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What Play Was Lincoln Watching?

By April 16, 2012

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Most of us probably know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. And many of us even know the name of the playhouse: the Ford Theater. However, I don't bump into too many people who are familiar with the play Lincoln was watching that fateful night on April 14th, 1865.

Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor was the play Lincoln watched the night of his assassination. John Wilkes Booth, in addition to being a conspirator, was a working actor, so he knew that the light hearted comedy would garner loud belly laughs from the audience, providing the ideal moment in which to muffle the blast of a pistol. (He also anticipated a large crowd because special fliers had been made to announce that the president would be in attendance -- not the best security measure in retrospect.)

Our American Cousin is a silly tale in three acts about a "uncivilized" American who arrives in England to claim a old British manor. Romantic subplots and jokes at the expense of both lower and upper ecominc classes ensue. When the play was first performed in the 1850s, one of the supporting characters (the ridiculous Lord Dundreary) became so popular, that the actor who originated the role, E. A. Sothern, began creating a string of ad libs to meet the demands of the humor-craving audience. According to many historians, Booth knew the play well, and knew that a certain line of dialogue in Act Three would propel the audience into its loudest burst of laughter. When the leading actor chastised another character with the line, "you sockdologizing old man-trap!" that is when Booth attacked, and sadly, the rest is history.

Our About.com guides to history feature many archived images from the Civil War. Check out an early photograph of the box used byPresident Lincoln at Ford's Theater.


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