“Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
After having received so many inquiries of this sort, I am finally prepared to give a full account of my feelings on the play “Our American Cousin,” which is the last theatrical performance I have had occasion to enjoy. Alas, my review shall be only partial. You may recall from the newspapers that in the middle of Act III my husband was shot to death. This was a real disappointment; I was as eager as anyone in the playhouse to see how this warm-hearted farce was resolved.
The action centers on a British family named Trenchard, who receive a letter informing them that their American cousin will be visiting shortly to claim an inheritance. The father, Sir Edward, is heavily in debt. The daughter, Florence, believes the inheritance rightfully belongs to her relation Mary. And a certain Harry Vernon — Florence’s love interest — is unable to secure a ship he so desperately wants to captain.
Into this tangle of conflicting interests enters Asa Trenchard, the titular cousin who describes himself thusly: “Born in Vermont, suckled on the banks of the Muddy Creek, about the tallest gunner, the slickest dancer, and generally the loudest critter in the state.” To the British, he is simply a “savage.” Herein lies one of the play’s chief comic tensions: the United States in all its frontier brio meets Britain, with its mannerly reserve.
As staged by Laura Keene, “Our American Cousin” maintains a suitably brisk pace, though it sags at times with the overuse of asides and expository monologues. At one point, for example, Asa goes to take a nap in a small space he finds in the house, and says, “I shall be just as snug in here as in … a private box at the theatre.” Mr. Lincoln nudged me at this juncture, and said, “I know just what he means!” and feigned nodding off.
After a lull, the action picks up again when our American hero goes to meet Mary, a simple dairywoman, who does not yet know that it is he, and not she, who is legal heir to the family fortune. Asa falls in love with Mary in about the time it would normally take to buckle a shoe. Feeling the injustice of his impending inheritance, he burns the will. He wants to ask for Mary’s hand, but feels too outclassed to do so.
The actors delivered fine performances, except for Jennie Gourlay’s Mary, who is as pure as the milk she pumps, but also as plain. We are left to assume a romantic spark between her and Asa that the players ought to make us feel.
In a side plot, Asa overhears a Mrs. Mountchessington scheming with her daughter to ensnare Asa — whom they still take for a rich man — as a husband. One thing leads to another, and Asa calls Mrs. Mountchessington a “sockdologizing old man-trap.” This line elicited a roar of approving laughter from the audience, as if all America were delivering a final blow to British pretensions.
Also with this line, Mr. Lincoln shuddered and fell forward — from laughter, I first assumed. Then I saw blood on him, and deduced that the ringing sound I’d also just heard was a gunshot. I instantly grasped this to be a revolutionary breaking of the fourth wall, and knew we would be reading about it in the papers the next day.
I screamed with delight and turned around to glimpse an actor I had not yet seen, shouting some such thing as “Anyone for lawn tennis?” Only days later was I informed that he cried out, “Sic semper tyrannis!” However precise his marksmanship, Mr. Booth, the shooter, lacks diction, and turned in a wholly inadequate performance.
The reader will understand my confusion, since whatever he said did not appear to be related to the course of action. But Ford’s Theatre has a reputation for experimentation, and I decided to play along. However, the cast and audience seemed too upset to continue.
As it turns out, Mr. Lincoln was in poor shape, and died the next morning. The Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was seated next to Mr. Lincoln at his deathbed, and was heard to say, “Now what happened with Asa?” (History recorded it as “Now he belongs to the ages,” but I stand by my claim that Mr. Stanton was repeating my husband’s dying question.)
That the question of Asa’s fate remained unanswered made me inconsolable. Had I been thinking more clearly, I might have tried to procure a copy of the script. Evidently the theatre’s producers were embarrassed at the fuss that had taken place. One thing led to another, and the boys and I moved back to Illinois.
Still, I wondered: Would Asa win Mary’s hand? Would Sir Edward get out of debt? And would Harry get his ship, and Florence her man? I became so distraught with these questions over the next decade that I was committed by my ingrate of a son, Robert, to a lunatic asylum. It was only there that I recalled that, midway through the play, Asa goes to the archery field with Florence, where he hits three bull’s eyes in a row.
I was ashamed to have missed such glaring symbolism all these years! Asa must have completed all three tasks set before him and his relations — the most important being the happy pairing of America and Britain in the persons of him and Mary.
I am told that Ford’s Theatre has preserved the box where Mr. Lincoln and I sat that evening. If this is the theatre’s ploy to inveigle me into endowing a seat, I will have none of it. Not unless they stage the play again, and stick to the script this time.
Paul VanDeCarr is a writer and researcher living in New York City. Visit him online at www.paulvdc.com.