- Richard Byrne
Our American Cousin: A Sort of Defense (Revised)
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
One of the most popular posts on Balkans via Bohemia was a piece I wrote back in 2009 in response to a Slate piece by Timothy Noah that made the argument that Our American Cousin – the play performed at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination 150 years ago – was a terrible play.
Back in 2015, I edited and updated my (sort of) defense of Our American Cousin to commemorate the anniversary of that tragic event. I have done so again tonight in 2020 at the new home for this blog. (A link to my original post in its entirety is included at the end.)
Among a package of stories in Slate that marked the 200th anniversary of Abraham' Lincoln's birth back in 2009 was Timothy Noah's "belated review" of Our American Cousin – the play that Lincoln was watching as he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.
Noah asserted that the play was "terrible," and adds that its author, Tom Taylor, was "widely excoriated as a hack" roughly 35 years after that tragic performance at Ford's Theatre for which it is remembered.
In his piece, Noah wonders:
What was it like to watch? To grasp that, you really have to read it, something I did recently to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. To spare you from doing the same, I provide what is (as best I can tell) the only detailed synopsis available anywhere.
Noah’s piece irritated me at the time, and not simply because Our American Cousin is a soft target. In truth, the play tells us a number of very interesting things. About theatrical collaboration and process. About women's history in American theatre. About Abraham Lincoln.
First, let's take the merits of the play. No one would really argue that Our American Cousin is some sort of neglected classic. But we can't really know much about how good or bad Taylor's version of Our American Cousin was because we don't have a copy of his original script.
Here's why we don't have it. According to Welford Dunaway Taylor, who edited an edition of the play published in 1990 (Beacham Publishing), Our American Cousin was written by Tom Taylor in 1851 as a melodrama based on his experience of the cultural clashes imported by numerous American visitors to the famous exhibition of Britain's Victorian culture at Crystal Palace in 1851. He sold to a British producer for 80 pounds, but that producer never put the show on in Britain. The playwright gave the American rights to Joshua Silsbee – the American actor for whom Taylor wrote the main part of Asa Trenchard (the "American cousin").
(Update: A – sadly – anonymous commenter to Balkans via Bohemia asserted back in 2009 that:
“Silsbee never had rights to the play, but was merely an actor in Benjamin Webster's company. Webster apparently let Silsbee have a copy at some point, but the latter never had any right to produce it and, indeed, died before it was presented. However, Silsbee's manuscript lay at the heart of one of two copyright cases fought over the play.
"The first was Keene v. Wheatley: In that case, the defendants were ordered to cease production because their manuscript was obtained illegally. In the same case, Joseph Jefferson is identified as the primary author of the alterations to the script. The second case, Keene v. Kimball, ruled that the defendants had a right to produce the play since they'd obtained their "script" by repeated attendance at the plaintiff's production, which they memorized, a bad copyright decision that was overturned 20 years later in Tompkins v. Halleck.” )
Taylor eventually tried again – assigning a British journalist to find a buyer for the play. That journalist found Laura Keene (below), whose name is forever linked to Lincoln's assassination as the actress who was featured in the production at which the president was killed. (That's her name in big letters on the playbill above from that fatal night.)
Keene's story is one of the most interesting in 19th Century American theatre without any mention of Lincoln or Ford's Theater. Indeed, her life has all the stuff of the American dream: Keene emigrated from Britain as a single mother with two children – and she rose quickly on her talents as an actress to become the first female entrepreneur in the bumptious world of New York theatre. (There is an excellent account of her astonishing and fleetingly successful career as a theater mogul in Faye E. Dudden's Women in the American Theatre: Actresses and Audiences 1790-1870, published in 1994 by Yale University Press.)
But back to that lost script. Keene was always desperate for new material to fill her calendar, so she bought the play lock, stock and barrel for $1000. (Dudden writes that Keene's "most pressing problem was the never-ending struggle to find the next new play, the next new draw.")
In his introduction to the 1990 edition, Welford Dunaway Taylor observes that when Keene took possession of Our American Cousin, she altered it greatly – largely in an effort to get actors to play in it. Taylor's melodrama suddenly became a comedy. And some of the actors that agreed to take parts demanded permission to "gag" (i.e. "improvise") their parts to cull laughs from the audience.
The actor who took the part of the lisping and effeminate Lord Dundreary, for instance, managed to "gag" his part from a mere 47 lines to become the center of the comic business of the play -- actually displacing the "American cousin."Edward Askew Sothern (below) became a star as he did so, and much of the play's continuing popularity from its New York opening in 1858 and past 1865 to Keene's death in 1873, came not from Taylor but from the new funny business that Sothern and the rest of the original cast wove into the British play about a funny talkin' American in Britain.
So the play that Noah synopsizes is likely less the play written by Taylor than it is a collision between playwright, producer, and ensemble. Even on the night of Lincoln's assassination, the actors found ways to ham it up in topical ways. The end of the war a few days before the April 14th performance – and the end of the conscription of troops – occasioned this bit of ad-libbed nonsense between Dundreary and a female character:
GEORGINA: If you please, ask the dairy maid to let me have a seat in the dairy. I am afraid of the draft here.
DUNDREARY: Don't be alarmed. There is no more draft.
The Dundreary character in particular became a staple of American culture -- inspiring numerous spinoffs and ripoffs. Which brings us to Abraham Lincoln -- and why he might have liked Our American Cousin. The cult of Lincoln loves to drone on about his love of Shakespeare -- and he certainly was fond of the historical tragedies. But you don't hear much about Lincoln quoting the Bard's comedies. His tastes in humor ran in a coarser and folksier vein – such as the comic fictive epistles of David Ross Locke, who wrote under the nom de plume "Rev. Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby." The Nasby letters were stinging satires of the Democratic party and its willingness to compromise with the rebels (read some of them here), and Lincoln loved to read them aloud to Cabinet members and other guests -- many of whom loathed the experience. The comedy of Our American Cousin runs largely in that vein. Silly physical comedy. Wordplay that emphasizes the rich descriptive vulgarity of American speech – and central characters who prick at the puffery of "Old Europe" and celebrate the fair play and common sense of the American character. The perfect light-hearted nonsense for a war-weary president. So far from worrying, as Noah does, about the "aesthetic experience" that Lincoln had in his last hours, it's easy to see that he was likely after some good old-fashioned and utterly familiar comic relief. Indeed, the play was so familiar to Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, in fact, that he was able to time his fatal shot with one of the play’s most reliable laugh lines.
Perhaps the lesson is that history is a tricky and more complicated thing – and light entertainments recalled out of context and burdened with the weight of tragedy deserve a bit more retrospective compassion and interest.
(Original post here. Playbill from April 14, 1865 from Ford's Theatre.)