Friday, February 13, 2009

Our American Cousin: A Sort of Defense

As far as cultural criticism goes, Slate has -- in its 13 years of existence -- been dedicated to the proposition that lazy and superficial snark is the optimal mode of discourse. (I wrote about this a bit in my article about the web magazine in the Boston Phoenix back in 2003.)

Not much has changed. For instance, let's examine one of Slate's contributions to the 200th anniversary of Abraham' Lincoln's birth this week: Timothy Noah's "belated review" of Our American Cousin, the play that Lincoln was watching as he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.

It's an oh-so-Slate experience. The play, it turns out, is "terrible." Noah adds that its author, Tom Taylor, was "widely excoriated as a hack" roughly 35 years after that tragic performance at Ford's Theatre for which it is remembered. (Ford's Theatre, by the way, has now reopened after a few years of rehab. Full review next weekend.)

Before he launches into a snarky plot summation of the play, Noah writes:

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.

Insert heavy sigh here. There are so many things going wrong here that I'm frankly astonished. (And we'll get to all of them in a moment.) But larger questions loom: What precisely is the point of this exercise? How is it educating the reader at all?

I ask because -- when you scratch a bit below the surface -- there are any number of very interesting things lurking in any exploration of Our American Cousin. About theater. About women's history in American theatre. About Lincoln.

First, let's take the merits of the play -- a discussion that Noah flubs comprehensively. No, I am not going to say that Our American Cousin is some sort of neglected classic. But 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.

Here's why we don't have it. According to Welford Dunaway Taylor, who edited an edition of the play published in 1990 (Beacham Publishing), Our American Cousin was written by Tom Taylor in 1851 as a melodrama based on his experience of the cultural clashes imported by numerous American visitors to the famous exhibition of Britain's Victorian culture at Crystal Palace in 1851. He sold to a British producer for 80 pounds, but that producer never put the show on in Britain. The playwright gave the American rights to Joshua Silsbee -- the American actor for whom Taylor wrote the main part of Asa Trenchard (the "American cousin").

When Silsbee died without the play being done, Taylor tried again -- assigning a British journalist to find a buyer for the play. That journalist found Laura Keene, whose name is forever linked to Lincoln's assassination as the actress who was featured in the production at which the president was killed. (That's her name in big letters on the playbill above from that fatal night.)

Keene's story is one of the most interesting in 19th Century American theatre without any mention of Lincoln or Ford's Theater. Indeed, her life has all the stuff of the American dream: Keene emigrated from Britain as a single mother with two children -- and she rose quickly on her talents as an actress to become the first female entrepreneur in the bumptious world of New York theatre. (There is an excellent account of her astonishing and fleetingly successful career as a theater mogul in Faye E. Dudden's Women in the American Theatre: Actresses and Audiences 1790-1870, published in 1994 by Yale University Press.)

But back to that lost script. Keene was always desperate for new material to fill her calendar, so she bought the play lock, stock and barrel for $1000. (Dudden writes that Keene's "most pressing problem was the never-ending struggle to find the next new play, the next new draw.")

In his introduction to the 1990 edition, Welford Dunaway Taylor observes that when Keene took possession of Our American Cousin, she altered it greatly -- largely in an effort to get actors to play in it. Taylor's melodrama suddenly became a comedy. And some of the actors that agreed to take parts demanded permission to "gag" (i.e. "improvise") their parts to cull laughs from the audience.

The actor who took the part of the lisping and effeminate Lord Dundreary, for instance, managed to "gag" his part from a mere 47 lines to become the center of the comic business of the play -- actually displacing the "American cousin." Edward Askew Sothern became a star as he did so, and much of the play's continuing popularity from its New York opening in 1858 and past 1865 to Keene's death in 1873, came not from Taylor but from the new funny business that Sothern and the rest of the original cast wove into the British play about a funny talkin' American in Britain. (So the play that Noah synopsizes is likely less the play written by Taylor than it is a sort of collaboration -- or collision -- between playwright and ensemble.)

Even on the night of Lincoln's assassination, the actors found ways to ham it up in topical ways. The end of the war a few days before the April 14th performance -- and the end of the conscription of troops -- occasioned this bit of ad-libbed nonsense between Dundreary and a female character:

GEORGINA: If you please, ask the dairy maid to let me have a seat in the dairy. I am afraid of the draft here.
DUNDREARY: Don't be alarmed. There is no more draft.

The Dundreary character in particular became a staple of American culture -- inspiring numerous spinoffs and ripoffs. Which brings us to Abraham Lincoln -- and why he might have liked Our American Cousin.

The cult of Lincoln loves to drone on and on about his love of Shakespeare -- and he certainly was fond of the historical tragedies. But you don't hear much about Lincoln quoting the Bard's comedies. His tastes in humor ran in a coarser and folksier vein -- such as the comic epistlatory fiction of David Ross Locke, who wrote under the nom de plume "Rev. Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby." The Nasby letters were stinging satires of the Democratic party and its willingness to compromise with the rebels (a sampling here), and Lincoln loved to read them aloud to Cabinet members and other guests -- many of whom loathed the experience.

The comedy of Our American Cousin runs largely in that vein. Silly physical comedy. Wordplay that emphasizes the rich descriptive vulgarity of American speech -- and central characters who prick at the puffery of "Old Europe" and celebrate the fair play and common sense of the American character. The perfect light-hearted nonsense for a war-weary president.

So far from worrying, as Noah does, about the "aesthetic experience" that Lincoln had in his last hours, it's easy to see that he was likely after some good old-fashioned and utterly familiar comic relief.

And when you look more deeply into it, there are some fascinating stories as well.

(Playbill image from the Library of Congress.)

12 comments:

Confluence City said...

This is a terrific essay. I think most of us who came up writing for the alternative press know something about laziness and snark as excuses for a prose style, but I am now with you on not tolerating it. I usually vote with my eyes by looking away from laziness and snark (you should never have to see what they have done with our old RFT), but this campaign speech of yours seems properly motivated and fair - which is to say, properly cruel.

The Book Blogger said...

Slate is a conundrum for me. I usually find myself drawn by its headlines, and then when I crawl into the article it can vanish, leaving me gasping in the desert again. In the first three years of its life it was known by an anagram, Stale, and I think the product today may be some sort of pained reaction: the editors decided it was going to be hip, by golly. I like Slate often enough, but I take your point.

As for the play, topical humor doesn't travel well over time. I work with the words of a female playwright who wrote between 1694 and 1720 and often packed houses with material that -- at least as far as any expert can tell (no one else gets it) -- is pretty thin soup. So what made it great? Sharp actors, first of all, and timeliness. For example, a spare political comment that seems a given from the perspective of those of us who know the outcome can be daring and even scandalous in its day. And of course plays of those eras were not performed passively. The audience hooted, roared, threw fruit (and they say we're not primates). I don't know if they were still throwing things in Lincoln's time, but I'm certain that theatre was an interactive experience that today's young'uns think was invented with The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Singalong Sound of Music.

This is such a great post...

Steve Pick said...

Richard, thanks for pointing me to this piece. Honestly, I never knew all that stuff - pretty much all I know about theater (and it ain't that much) assumes the whole mess restarted in the 20th Century after some early Greek and 16th Century English models paved the way.

As ever, there are so many more things to learn.

Lives in Washington DC said...

Thanks all for the early notices. :)

Confluence City said...

I just remembered where I had heard Tim Noah's name. He sometimes joined Slate's email roundtable on The Sopranos. Those were really entertaining exchanges and are probably archived on Slate for Soprano's junkies. At least one of the correspondents every week was a crime reporter with Mafia sources, so there was always some vetting for veracity that I found fascinating, as someone with no Mafia sources. No Italian Americans ones.

Mark Trainer said...

This is a great read, Rich. Thanks for it!

Anonymous said...

Have you ever engaged in snarkiness. Richard? That is, have you ever diminished another person because it was cute and appeared smart to do so? And, if so, have you ever wondered what good an apology might do?

Lives in Washington DC said...

Hi, David Denby! Thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

Wow. That was snarky, wasn't it? That is: You problematize snark in a way that allies you with David Denby; I ask you if you have ever done it yourself; you reply in a way that is whipsmart and ultra-cool.

I am trying to think of you--a person who does, after all, write for The Nation and has edited The Chronicle--as somehow better than the reflexively snide assholes who engage in snark. (Denby doesn't understand the term, and we both know it, but wasn't it cute to drop his name? Fuck--he writes for THE New Yorker [!!], and what is less edgy-cool than that? )

Why did you even bother interrogating snarkiness (cf. Slate argument) if only to deflect personal responsibility with a sarcastic joke-ette? Come ON, Rich--you are up to the humiliating task of a little tua culpa, no?

Lives in Washington DC said...

Guess I should have written:

"Hi, J.D.S.! How's the 15th state in the union? Wow, you're still sore about something seven years old. So much so that you're posting anonymously to my blog. But alas the internet isn't always so anonymous. Well, don't let me stop you. But don't expect any apologies. I criticized 'lazy and superficial snark.' Snark in itself is not a sin in my book."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I agree that Noah's post was dismissive in a classic Slate fashion.

A few factual issues, however. Silsbee never had rights to the play, but was merely an actor in Benjamin Webster's company. Webster apparently let Silsbee have a copy at some point, but the latter never had any right to produce it and, indeed, died before it was presented.

However, Silsbee's manuscript lay at the heart of one of two copyright cases (Keene v. Wheatley) fought over the play. In that case, the defendants were ordered to cease production because their manuscript was obtained illegaly. In the same case, Joseph Jefferson is identified as the primary author of the alterations to the script.

The second case, Keene v. Kimball, ruled that the defendants had a right to produce the play since they'd obtained their "script" by repeated attendance at the plaintiff's production, which they memorized, a bad copyright decision that was overturned 20 years later in Tompkins v. Halleck.

Lives in Washington DC said...

Thanks, Anonymous. Wish you weren't anonymous. As far as the original rights, I was going from account in the foreword by Welford Dunaway Taylor to his edition of Our American Cousin. The other two cases are mostly new to me, but thanks for weighing in... It might be worth writing something about it yourself somewhere... :)