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. Read More