TWO NOTORIOUS THEATRICAL PERFORMANCES
Think of how joyous that Friday night must have been.
Only five days earlier, the four-year war had ended. Now at last there could be unmitigated happiness. That was especially true in the nation’s capital, where politics is always the main event.
This night, however, with the work week ended for many and the weekend here, everyone was ready to celebrate. What better way to enjoy oneself than to take in Tom Taylor’s smash-hit comedy, still packing in audiences after seven years? Theatergoers were in the perfect mood to laugh their heads off.
And it wasn’t just the audience who was up for the performance. Imagine how excited the cast had to be. Doing a show when everyone’s in a good mood is always a pleasure – but performing it for no less than the President of the United States and The First Lady had to be an extra thrill and would make for an especially hot house.
So happiness reigned and poured on April 14, 1865, as a packed house in Ford’s Theatre was ready for the curtain to go up on Laura Keene’s production of OUR AMERICAN COUSIN.
That is, of course until Act III, Scene Two, after our American cousin Asa Trenchard frankly told one of his English relatives “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — sockdologizing old man-trap.”
We all know what happened after that.
But did you know that John Wilkes Booth, a rather successful stage actor, had already performed multiple times in OUR AMERICAN COUSIN? He knew well where the play’s biggest laugh was, and was hoping it might cover the sound of the shot.
These events only take us to page 115 of Thomas A. Bogar’s brilliant 375-page book BACKSTAGE AT THE LINCOLN ASSASSINATION. I read the tome when it was published two years ago, but given that the 150th anniversary of the tragedy was approaching I read it once more and was again equally mesmerized.
Bogar’s subtitle is “The Untold Story of The Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre,” but he’s here to tell it. You’ve heard of The Hollywood Ten, The Catonsville Nine and The Secaucus Seven? Well, here we have The Ford’s Forty-Six --
meaning the number of people who were on the payroll at the theater that night. Because the government agents assigned to the case wanted to answer the question asked after every assassination -- did the killer act alone? – each person on the premises that night was immediately suspect.
But, you say, every American is innocent until proven guilty. Well, that apparently wasn’t the case after the nation’s first presidential assassination. Prosecutors grilled backstage personnel to find if anyone had aided Booth. The actors’
possessions were impounded and even their mail was reverted to the War Department where it was carefully read. The performers were told to stay in Washington and check in with the legal authorities every day.
Laura Keene, however, boarded a train for Harrisburg and was arrested en route. We can see why she may have been unwilling to face any questioning, for she had once been Booth’s lover.
John Ford, the theater’s owner and manager, was held in custody for thirty-nine days. The performers who had been known to be even casually friendly with Booth were held for a month. When they were finally released, people were waiting in the streets to stone them.
Nevertheless, even those who were hit with rocks were more fortunate than stagehand Ned Spangler. Immediately following the assassination, he reminded people that everything had happened so fast that they may have mistaken the gunman for someone else. “You don’t know it’s Booth,” he said -- words that were to ruin his life.
As for the actors, their problems were just beginning. As Bogar writes, “How would they be regarded in each new city by a new audience? Would anyone realize that they had been there ‘that night?’ Would newspaper reviews dredge up the event? Should they give interviews about it?”
One of the actors, John Matthews, “was afraid to pick up a paper and see his name in print for the rest of his life.” Charles Byrne, who’d wanted to be an actor and nothing else since childhood, vowed that he would never again see a play, let alone act in one. John Dyott, who’d caught the program that had fallen from Lincoln’s hand, refused an offer of $100 for it. After he died, his estate was only able to sell it for $4.19.
Keene immediately dropped OUR AMERICAN COUSIN from her repertoire, but did reinsert it four years later. We’ll never know how much the assassination impacted her, but we do know that she died a mere eight years later at only forty-seven.
Ford’s Theatre is almost a character in Bogar’s book. It was essentially a brand-new playhouse, for it had suffered a fire only twenty-eight months earlier and had to be rebuilt. That wouldn’t be easy, for with a war on, wood was at a premium. Ford couldn’t get as much as he required and had to petition to get the rest. He was finally granted what he needed by – yes – President Lincoln. And just as men go from dust to dust, Ford’s almost went from fire to fire, because many thought that after the assassination the theater should have been burned to the ground.
The federal authorities didn’t want that at all. They instead scheduled on Saturday, April 22 what may well have been the strangest command performance in the history of world theater.
Actually, it wasn’t intended as a performance, but as more of a reenactment. The actors were in street clothes, because everyone’s costume had been impounded. The play was to proceed from beginning to the point of the assassination, but not for a conventional audience. The only ones watching were detectives and federal authorities who were planted all around the house to see if they could find any additional information on what had happened.
They especially populated the wings so that they could better study each move that everyone made. Whenever a scene change was called for, they wanted to glen if there was suddenly enough activity that nobody would have particularly noticed someone’s sneaking in. The play stopped so that measurements could be taken.
Had one of the forty-six helped Booth enter? Throughout the “performance,” authorities were waiting for one or more of the actors or stagehands to crack and admit guilt.
Can you begin to imagine how the actors felt doing this? Could any of the sixteen in the cast have given the same performance each had been delivering all along? How many simply said their lines and wished the damn thing would be over? To think that the last time they’d done this comedy, they’d received waves of titanic laughs – and now they were getting no laughs at all, but scowled, stern faces only feet away.
Finally, the “performance” ended – and that’s when Spangler was officially arrested. In the rush to judgment, he was charged as an accomplice, jailed, and for two straight weeks was forced to wear a canvas bag over his head and fed through a hole. Spangler would eventually be sentenced to six years of hard labor and wasn’t pardoned by President Andrew Johnson until he’d served four of them.
In the weeks that followed the assassination, Ford tried to sell his theater, but had no takers. He kept it closed for almost three months before deciding on a July 10 re-opening. That night, as a 7:45 p.m. curtain approached, federal authorities arrived at 5:30 p.m. and prevented the show from happening.
Ford didn’t want any more headaches. Two weeks later, he sold the place. Here’s the irony: it was purchased by the government, which transformed it into The Bureau of Rebel Archives and Records. All information relevant to the Confederacy was stored there.
And what of Edwin Booth, John Wilkes’ innocent brother who had been enjoying a terrific stage career of his own? (In fact, he’s the one for whom our Booth Theatre is named.) Edwin didn’t appear on stage for a full nine months, and although he eventually appeared in productions produced by Ford, he refused to ever perform again in the nation’s capital. He died twenty-eight years later at the age of fifty-nine, and to add to the eeriness, on the day of his funeral, Ford’s Theatre just happened to collapse.
There’s plenty more in BACKSTAGE AT THE LINCOLN ASSASSINATION – including the inevitable opinion from a local pastor who told his congregants that he wished “that Mr. Lincoln had fallen elsewhere than the very gates of hell.”
He meant a theater.
— Peter Filichia