The hackneyed play that ended Lincoln's life.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Feb. 11 2009 7:19 PM

Our American Cousin Revisited

Was the play that ended Lincoln's life any good?

Photo of Edward Askew Sothern as Lord Dundreary.
Actor Edward Sothern as Lord Dundreary

It's the hoariest sick joke in America: "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" By now it isn't even a joke; it's become a familiar way to complain that undue attention is being given to some frivolous aspect of an otherwise grim and urgent matter. But we've had a century and a half to ponder the awful tragedy of Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater and its effect on the post-Civil War Reconstruction, the presidency, and the American character. Surely that interval is sufficiently decent that we may now ask, in earnest: What sort of aesthetic experience occupied the Great Emancipator's final hours?

A pretty terrible one. Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald calls Our American Cousin a "creaky farce," which may be too generous. Its British author, Tom Taylor, would later become editor of Punch, but there's very little evidence in Our American Cousin that he had a sense of humor, and by the early 20th century Taylor would be widely excoriated as a hack. Even Joseph Jefferson, who originated the title role, admitted the play "possessed but little literary merit." In its day, however, Our American Cousin was an enormous hit, having lasted five consecutive months (a very long run in those days) when first presented in New York. The play, whichtells the story of a "rough-spun, honest hearted" Yankee who voyages to England to claim an inheritance, likely won its following by giving Americans an opportunity to laugh at stereotypically doddering English aristocrats while simultaneously giving Britons the opportunity to laugh at stereotypically uncouth Americans. What was it like to watch? To grasp that, you really have to read it, something I did recently to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. To spare you from doing the same, I provide what is (as best I can tell) the only detailed synopsis available anywhere.

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Act I. The curtain rises on a drawing room in Trenchard * Manor as the servants gossip about the "most uncomfortable" financial circumstances besetting the family. Beautiful young Florence Trenchard, daughter to a baronet, is in love with Lt. Harry Vernon of the Royal Navy, but she can't marry him until he rises in rank. Florence rushes onstage, hoping the day's mail has brought word that Harry's been assigned a ship. Instead, she has a letter from her brother Ned, who is traveling in the United States. Ned reports that in the wilds of Vermont he has "lately come quite hap-hazard upon the other branch of our family," which two centuries earlier emigrated to the American colonies. From these rustics Ned has learned the fate of his great-uncle "old Mark Trenchard," who years earlier disinherited his daughter for marrying against his wishes and angrily departed England to seek out his American relations. Uncle Mark found these Vermont Trenchards, Ned has now learned, "and died in their house, leaving Asa, one of the sons, heir to his personal property in England." Asa, Ned writes, is sailing for England "to take possession" of Mark Trenchard's riches.

Asa arrives, refusing to give the butler his card and declaring himself "the tallest gunner, the slickest dancer, and generally the loudest critter" in the state of Vermont. (This is roughly the point in the play where President and Mrs. Lincoln, entered their box at Ford's Theater, having arrived 20 minutes late.) When lunch is served, Asa complains there's "No mush," "No pork and beans," no "brandy, rum, gin and whiskey," etc. The Trenchards are alternately horrified and amused by their bumpkin cousin. Meanwhile, the villain of the piece makes his entrance: Richard Coyle, agent of the estate, who, meeting privately with the baronet, Sir Edward Trenchard, tells him he faces financial ruin because of an unpaid loan held by Coyle. In truth, the loan was long ago paid off by Sir Edward's late father, but Coyle has hidden the evidence. Coyle proposes to remove the financial encumbrance by marrying Sir Edward's daughter Florence, who detests him. Sir Edward is scandalized but must consider it.

More comic business ensues between Asa and the butler, Mr. Binny:

Binny.  Will you take a baath before you dress?

Asa.  Take a baath?

Binny. A baath.

Asa. I suppose you mean a bath. Wal, man, I calkalate I ain't going to expose myself to the shakes by getting into cold water in this cruel cold climate of yours, so make tracks.

Binny. Make what?

Asa. Vamose!

Binny. Make vamose!

Asa. Absquatulate.

Binny.  b—what sir?

Asa. Skedaddle.

Binny. Skedaddle?

Asa. Oh! get out.

The curtain falls as Asa, trying to figure out what the shower is for, douses himself fully clothed.

Act II. The curtain rises on Mrs. Mountchessington, a guest at Trenchard Manor, instructing her unmarried daughter Augusta to "be attentive to this American savage" because his inheritance makes him a good catch. Augusta's sister Georgina meanwhile beguiles another wealthy prospect, an imbecilic peer named Dundreary, by pretending to an invalid ("I'm so delicate"). Florence is approached by Coyle's clerk, Abel Murcott. Years before, Murcott was Florence's tutor, but Sir Edward dismissed him for making ungentlemanly advances. Now a remorse-haunted drunk, Murcott warns Florence that Coyle means to marry her. Asa, who unbeknownst to Florence has been sleeping on a window seat, emerges from behind the curtains and offers to help. Murcott tells Florence and Asa that he found amid Coyle's papers written proof that Florence's grandfather paid off the loan that Sir Edward believes is his financial ruin.

Florence brings Asa to meet her beloved cousin Mary, granddaughter to Asa's benefactor. Raised in penury, Mary Meredith is a humble dairy maid. Rather than pity her, however, Asa is smitten ("Wal, darn me if you ain't the first raal right down useful gal I've seen on this side the pond"). Florence tells Asa she hadn't the heart to tell Mary he'd been left her grandfather's fortune. She also confesses to Asa her love for Harry and complains that Dundreary has declined to use his influence to get Harry a ship. Asa, however, gets Dundreary to change his mind in exchange for a bottle of hair dye.

Asa. Now, look here, you get the lieutenant a ship and I'll give you the bottle. It's a fine swap.

Dundreary. What the devil is a swap?

Asa. Well, you give me the ship, and I'll give you the bottle to boot.

Dundreary. What do I want of your boots?  I haven't got a ship about me.

Asa. You'd better make haste or your whiskers will be changed again. They'll be a pea green in about a minute.

Dundreary. Pea green! [Exits hastily.]

As the curtain falls, bailiffs descend on Trenchard Manor. "Florence," sighs Sir Edward, "I am lost."

Act III. The curtain rises onthe dairy, where Mary finds Asa whittling: "It helps me keep my eyes off you, Miss Mary." Asa confesses to Mary that he knew her grandfather in America and that he bequeathed him his property. "Will you excuse my lighting a cigar?" Asa asks and then improvises a new ending to the story. Before he died, Asa says, old Mark Trenchard saw his error in "hardening my heart against my own flesh and blood" and asked for a candle. He then took the will and burned it. "Just this way," Asa says, removing a paper from his pocket and lighting it with his cigar. The paper is Mark Trenchard's will. Later, Florence finds a fragment of the document Asa has destroyed, and tells Mary, "It means that he is a true hero, and he loves you, you little rogue."

Mrs. Mountchessington, meanwhile, is determined that Asa marry her Augusta. "All I crave is affection," Augusta tells Asa. Asa tells them both that Mark Trenchard left his fortune to Mary, not him. Augusta abruptly calls him a "nasty beast," and Mrs. Mountchessington tells Asa he is impertinent but that she will excuse it because he doesn't know "the manners of good society." Asa is outraged. "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man-trap."

(Here, in the Ford's Theater production, John Wilkes Booth rather ham-handedly inserts into the text a bang, a crash, and the words "Sic semper tyrannis." Pandemonium as the curtain falls.)

What you've read so far should make clear that President Lincoln, whose literary gifts far exceeded Tom Taylor's, did not die wondering how Our American Cousin would end. The American bumpkin would set things straight for his aristocratic relatives and win the hand of the virtuous milkmaid. For the sake of completeness, though, here's what the Lincolns missed:

Asa asks Mary to marry him. She accepts. With Murcott, Asa slips into Coyle's office, smashes open a cabinet with an ax, and finds the paper that absolves Sir Edward of debt. Coyle confronts them. Asa shows what he's found, then tells Coyle he must not only let Sir Edward know he is free of this debt but also pay off the baronet's other debts with "money that stuck to your fingers naturally while passing through your hands." He also tells Coyle he must apologize to Florence "for having the darned impudence to propose for her hand." Finally, Coyle must resign his stewardship of Trenchard Manor, installing Murcott in his place. Murcott vows to "conquer the demon drink."

Coyle does as he's told, knowing the alternative is prison. A jubilant Sir Edward grants Florence's hand in marriage to Harry, and Mary's to Asa. Georgina marries Dundreary and Augusta marries the man she dropped for Asa. Four of the servants pair off and marry. Florence addresses the audience: "I am sure you will not regret your kindness shown to Our American Cousin. But don't go yet, pray—for Lord Dundreary has a word to say." Dundreary sneezes. "That's the idea," he says, and the curtain falls.

[Update, Feb. 19: In a blog post ("A Sort Of Defense"), Richard Byrne grumps rudely about this column but then provides some interesting information about the play and its star Laura Keene, whom he identifies correctly as "the first female entrepreneur in the bumptious world of New York theater." According to Byrne, the comedy presented before Lincoln (which would be pretty close to the text I worked from) bore very little relation to the play as written by Taylor: "We can't really know much about how good or bad Taylor's version of Our American Cousin was because we don't have a copy of his original script." Point taken, though I'd argue that the judgment of the play's original New York male lead that the original "possessed but little literary merit" does provide a small hint. At any rate, my interest here was in recreating as vividly as possible Lincoln's theatrical experience, not in exploring what the play was like years before Lincoln saw it.]

Correction, Feb. 24, 2009: This article originally misspelled the name of the family at the center of Our American Cousin. The correct spelling is Trenchard. (Return to the first corrected sentence.)

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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