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The Big Hit of 1865

Filichia answers the burning question on everyone's mind: Aside from that, how was the play? logo
Ready for Assassins? Here it comes, courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre, set to open only days after the 139th anniversary of the event that drives the Sondheim-Weidman musical: that night when Tom Taylor's hit comedy Our American Cousin opened its engagement at Ford's Theatre in Washington, and Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln decided to attend.

Alas, what John Wilkes Booth did soon after the third act began gave rise to a black comic joke: "Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" But it does bring up a good question: How good or bad was Our American Cousin?

As the curtain rises, we're in Britain's Trenchard Manor. Servants Skillet and Sharpe set up the furniture while heroine Flo Trenchard sets up the exposition. Seems that some recently deceased relative hasn't forgiven his now-deceased son for marrying a lowborn woman named Mary, so he's left his £80,000 estate to their American cousin, Asa Trenchard.

Asa's now on his way from Brattleboro, Vermont to claim the loot. This galls Flo, but her friend Augusta can't wait to meet the American. ("I can imagine the wild young hunter, an Apollo of the prairie!") Also holding an opinion is Dundreary, an always-there visitor who stutters, lisps, and has a penchant for dumb jokes. Example: "When is a dog's tail not a dog's tail? When it's a wagon." (That's what passed for comic relief in the mid-19th century.)

Asa arrives, dressed like a galoot. He assumes that everyone's astonished looks are admiring ones. "I'm about the tallest gunner, slickest dancer, and generally the loudest critter in the state," he says before taking one look at Flo, and wow! "One cousin ought to kiss another," he proclaims. Flo prefers a handshake.

Meanwhile, Flo's father Edward finds that he owes £5,000, and tells Coyle, his solicitor, to sell a property in order to settle the debt. Coyle produces a paper -- with Edward's forged signature -- saying that Edward signed the land over to Coyle's now-deceased father several years ago. Edward doesn't remember signing it, but there's his signature. Coyle, however, says he'll return the property to Edward if he can get Flo to marry him.

He's not the only one with marriage plans. Augusta is trying to romance Asa for his money -- Though she does wince when she says "au revoir" and he replies, "No, thanks, I don't take any before dinner." What he does take is a nap, right on the living room window seat. He pulls the curtains shut, thus allowing him to all-too-fortuitously overhear that Coyle is trying to blackmail Flo into marriage. "I'll help just as one cousin ought to help another," he proclaims staunchly.

Asa follows Flo to the dairy farm owned by Mary -- who, you'll remember, should have inherited his £80,000 by all rights. When Asa meets her and sees how hard she works, he's full of admiration: "Yo're the first right down useful gal I've seen this side of the pond." He takes out the will and burns it. This doesn't sit well with Augusta or her mother. "I am aware," says the mater, "that you are not used to the manners of good society." To which Asa rebuts, "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." And that was the last line Lincoln heard, for it's when Booth entered the presidential box and made his fatal shot.

If Booth had had second thoughts, Lincoln would have seen Flo's return, upon which she notices the not-quite-totally burned will on the ground and shows it to Mary. Once Mary learns how self-sacrificing Asa has been, she falls in love with him. As Asa says, "It's astonishing how things have fallen in and out today."

John Wilkes Booth
Well, yes, that's one way of putting it. A cynic might say that Booth did the Lincolns a favor by not making them endure the entire performance. But, believe it or not, Our American Cousin was one of the 19th century's biggest hits. By the time the Lincolns caught up with it, it had been playing around the East Coast for nearly seven years. (New York premiere: October 15, 1858 at Laura Keene's Theatre. Playing Flo, incidentally, was one Laura Keene.)

The assassination didn't cause the play to lose its luster; perhaps it even added to it. Our American Cousin was popular through the rest of the century and beyond. E.A. Sothern, the original Dundreary, was still playing the role in 1879. After he died, his son assumed the part and was in the cast of the very successful 1907 revival.

But here's the real kicker: Two years after the murder of Lincoln, Hannah Perry, who had played Flo on the night of the assassination, remarried. Her new husband was Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. -- brother of you-know-who.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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