Entry 10: Death, Comedy, and Lincoln

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Our American Cousin. Written by Tom Taylor.

Release Date: October 15, 1858 (in America).

Script Available on Google Books.

Our American Cousin comes down to us primarily as the play Abraham Lincoln was watching when John Wilkes Booth shot him. It also has a reputation for being terrible. However, this was more than just a random play for Lincoln. He and Mary reportedly saw it several times while in Washington, and after viewing and reading it recently, I can see why. It’s humor is precisely the kind Lincoln enjoyed. Indeed, Our American Cousin may have been for Lincoln what something like Anchorman is for me–a piece of popular comedy comfort food that you can settle into and enjoy for its familiarity as much as its humor. Lincoln probably anticipated the final line of Asa Trenchard’s take-down of Mrs. Mountchessington–“you sockdologizing old man-trap!”–the same way I eagerly await Ron Burgundy’s nonsensical insult of Veronica Corningstone, “Why don’t you go back to your home on Whore Island!” But to us, Asa’s line is exclusively remembered as the last thing Lincoln heard before a bullet entered his brain. So, as I suggested doing with “Dixie,” let’s take Our American Cousin out of its April 14, 1865, context and try to cut through the myth and consider why Lincoln liked the play.

1. Our American Cousin is genuinely funny.

As Stacy Pratt McDermott indicated in her review of Lincoln, when you work closely with Lincoln’s correspondence for a long time, you start to get a sense of his personality. One of the things that has struck me about him since I started working for The Papers of Abraham Lincoln is that he was a genuinely fun person to be around. People loved Lincoln because he was a great and often hilarious conversationalist. I don’t think this comes through enough in literary or dramatic depictions of the man. Most often, we encounter him as a care-worn wartime president–highlighting the melancholy that plagued him his entire life. This may well have been President Lincoln’s demeanor but citizen Lincoln was a gregarious fellow who succeeded in life, in part, because of his winning personality.

This joking, knee-slapping Lincoln is the one who enjoyed Our American Cousin. Its wisp of a plot is only there to service prodigious playwright and Punch editor Tom Taylor’s wordplay and fish-out-of-water jokes. The best lines go to Asa, the titular cousin who travels from Vermont to England to claim his aristocratic family’s estate, and Lord Dundreary, a typical English fop. Asa frequently creates confusion due to his incessant use of American colloquialisms. For instance, the comedy in one scene comes from his inability to simply tell the family servant to leave, as Asa goes through a number of “Americanisms” (“make tracks,” “vamose,” “absquatulate,” “skedaddle”) before finally achieving comprehension with “get out!” Dundreary’s jokes are almost always puns, such as in a very lengthy exchange that plays on the various homonyms of “draft,” ending with the riddle: “What is it gives a cold in the head, cures a cold, pays the doctor’s bill and makes the home-guard look for substitutes? . . . A draught!” The joke may seem a little hacky to us (and it did to some folks then too) but Lincoln ate this stuff up. Just look at his stories. Humor based around puns, metaphors, and farcical scenarios was his bread and butter.

2. The play celebrates American egalitarianism and free labor.

When it came to 19th-Century Republicanism, Lincoln was a true believer. Among other things, that meant a firm rejection of classism and a strong belief in free labor capitalism. Asa embodies both of these things. He rejects all aspects of aristocratic privilege, such as when he responds to a servant’s request to help him dress by sarcastically suggesting, “I may want to yawn presently and I shall want somebody to shut my mouth.”  Asa’s romantic choices also reflect his American ideals. Instead of courting the well-connected but desperate Augusta, Asa falls for Mary, a family servant and distant relative. He does this because she embodies his ideals and possesses genuine domestic skills, unlike the women of leisure who otherwise dominate the play. When Mary reports, “I milk the cows, set up the milk, superintend the churning and make the cheese,” Asa is smitten and declares, “Wal, darn me if you ain’t the first raal right down useful gal I’ve seen on this side of the pond.” If this inversion of the social ladder isn’t obvious enough, he then tells his well-heeled cousin Florence, “you must own you’re small potatoes, and a few in a hill compared to a gal like that.” Asa clearly values work and physical labor over privilege, just like Lincoln.

3. The American saves the day!

The play’s primary conflict comes from the Trenchards’ creditor, Mr. Coyle’s, attempt to use a false claim to capture the family estate and marry Florence. Asa resolves the situation (and several subplots) by acquiring sensitive information on every major character and using it as leverage. Taylor highlights this in the play’s final scene by having Asa assure everyone–except Coyle, who he’s exposed as a fraud–that their particular secret is safe with him. Thus, American experience-borne intellect and disregard for social privilege trumps English traditional education and pretentious elitism.

That is a play Lincoln could get behind!

Additional Dispatches:

  • The performance of the play in Springfield I saw was well done. The cast clearly understood that this kind of material is best presently lightly and all seemed to be having a good time. Nevertheless, Lincoln’s assassination remained inescapable. A mock-up of his theater box stood on stage left and the play was interrupted twice to indicate when Lincoln arrived on April 14, 1865, and again with the sound of a gunshot at the point when he was murdered.
  • Does it mention slavery? Not a bit. Asa speaks like a southerner but he’s from Vermont and no one references his countrymen’s “peculiar institution,” despite the fact that America was near the peak of the sectional crisis when Taylor wrote the play.

Next Entry: Blood & Glory

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One comment

  1. Katherine Wacker · April 15, 2015

    Reblogged this on Katherine's Chronicle and commented:
    150 years ago today

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