There’s a famous one-liner, said to have been uttered to Mrs Lincoln after the events in Ford’s Theatre on 14th April 1865 – 150 years ago today.
Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?
It’s a cruel joke, but it does chime with the sometimes overlooked fact that Lincoln’s assassination didn’t just happen to take place in a theatre – theatre, in fact, was ingrained in the very essence of the event. With this in mind, here are 4 theatrical facts you might not know about Lincoln’s assassination.
1. The play Lincoln was watching was rather lighter than you might expect
In my head, I’d always imagined that the play being performed on the night of the assassination must – befitting its place in history – be something weighty, classical, important. Nothing could be further from the truth. The play was called Our American Cousin, an 1858 comedy by English playwright Tom Taylor – published by none other than Samuel French (you can read it for free here). It’s a likeable but throwaway fish-out-of-water story about a gauche American called upon to save the fortunes of his English aristocratic relatives. It was recently given a rare revival at London’s Finborough Theatre to mark the anniversary of Lincoln’s death.
Though seen today as little more than a historical footnote, it was wildly popular in its time. One contemporary critic (in a fit of hyperbole uncommon in modern counterparts) said it was “certainly the funniest thing in the world”. The main comic foil of the piece – Lord Dundreary – was so popular that he briefly gave the English language two new words – ‘Dundrearyisms’ for his characteristic mangled aphorisms, and ‘Dundrearies’ for his outlandish sideburns.
The play was such a surefire winner that Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was able to time his entry into the President’s box so that it would be covered by the hilarity provoked by a line that always got the biggest 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.”
2. Booth wasn’t quite the deranged loner you might think he was
Far from being a man on the edge of society, John Wilkes Booth was in fact one of its darlings. He was part of a noted acting dynasty, and was by the time of the assassination a well known celebrity, revered both for his good looks and his performances. He eventually overcame the early stage fright, which in his first performance caused this unfortunate entrance…
“Madame, I am Petruchio Pandolfo…. Madame, I am Pondolfio Pet—Pedolfio Pat—Pantuchio Ped—dammit! Who am I?”
His favourite part – ominously – was said to be Shakespeare’s Brutus.
It’s even said that Lincoln himself was a fan of Booth. The Lincolns were regular theatregoers, and had previously seen Booth on stage in another performance at Ford’s Theatre, during which, onlookers said, Booth seemed to break out of character and aim one particularly vehement line directly at the President. Lincoln invited Booth to visit him in the interval, but Booth ignored the request.
Booth’s status as an actor meant he could put himself in the right place at the right time to carry out his plot against Lincoln. He was well known at Ford’s Theatre, even having his post delivered there. It was while collecting his mail that he heard from staff that the President was to attend the theatre that evening, and he was also able to gain access to the presidential box to drill a spyhole.
Having done the terrible deed, Booth leapt from the presidential box, according to some accounts declaring theatrically “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants”) – an echo of the words said to have been uttered by Brutus at Caesar’s assassination.
3. The leading lady was a star in more ways than one
Laura Keene was playing the leading role in Our American Cousin the night Lincoln was shot. It is said that she cradled the dying President’s head in her lap.
Though Keene would come to be forever associated with her role in this piece of history, she was remarkable for other reasons too. At a time when it was so unacceptable for women to even appear on the stage that she was forced to change her name, Keene became not only a successful actress, but also a director, America’s first female theatre manager and a prototype for the mega-producers of today. Even successful productions at this time rarely ran for more than a dozen performances, but Keene produced shows in America and London that ran for over 250.
4. Booth destroyed one theatrical legacy, and preserved another
In a remarkable turn of events, following the tragedy at Ford’s Theatre, the US Congress ruled that it could never again be used as a place of public entertainment. It was taken over by the War Department, during which time 22 employees were killed and 68 injured when part of the building collapsed. Thankfully, Congress’s ruling has now been reversed, and the newly renovated theatre is once again open for regular performances.
Peculiarly though, another part of Booth’s theatrical legacy is seen by thousands of people every day – even if they don’t know it. In a corner of New York’s Central Park, just south of the Promenade, stands a statue of Shakespeare.
The funds to erect this statue were raised through a gala performance of Julius Caesar in 1864 – starring none other than John Wilkes Booth… as Mark Antony.
Sometimes the line between irony and history is very fine indeed.