Thursday, February 12, 2009

Off On A Tangent Via Lincoln's Bicentennial

Off On A Tangent Via Lincoln's Bicenten-nial

Perhaps, the United States President most closely associated with the arts may be John F. Kennedy, after whom the District of Columbia's distinguished center for the performing arts is named (although some might argue it's Ronald Reagan, by virtue of his years in entertainment prior to entering politics).

But the American President most closely associated with live theatre -- and quite unintentionally at that -- is unquestionably the man who met his death by virtue of attending a play called Our American Cousin.

America's 16th President Abraham Lincoln was born 200 years ago today in Hodgenville, Kentucky. It was his fatal foray to Washington's Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, in which the Great Emancipator -- the leader who had just vanquished the South in the Civil War -- was felled by the bullet of actor John Wilkes Booth, who approached the President's box from behind.

While Lincoln never saw Booth that fateful evening, just a year and a half earlier, the President had, in fact, seen Booth perform in a play from the very same box at Ford's Theatre. Booth was appearing in The Marble Heart on the night of November 9, 1863. According to Katherine Helm's book "Mary, Wife of Lincoln":
When the Lincolns saw John Wilkes Booth in The Marble Heart at Ford's Theatre on November 9, 1863, they were accompanied by several people. Among these people was Mary B. Clay, a daughter of Cassius Clay, U.S. minister to Russia. Mary Clay reminisced about the evening as follows:

"In the theater President and Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Sallie Clay and I, Mr. Nicolay and Mr. Hay, occupied the same box which the year after saw Mr. Lincoln slain by Booth. I do not recall the play, but Wilkes Booth played the part of villain.

"The box was right on the stage, with a railing around it. Mr. Lincoln sat next to the rail, I next to Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Sallie Clay and the other gentlemen farther around.

"Twice Booth in uttering disagreeable threats in the play came very near and put his finger close to Mr. Lincoln's face; when he came a third time I was impressed by it, and said, 'Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.' 'Well,' he said, 'he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn't he?' At the same theater, the next April, Wilkes Booth shot our dear President. Mr. Lincoln looked to me the personification of honesty, and when animated was much better looking than his pictures represent him."

Mary Clay, in her reminiscence, was off by a year when she said the president was shot "the next April."

Lincoln's assassin -- who has forever been immortalized himself thanks to Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins, as well as in five other Broadway shows -- was actually one of three well-known acting brothers that also included Edwin Booth, for whom Broadway's Booth Theatre is named, and Junius Booth. John Wilkes Booth's actions clearly took its toll on his brothers' careers, even if for a short time only, according to Britannica:

The splendour of this period in (Edwin Booth's) career was dashed for many months when in 1865 his brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Lincoln. The
three Booth brothers, Junius Brutus (1821-1883), Edwin and John Wilkes 1839-1865), had played together in Julius Caesar in the autumn of the previous year--the performance being memorable both for its own excellence, and for the tragic situation into which two of the principal performers were subsequently hurled by the crime of the third.
Edwin Booth did not reappear on the stage until the 3rd of January 1866, when he played Hamlet at the Winter Garden theatre, the audience showing by unstinted applause their conviction that the glory of the one brother would never be imperilled by the infamy of the other.

Not to be confused with the current home to Mamma Mia!, the Winter Garden Theatre listed above was the second incarnation of a theatre that had originally been destroyed by fire in 1854 before being rebuilt. It was the same venue where the three Booth brothers had shared the stage for Julius Caeser. For Lincoln history buffs, the story comes full circle because the Winter Garden was leased briefly in 1854 to Laura Keene, the very star of the play Our American Cousin the President went to see the night he was assassinated.

And in another twist, the last time Broadway audiences saw a performance of Our American Cousin -- which forever will be synonymous with Abraham Lincoln and Ford's Theatre -- was during its 1915-16 run at of all places, the Booth Theatre.

Back in DC, after a lengthy renovation and just in time for today's Bicentennial, Ford's Theatre is finally open once again to the public. I for one am greatly looking forward to returning to this historic shrine to both Abraham Lincoln and live theatre.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


At 12 February, 2009, Blogger Esther said...

Wow, very cool post, Steve. I didn't realize that Lincoln had seen Booth perform. That's eerie. I think Michael Cerveris does a great job with "The Ballad of Booth" on the "Assassins" revival cast recording. You really get a sense of what went through his warped mind.

Anyway, happy Lincoln bicentennial!


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Technorati blog directory Blog Directory & Search engine
Visitor Map

Powered by FeedBurner