one other servant tries to move on the foundations of well mannered laughter. And Jonathan speaks a stage exaggeration of Yankee lingo; after kissing a maid, he struggles to elucidate the ensuing joyous feeling: “Burning rivers! Cooling flames! Crimson-hot roses! Pig-nuts! Hasty pudding and ambrosia!“

After falling out of favor, Our American Cousin started to take pleasure in a renascence as a historic oddity and pleasing night of theater.

The Yankee Hero

Model by model, within the many years after “The Distinction,” that intelligent rustic developed from second banana to the highlight function. The core humor in these fish-out-of-water comedies derived from cultural conflict. The homespun simplicity of the untutored American and the effete tradition of the upper-class British — and their mutual misunderstandings — could have in “Our American Cousin” been exaggerated for comedian impact, however the setup contained sufficient grains of reality to elicit stomach laughs of recognition. For instance, informed that an English relative who was visiting Vermont had gone on a searching journey, a personality feedback, “Sure, capturing the wild elephants and buffalo what abound there.”

And the heroine, attempting to think about her soon-to arrive American cousin’s appears to be like, says, “They’re all about 17 ft excessive in America, ain’t they? They usually have lengthy black hair that reaches right down to their heels.”

When Asa presents himself at his relative’s manor home, the butler explains, “He didn’t inform me his identify, and after I requested him for his card he mentioned he had an entire pack in his valise, and if I had a thoughts he’d play me a recreation of Seven Up.” Provided lunch, Asa solutions that, on the best way, “I apprehensive down half a dozen ham sandwiches, eight or ten boiled eggs, two or three pumpkin pies and a string of chilly sausages, and, nicely, I suppose I can maintain on ’til dinnertime.” Encountering his first bathe bathtub, Asa can’t work out the gizmo. He pulls the twine pondering it is going to summon a servant to elucidate, drenching himself.

All through “Cousin,” Asa speaks in a backwoods slang which may convey greater than a touch that he may be placing these exact English people on. This hint of uncertainty delighted audiences. He calls the widow attempting to repair him up along with her daughter a “sockdologizing previous man-trap.” At one level he describes himself as “all-fired tuckered out.” Wooing Mary, Asa swears to the thing of his curiosity, “I’m filling over with affections which I’m able to pour out throughout you want apple sass over roast pork.”

Joseph Jefferson, the Unique Asa

Photo of Joseph Jefferson
Joseph Jefferson
(Nationwide Portrait Gallery)

The a part of Asa originated with Joseph Jefferson. At 29, Jefferson had been eking out a dwelling as an actor since age 3; being solid at Asa made his profession. Not solely was the play a success, however Jefferson introduced into being a brand new performing type that dropped set stage conventions, presenting Asa as an actual particular person with emotions and never only a strolling, speaking  assortment of punch strains.

After different triumphs, Jefferson signed on with a theatrical adaptation of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.” His work within the title function was such a sensation that he continued to play that half — and infrequently another — in varied productions for the final 30 years of the nineteenth Century.

Jefferson persuaded English actor Edward Askew Sothern to play Lord Dundreary in “Our American Cousin.” Sothern, the discuss of Manhattan for his efficiency in “Camille,” hesitated to tackle what was primarily a minor character, feeling the half was too small for his newfound fame. Jefferson’s retort: “There are not any small components, solely small actors.”

He was proper. The general public adored the best way Sothern performed the useless, silly titled gentleman, along with his distinctive manner of twisting aphorisms — “birds of a feather collect no moss,” for instance. Sothern stored including shtick to his portrayal, delivering  strains with a lisp, including coughs and grimaces, and inserting advert libs. His Dundreary grew to become a preferred sensation, as retailers hawked Dundreary scarves, Dundreary shirts, and Dundreary collars based mostly on his stage apparel. Sothern went on to a distinguished profession on each the New York and London stage, intermittently returning to the footlights as Dundreary in no less than three copycat automobiles.

Laura Keene: The Lady Behind ‘Cousin’

Edward Askew Sothern in character as Lord Dundreary.
Edward Askew Sothern in character as Lord Dundreary.
(Library of Congress)

Neither Jefferson nor Sothern had been within the “Our American Cousin” firm that carried out at Ford’s that fateful night time in 1865. However the star of the unique manufacturing was there, billed in large sort above the title for the Ford’s efficiency. Her half was neither the most important nor probably the most demanding, however there isn’t a doubt that she was the dominant determine. Laura Keene was one of the crucial well-liked actresses of the time, in addition to a significant power in American theatrical life. No different lady had achieved a presence wherever close to hers. She not solely owned the American rights to “Our American Cousin” but in addition designed and owned the theatre the place that car’s comedian remodeling premiered within the States and ran the corporate that carried out there.

Englishwoman Keene, born Mary Frances Moss, was left at age 25 with two youngsters and no technique of help when her husband, convicted of unspecified crimes, was transported aboard a jail ship from England to confinement in Australia.

Moss’ aunt was the actress Elizabeth Yates, who opened the door for her niece to take to the stage. Utilizing the identify Laura Keene, the younger performer instantly displayed a pure expertise, in her first 12 months as an actress showing at three London theatres. She attracted the eye of James Wallack, who lured her to the States to be the lead actress in his inventory firm. She debuted in New York in September 1852 and rapidly developed a faithful fan base.

Keene was no magnificence, with options heavier than deemed supreme, however, Jefferson acknowledged, “Her wealthy and luxuriant auburn hair, clear complexion and deep chestnut eyes, stuffed with expression, had been enormously admired. It was her type and carriage that commanded admiration, and it was this high quality that gained her viewers. She had, too, the uncommon energy of with the ability to range her method, assuming the country stroll of a milkmaid or the dignified grace of a queen.”

Feminine Success Story

However Keene, bold and daring, wished far more than avid followers. On the finish of 1853, she relocated to Baltimore, organized a three-month lease on the Charles Road Theatre and never solely starred in performs there however directed exhibits and managed the theatre.

“Whereas theatrical administration was a dangerous endeavor in comparison with the comparatively safe place of a number one girl in a first-class New York Theatre, it provided nice potential for energy and revenue,“ wrote Wake Forest School professor Jane Kathleen Curry. “As a supervisor, Keene would be capable of management play choice and casting, rent all performers and workers, supervise all parts of manufacturing, and by assuming monetary danger, take an opportunity of gaining better monetary reward.”

After ventures in Australia and California, Keene returned to New York in 1855 and took over the Metropolitan Theatre, renamed it Laura Keene’s Varieties, and once more directed and starred in a string of performs. She proved a troublesome cookie. She put surroundings on her stage and costumes on her actors that had been way more detailed than the norm. She aggressively promoted her productions, working adverts twice the dimensions of these different theatre managers positioned. And he or she drew theatergoers by hiring away well-liked actors from different corporations.

“Laura Keene was identified to own the best head within the theatre trade,” historian Mark A. Lause wrote just lately. Different managers — already brazenly sad {that a} lady was muscling into their ranks — stored her busy in courtroom parrying breach of contract fits.

Interior of Laura Keene's New Theatre, Broadway, New York.
Queen Keene’s Palace. The Keene, positioned on Broadway simply above Houston, grew to become the one theatre on the town to keep up its personal full firm of actors and to stage performs all summer season.
(Corbis Historic/Getty Photographs)

However not one of the theatres she had managed match Keene’s conception of what a theatre must be. So she lined up traders, employed architect J.M. Trimble, and plunged into constructing her personal. The Laura Keene Theatre, on the east aspect of Broadway simply above Houston Road, gained raves when it opened with “As You Like It” on Nov. 18, 1856.

“The corridor is paved with black and white marble, and appears elegant, particularly on the half the place it’s surmounted by the decorative dome,” The New York Occasions informed readers the next morning. “The stage itself seems to be unusually well-proportioned and is fifty-two ft in depth. A lot of the decorations of the home are in white and gold except the ceiling, which is superbly and elaborately painted with allegorical figures.”

The Keene grew to become the one theatre on the town to keep up its personal full firm of actors, alone in presenting performs all through the summer season. “Our American Cousin” remained a staple of the ability’s repertoire.

The ‘Cousin’ Curse

After the assassination, on condition that Lincoln’s slayer was an actor, your entire “Our American Cousin” solid at Ford’s got here beneath suspicion.  Sales space had had nothing to do with Keene’s troupe, however she and different members had been arrested. She rapidly satisfied authorities that she had no connection to the killing and resumed her tour in Cincinnati.

In 1869, she took over administration of the Chestnut Road Theatre in Philadelphia for six months, then resumed touring along with her firm. However she was slowly weakening from tuberculosis and gave her closing efficiency on July 4, 1873. She died precisely 4 months later, at 47.

After Lincoln’s assassination, “Our American Cousin” instantly went from widespread recognition to cultural exile; producers assumed Individuals would discover nothing humorous a few play with such horrid associations. Edward Askew Sothern was beloved sufficient as Lord Dundreary that he managed to mount two revivals within the 1870s, however that was just about it — till reminiscence shifted. Over the many years, the sense that “Cousin” was cursed drained away, and the script was such an efficient snort machine that some present enterprise personalities started testing the waters reviving it.

Exterior of Ford's Theatre, Washington DC, USA. Ford's Theater was the site of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14 1865.
Nationwide Shrine. Ford’s Theatre, on tenth Road NW within the nation’s capital, stays a very talked-about vacationer cease however steadfastly refuses to restage the theatrical car that drew Abraham Lincoln to his violent loss of life.
(Ian Dagnall Industrial Assortment/Alamy Inventory Picture)

The final word proof that “Our American Cousin” not was a pariah of a play got here on Dec, 12, 1907, on the Belasco Theatre in Washington, D.C. E.H. Sothern, after years of touring in interval costume dramas and the performs of Shakespeare, took on his well-known father’s most well-known function, the buffoonish Lord Dundreary. To denature the play’s notoriety Sothern the youthful retitled it “Lord Dundreary,” fooling nobody. (Newspaper protection referred to the play as “Our American Cousin.”)

“The viewers loved the efficiency immensely, laughing as heartily over the jokes as their forefathers earlier than them,” reported The New York Occasions.

However probably the most important proof that point had dispelled the gloom enveloping the play was that sitting in a proscenium stage field had been President Theodore Roosevelt and his spouse, Edith. (In 1915, Sothern fils performed within the present on Broadway for 40 performances.)

‘Our American Cousin’ At present

“Our American Cousin”s unsophisticated construction grew lengthy within the tooth and vanished from the boards solely, like Cousin Asa getting himself or another person out of a jam, to seek out within the twenty first century new life as a mix of historic oddity and  pleasing night time of theatre. The scene of the crime, restored as an energetic showplace in 1968, rebuffs frequent calls to mount the comedy; that “would make Ford’s an excessive amount of of a monument to what an murderer did there,” administration has defined. Others see it otherwise.

Vainness Truthful contributing editor Bruce Helpful just lately wrote that “the play had an enthralling deliberate goofiness, a humorousness about its personal dumbness, that isn’t to this point faraway from the tone of a variety of up to date movie comedy.” In 2009, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s start, Monmouth School’s theatre workers had success staging the play in close by Galesburg, Illinois, the place in 1858 Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas in his failed bid for a Senate seat.

Then in 2015, the assassination’s 250th anniversary, a surge of revivals included stagings in Pittsburgh, Richmond, and Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. These productions could have had about them a whiff of historiography, however the play actually doesn’t want that.

“After 150 years, the plot line remains to be able to capturing the creativeness of a large viewers,” argued Morgen Stevens-Garmon, affiliate curator of the theatre assortment of the Museum of the Metropolis of New York.

In 1861, the play had been an enormous success in London, working an exceptional 500 performances. Its renewed and persevering with viability was proved in 2015, when London’s Finborough Theatre discovered such enthusiasm for a revival that administration needed to schedule additional performances. All had been fully bought out.

This text appeared within the Autumn 2022 concern of American Historical past journal.


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