But Really, How Was the Play, Mrs. Lincoln?

drawing of president lincoln's assassination
A lithograph of John Wilkes Booth's escape after assassinating Lincoln, 1865. Photo courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

“But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” It’s a joke so familiar to us that it’s become a shorthand way to refer to any situation in which someone is utterly missing the point. However, while the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865 (he died the next day) is one of the most important events in the history of the United States, the event is also striking for the way in which it ties together some of the most influential players in the theatrical world of the time.

The show that the Lincolns were attending that night was a comedy titled Our American Cousin. That play has become infamous because of its association with Lincoln’s assassination, but before that, it was one of the most successful comedies of its time. Written in 1858 by English playwright Tom Taylor, the play follows the titular American, Asa Trenchard, as he rescues the fortunes of his relatives across the Atlantic. The play was extremely popular, and it helped to make the careers of three big names in the nineteenth-century theatre: Joseph Jefferson, Edward Askew Sothern, and Laura Keene. Jefferson originated the role of Trenchard, and would go on to play Rip Van Winkle in an immensely successful adaptation of the Washington Irving story. Jefferson ended up playing that role for over forty years, and it made him the most popular comic actor in the nineteenth-century America.

For his part, E.A. Sothern didn’t have to look beyond Our American Cousin to find a signature role. His turn as Lord Dundreary, a ridiculous aristocrat given to comic misstatements, became a career-defining role for him. Sothern’s portrayal of Dundreary was instantly recognizable because of his distinctive sideburns, and he had a series of incredibly successful runs in major cities including London. Over time, he also came to dominate the play almost entirely, to the point that it revolved around Dundreary’s character and effectively became a star vehicle for Sothern.

drawing of a woman
Laura Keene as Portia in The Merchant of Venice in 1856. Photo courtesy of the Folger Library.

 

Lincoln’s death at Booth’s hand had a lasting effect on the course of American history, but it also affected the lives of the individuals who had been either present at the event, or connected in other ways.

Then there was Laura Keene. Keene has been reduced to something of a sentimental figure in the retelling of Lincoln’s death, with witnesses like the lawyer Seaton Munroe describing her as a hysterical figure bewailing the president’s fate while smeared with his blood. However, there was much more to Keene than this. For a time, she was one of the most successful women in American entertainment. She opened her own theatre in New York and built it up into one of the most prominent companies in the country. When her main commercial rival, James W. Wallack, passed on Our American Cousin, she decided to produce it, leading to one of the biggest successes of her career. Although she had closed her theatre and gone on the road by 1865, she could still command an audience. According to an account by Leonard Grover in a 1909 edition of Century Magazine, the entire reason that the Lincolns were at Ford’s Theatre that night was because Mary Todd insisted on going to see Keene on her benefit night (a special performance in which the proceeds went to a particular actor).

As for Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, he too was a fairly prominent part of the American theatre scene in 1865. It might be more accurate to say that he was well-known because of his family name, rather than his own accomplishments on the stage. His father Junius Brutus had been a promising actor whose reputation had been blighted by his struggles with alcoholism, but he and his brothers had made successful careers for themselves. That was especially the case with his brother Edwin, who was arguably the best Shakespearean actor of his generation, perhaps even the nineteenth century. Edwin was also a firm supporter of the Union during the Civil War, which put him at odds with his brother. John Wilkes didn’t have nearly as good of a reputation as Edwin, but what he did on April 14 ensured that his name would ultimately be better-known, even if that was because of his lasting infamy.

Lincoln’s death at Booth’s hand had a lasting effect on the course of American history, but it also affected the lives of the individuals who had been either present at the event, or connected in other ways. For some, the effects were immediate: Booth escaped the theatre, but he was soon caught and killed by Union soldiers. Others weren’t as immediately affected; neither Jefferson nor Sothern was still with Keene’s company by 1865, and Our American Cousin had already done its part to launch their careers. Of all the peripheral participants in the event, Keene may have come off the worst. Her career was already on a downward slope, and her presence at Ford’s Theatre when Booth shot the president seems to have tainted her public image, although she had had nothing to do with the murder itself. As for Our American Cousin, the play didn’t suffer much of an immediate blow to its reputation because of its association with Lincoln’s death. As its popularity eventually faded, however, the grim connection became its sole claim to fame.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the individuals who was most deeply affected by John Wilkes Booth’s actions was his brother Edwin. Edwin vigorously condemned his brother’s actions and insisted on his own loyalty to the Union, but after that, he made a decision to withdraw from public life almost entirely. Years later, he finally returned to the stage, and managed to repair his reputation, but the stain of his association with John Wilkes never entirely disappeared. In September of 1865, the Boston Daily Advertiser relayed the story of a shopkeeper in faraway Paris who displayed, as a sort of morbid memento, what he claimed was an image of John Wilkes Booth. When anyone attempted to point out that the picture in his shop window was in fact of Edwin, the shopkeeper firmly insisted that it was “Boot, the assassin. Vilk Boot, le misérable, le lâche.”

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Michael Lueger dissects different topics from theatrical history.

Strange Eventful History by Michael Lueger

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