Our American Cousin
Our American Cousin is a three-act play by English playwright Tom Taylor. The play is a farce whose plot is based on the introduction of an awkward, boorish, but honest American, Asa Trenchard, to his aristocratic English relatives when he goes to England to claim the family estate. The play first premiered at Laura Keene's Theatre in New York City on October 15, 1858, and the title character was first played by Joseph Jefferson. Although the play achieved great renown during its first few years and remained very popular throughout the second half of the 19th century, it is best remembered as the play U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was attending in Ford's Theatre when he was assassinated by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.
Theatrical acclaim and "Lord Dundreary"
Among Our American Cousin's cast was British actor Edward Askew Sothern, playing Lord Dundreary, a caricature of a brainless English nobleman. Sothern had already achieved fame on the New York stage in the play Camille in 1856, and had been reluctant to take on the role because he felt that it was too small and unimportant. He mentioned his qualms to his friend Joseph Jefferson, who had been cast in the lead role, and Jefferson supposedly responded with the famous line: "There are no small parts, only small actors."
Our American Cousin premiered in New York on October 15, 1858. After several weeks of performances, Sothern began portraying the role more broadly, as a lisping, skipping, eccentric, weak-minded fop prone to nonsensical references to sayings of his "bwother" Sam. His ad-libs were a sensation, earning good notices for his physical comedy and spawning much imitation and mockery in both the United States and England. Sothern gradually expanded the role, adding gags and business until it became the central figure of the play. The most famous scene involved Dundreary reading a letter from his even sillier brother. The play ran for 150 nights, which was very successful for a New York run at the time. Sothern made his London debut in the role when the play ran for 496 performances at the Haymarket Theatre in 1861, earning rave reviews. The Athenaeum wrote, "it is certainly the funniest thing in the world... a vile caricature of a vain nobleman, intensely ignorant, and extremely indolent".
"Dundrearyisms", twisted aphorisms in the style of Lord Dundreary (e.g. "birds of a feather gather no moss"), enjoyed a brief vogue. And the character's style of beard — long, bushy sideburns — gave the English language the word "dundrearies".
Dundreary became a popular recurring character, and Sothern successfully revived the play many times, making Dundreary by far his most famous role.
It wasn't long before the success of this play inspired an imitation, Charles Gayler's Our Female American Cousin (which opened in New York City in January 1859). None of the characters from the original play appeared in this comedy, which audiences at the time complained 'lacked the complex eroticism of the original'.
A number of sequel plays to Our American Cousin were written, all featuring several characters from the original, and focusing on the Lord Dundreary character. The first was Charles Gayler's Our American Cousin at Home, or, Lord Dundreary Abroad (which premiered in Buffalo, New York, in November 1860, and had its New York City debut the following May ). Later sequels included Henry James Byron's Dundreary Married and Done For, and John Oxenford's Brother Sam (1862; revived in 1865), a play about Dundreary's brother.
Principal roles and original cast
- Asa Trenchard (a rustic American) – Joseph Jefferson
- Sir Edward Trenchard (a baronet) – Edwin Varrey
- Florence Trenchard (his daughter) – Laura Keene
- Mary Meredith (a poor cousin) – Sara Stevens
- Lord Dundreary (an idiotic English nobleman) – E. A. Sothern
- Mr. Coyle (a businessman) – J.G. Burnett
- Abel Murcott (his clerk) – C.W. Couldock
- Lt. Harry Vernon (of the Royal Navy) – M. Levick
- Mr. Binny (a butler) – Mr. Peters
- Mrs. Mountchessington – Mary Wells
- Augusta (her daughter) – E. Germon
- Georgina (another daughter) – Mrs. Sothern
The reproduction playbill pictured here is not the actual playbill from April 14. 1865. Ford's Theatre only found out about President Lincoln's intentions to attend the play on that very day. The original posters from that evening did not have Lincoln's name on it.
In the drawing room at Trenchard Manor, the servants remark on their employer's poor financial circumstances. Florence Trenchard, an aristocratic young beauty, loves Lieutenant Harry Vernon of the Royal Navy, but she is unable to marry him until he progresses to a higher rank. She receives a letter from her brother Ned, who is currently in the United States. Ned has met some rustic cousins from a branch of the family that had immigrated to America two centuries earlier. They related to Ned that Great-Uncle Mark Trenchard had, after angrily disinheriting his children and leaving England years ago, found these cousins in Brattleboro, Vermont. He had moved in with them and eventually made Asa, one of the sons, heir to his property in England. Asa is now sailing to England to claim the estate.
Asa is noisy, coarse, and vulgar, but honestly forthright and colourful. The English Trenchards are alternately amused and appalled by this Vermont cousin. Richard Coyle, agent of the estate, meets with Sir Edward Trenchard (Florence's father) and tells the baronet that the family faces bankruptcy unless they can repay a debt to Coyle. Coyle is concealing the evidence that the loan had been repaid long ago by Sir Edward's late father. Coyle suggests that the loan would be satisfied if he may marry Florence, who detests him. Meanwhile, Asa and the butler, Binny, try to understand each other's unfamiliar ways, as Asa tries to understand what the purpose of a shower might be, dousing himself while fully clothed.
Mrs. Mountchessington is staying at Trenchard Manor. She advises Augusta, her daughter, to be attentive to the presumably wealthy Vermont "savage". Meanwhile, her other daughter Georgina is courting an imbecilic nobleman named Dundreary by pretending to be ill. Florence's old tutor, the unhappy alcoholic Abel Murcott, warns her that Coyle intends to marry her. Asa overhears this and offers Florence his help. Murcott is Coyle's clerk and has found proof that Florence's late grandfather paid off the loan to Coyle.
Florence and Asa visit her cousin, Mary Meredith. Mary is the granddaughter of old Mark Trenchard, who left his estate to Asa. Mary is very poor and has been raised as a humble dairy maid. Asa doesn't care about her social status and is attracted to her. Florence has not been able to bring herself to tell Mary that her grandfather's fortune had been left to Asa. Florence tells Asa that she loves Harry, who needs a good assignment to a ship. Asa uses his country wile to persuade Dundreary to help Harry get a ship. Meanwhile, Coyle has been up to no good, and the bailiffs arrive at Trenchard Manor.
At her dairy, Asa tells Mary about her grandfather in America, but he fibs about the end of the tale: He says that old Mark Trenchard changed his mind about disinheriting his English children and burned his Will. Asa promptly burns the Will himself. Florence discovers this and points it out to Mary, saying: "It means that he is a true hero, and he loves you, you little rogue." Meanwhile, Mrs. Mountchessington still hopes that Asa will propose to Augusta. When Asa tells them that Mark Trenchard had left Mary his fortune, Augusta and Mrs. Mountchessington are quite rude, but Asa stands up for himself.
Asa proposes to Mary and is happily accepted. He then sneaks into Coyle's office with Murcott and retrieves the paper that shows that the debt was paid. Asa confronts Coyle and insists that Coyle must pay off Sir Edward's other debts, with his doubtless ill-gotten gains, and also apologize to Florence for trying to force her into marriage. He also demands Coyle's resignation as the steward of Trenchard Manor, making Murcott steward instead. Murcott is so pleased that he vows to stop drinking. Coyle has no choice but to do all this. Florence marries Harry, Dundreary marries Georgina, and Augusta marries an old beau. Even the servants marry.
The Lincoln assassination
The play's most famous performance was at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1865. Halfway through Act III, Scene 2, the character of Asa Trenchard, played that night by Harry Hawk, utters this line, considered one of the play's funniest, to Mrs. Mountchessington:
|“||Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.||”|
During the ensuing laughter, John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor and Confederate sympathizer, who was not a member of the play's cast, fatally shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of his head. Familiar with the play, Booth chose that moment in the hope that the sound of the audience's laughter would mask the sound of his gunshot. Booth later leapt from Lincoln's box to the stage and made his escape through the back of the theater to a horse he had left waiting in the alley. That night, the remainder of the play was suspended.
- Havard, Bernard (2008), Walnut Street Theatre, Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, p. 40, ISBN 978-0-7385-5770-0.
- Pemberton, T. Edgar (1890), A Memoir of Edward Askew Sothern, London: Richard Bentley and Son, p. 319.
- Holder, Heidi J. (2004),"Sothern, Edward Askew (1826–1881)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
- "Edward Askew Sothern", Virtual American Biographies (2001).
- The Athenaeum, 16 November 1861.
- "New-York daily tribune. (New-York [N.Y.]) 1842-1866, January 27, 1859, Image 1". New-York Daily Tribune. January 27, 1859. Retrieved 15 January 2013.
- Buffalo Daily Courier, 1 November 1860, 2 November 1860, 3 November 1860.
- Brown, T. Allston (1903), A History of the New York Stage, Volume I, New York: Dodd, Mead and Co, p. 450.
- Swanson, James (2006). Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, New York: Harper Collins, pp. 42–43. ISBN 978-0-06-051849-3
- Our American Cousin at Project Gutenberg
- The history of Our American Cousin and the legal issues surrounding its ownership.
- Modern look at the play, written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth.
- Audio recording of the play (from archive.org) by professional actors at LostPlays.com, including a recreation of the assassination moment
- Lincoln's last play; or, the continuing fascination with Our American Cousin from the Museum of the City of New York Collections blog