Smithsonian Folklife Festival

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a two-week-long celebration of the circus arts. The program runs from June 29-July 4 and July 5-9 and features performances, workshops, and presentations that explore the cultural legacy of the circus and the contemporary practice of the circus arts. The big story in the circus world this year has been the shuttering of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in May, which brought to an end a touring tradition that extended all the way back to 1872. Despite the passing of this veritable institution of American entertainment, the festival shows that the circus arts are alive and well in the United States. The festival includes a wide array of circus groups, ranging from youth circuses such as Circus Smirkus and the Sailor Circus to socially-conscious circus organizations like Circus Harmony and the inspiring Clowns Without Borders. The presence of performance ensembles like the Happenstance Theater and Wise Fool suggest some new directions in circus arts, and the overall program is a testament to the remarkable durability and vitality of the circus in the United States. Perhaps the greatest asset of the American circus has been its almost endless capacity for reinvention and understanding its long and varied history suggests that there is a promising future for this unique brand of entertainment.

As an advisory scholar to the Folklife Festival, I will be exploring the cultural heritage of the American circus with a mixed group of performers, academics, and enthusiasts on the National Mall during the second week of the festival (July 5-9). We will be located in the “Circus Stories” pavilion next to the Big Top and there will be presentations and discussions from 12-5pm each day, weather permitting. For all of the details about the this year’s Folklife Festival, see their website here!

Library of Congress

Lincoln Assassination Playbills

Harry Hawk

Rather unfortunately, an evening performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on April 15, 1865 is perhaps the most remarked upon theatrical event in American history. Harry Hawk, who played the “cousin” character Asa Trenchard, delivered this risible line in Act II: “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.” John Wilkes Booth ostensibly hoped that the ensuing laughter would cover the sound of his gun, and shot the President as he enjoyed a hearty laugh at the scene. Lincoln slumped forward as Booth jumped onstage and made a dramatic escape from the theatre. Although he survived the night, the wound was mortal and Lincoln passed away a little after seven the following morning. In the wake of the President’s shocking death, the public evinced a strong desire for mementos and playbills for the infamous performance proved to be one particularly valued keepsake. Years later and in a similar spirit, Harry Hawk assembled this montage of photographs and documents memorializing the tragic evening.

Ms Thr 888 (click to enlarge)

Although the portraits are mostly of theatrical professionals connected to the performance, Henry Polkinhorn, owner of the print shop printer used by Ford’s Theatre is also pictured in the middle of the bottom row. The letter at center by Hawk testifies that the playbill above is an original April 14 bill, but it was in fact printed soon after the fact by Polkinhorn, the giveaway being the broken “E” in the line dedicated to Laura Keene.

John B. Wright

Indeed, authentic original playbills for the April 14 performance are few and far between amidst the ensuing flood of reproductions. The Harvard Theatre Collection holds a remarkable bound volume of playbills for the 1864-65 season at Ford’s Theatre that was assembled by stage manager John B. Wright. A letter tipped in to the front of the volume explains that there were actually two different issues of the playbill printed on April 14. When Wright was advised of the President’s patronage that morning, he went to Polkinhorn’s shop to have the lyrics for a patriotic song, “Honor to Our Soldiers,” added to the bill. When he arrived, the first version was already in the process of being printed. The press was stopped and the necessary changes to the form were made so that the remainder of the bills were printed with the added stanza. Wright took all of the bills that had been printed with him back to the theatre so both versions were posted and distributed that fateful day. The Harvard Theatre Collection holds two examples of the first type and one of the second issue (below) with the additional “patriotic song and chorus.”

Original | Reproduction

Note the fully formed “E” in KEENE in contrast to the broken top beak of the “E” so commonly found in later reproductions. For whatever reason, when Polkinhorn began reprinting the playbills as souvenirs after the assassination he used the first of the two original versions and this reprinting with the broken “E” subsequently became confused with the true original playbills. Polkinhorn’s choice and the seeming rarity of the stanza edition has meant that this version was not widely reproduced. Indeed, I would be interested to hear from our readers about whether any other original stanza playbills are known. For a full exploration and analysis of the rather convoluted history of this fascinating bit of Americana, see Walter Brenner’s study, to which this post is much indebted.

Trouble with Titles, Part I

One bit of documentation that I love coming across in an archive is evidence of an author’s struggle with finding the right title for a given work. Last week, I blogged about William Gibson’s celebrated work The Miracle Worker, which won a variety of awards in its various forms for television, stage, and screen. I have since come across this sheet in his archive, which ostensibly reflects Gibson’s struggle to find the right title for the work.

MS Thr 967 (click to enlarge)

Others may disagree, but I rather doubt the work would have found as much success if “With the Tongues of Angels” was its title. It’s also interesting to note that the eventual title is printed and crossed out at center, which suggests that Gibson was looking for a new one. The boxes around “The Deliverers” or “The Children” suggest that they were preferred substitutes. In any case, I just think it’s interesting to see how creative people tackle the critical decision of titling there work, and to that end we’ll post more material in this vein as we come across it.

William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker

Tonight at 7pm the Harvard Film Archive is hosting the first film in a series celebrating the 75th anniversary of Houghton Library. The films are all connected in one way or another to significant collections housed at the library, in this case the William Gibson papers. Gibson’s The Miracle Worker was a truly remarkable work that went through several iterations, with each version seemingly more successful than that which preceded it. The story centers on how Anne Sullivan, a partially-blind teacher, helped a young Helen Keller to overcome the isolation that had characterized her blind-deaf life and communicate with the outside world. Gibson, inspired by the Sullivan letters that were published in Helen Keller’s classic autobiography about their first months together, initially wrote a treatment meant to accompany a performance by a solo dancer, . When plans for that project evaporated, he shelved the spare text until 1956, when his friend and director Arthur Penn approached him about writing a script for a new television show on CBS called Playhouse 90. At the time, Gibson did not even own a television, but was able to produce what he later described as a “skimpy piece of writing” that was brought to air on February 7, 1956.

MS Thr 967

The teleplay, a corrected draft of which appears above, earned Gibson an Emmy nomination, although he lost to another Playhouse 90 production written by Rod Sterling. Nevertheless, the popularity of the piece and his success the following year with Two for the See Saw, Gibson’s first Broadway production, enabled him to revisit the script and secure backing for a proper theatrical run.

As Gibson got to work revising the teleplay for the stage, he was also in contact with Helen Keller. In an 1957 letter to Gibson, she praised his work for the attention that it brought to the American Federation for the Blind. Keller did have some detailed “notes and corrections” on the script that Gibson had sent her, which she included with her letter.

(click to enlarge)

What emerges clearly in these suggestions is her rectitude and an incredible attention to usage and grammar. Helen Keller hated contractions!

MS Thr 894

The play opened at the Playhouse Theater on October 19, 1959 with Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller. It was a smash hit, running for 719 performances and earning Tony Awards for Bancroft, Gibson, and director Arthur Penn. The singular success of the play almost immediately led to a bidding war over the film rights, but Gibson refused all offers in an attempt to retain control over the production of what was clearly a very profitable franchise. Gibson continued to tinker with the story and eventually came to an agreement with United Artists to produce the film, for which he received an unprecedented $150,000. Critically, Gibson was able to ensure that Arthur Penn would direct and the two almost immediately began to battle with the studio over casting. It was their desire to have Bancroft and Duke reprise their Broadway roles, but the studio wanted Elizabeth Taylor to play Sullivan and thought that the now fifteen-year-old Patty Duke was too old to play the young Helen Keller. Gibson and Penn won out in the end, and the film was released in the summer of 1962 to great acclaim. Although neither won, both Gibson and Penn were nominated for Academy Awards. Anne Bancroft won for Best Actress and Patty Duke became the then youngest winner of an Oscar as the Best Supporting Actress.

The success of The Miracle Worker cycle was in many respects remarkable, but to date we do not have a good understanding of how the text evolved from teleplay to stage play to screenplay. As the William Gibson papers have multiple drafts of the various iterations, we hope that this screening might prompt further study of this fascinating and multifaceted work.

Philosophaster: A 400th Anniversary

Ms Thr 10

It is rare that we can mark a significant anniversary for a production in such style! The earliest manuscript play in the Harvard Theatre Collection is Philosophaster, an academic comedy by Robert Burton that was performed for the first and likely only time in the Hall of Christ Church, Oxford, on February 16, 1617. Almost everything we know of the play is derived from three manuscripts, two of which are held by Houghton Library. The most significant of these, cataloged as Ms Thr 10, is the volume pictured at left, which scholars with much more expertise in paleography than I believe is written in Burton’s hand. Another manuscript version of the play (MS. V.a.315) is held by the Folger Library, and it is presumed to haven been copied from the Harvard manuscript (or from another now lost source). The third extant contemporary source, Ms Thr 10.1, is a manuscript book by Thomas Goffe, which contains sides for four plays that he acted in as a student at Oxford. It includes lines for the role of Polupragmaticus (The Busybody) in Philosophaster. There are some differences between the 250 lines in Goffe’s playbook and the extant play manuscripts, although this is hardly surprising insomuch as the two manuscript versions refer to the success of the performance and were composed after the fact. As we presume that this is Goffe’s prompt copy for the actual performance, it simply suggests that Burton refined the play as he wrote it in Ms Thr 10.

Philosophaster was part of the flowering of so-called academic or Latin drama that began in the mid-sixteenth century and ended with the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. It is perhaps needless to say that this aspect of English theatrical history has received far less attention than the vernacular drama of the time (Shakespeare, Jonson, etc.). The academic moniker derives from the fact that these plays were largely written by scholars for audiences at English universities while the Latin descriptor explains itself.

STC 4163 (B)

Robert Burton (1577-1640) was a prototypical Renaissance scholar, now best remembered for The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), a sprawling and learned work that was a survey of sorts of human emotions with an emphasis upon the dynamics of what we would now describe as depression. This engraving of Burton is taken from the spectacular frontispiece to the 1638 edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, one of many that was printed during his lifetime as he continuously revised and expanded his work. Beyond his wide-ranging scholarship, Burton worked as a vicar and a librarian and he ultimately spent the entirety of his career at Christ Church, a constituent college of the University of Oxford.

In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton defined philosophasters as “those licensed in the arts who have no art, those judged wise who have no wisdom and have no qualifications for a degree except desire.” (This translation of the original passage in Latin and all that follow are taken from Connie McQuillen’s 1993 edition of the play.) As the title page of the manuscript suggests, the play was first drafted in 1605, which was the year that Burton was awarded his MA. Philosophaster is thus a satire of seventeenth-century education that was written by a somewhat disgruntled graduate student and revised in 1615 by a scholar still struggling to make a name for himself and secure patronage.

click to enlarge

The plot centers on seven scholars who take over a university recently established by a local duke, where they outrageously abuse the students and townsmen until their duplicities are revealed by two wandering scholars. The seven philosophasters are stock characters that represent assorted academic disciplines, including a pedantic literary scholar, a sophist, a poetaster, and a mathematician. The two righteous scholars, Polumathes (All Learning) and Philobiblos (Lover of Books), advise the duke to hideously brand and cast out the philosophasters, and the play ends with an affirmation of the reformed university. Much of the humor of the play derives from the cynical banter between the seven spurious scholars. When one suggests that they need to leave for another university, the dialogue proceeds:

Pantomagus: As if the quick-witted would not be there also?

Simon Actus: Where then?

Polupragamticus: Freiburg in Breisgau or Copenhagen in Denmark, Prague in Bohemia, or Oxford in England.

Lodovicus Pantometer: I warn you to be careful if you’re considering England. Don’t go there without a wolf, fox, or bear.

Polupragamticus: Why is that?

Lodovicus Pantometer: Because of the many mastiffs there.

Polupragamticus: But why should I take along a bear or wolf?

Pantomagus: So the mastiffs can chase one of them and leave you alone.

Polupragamticus: You’re being silly. Do you want to visit an Italian school?

Simon Actus: No.

Polupragamticus: Why?

Simon Actus: Because the women there are more learned than we.

Polupragamticus: Why is that?

Simon Actus: Because they frequently sleep with monks and theologians who sprinkle them with dew and inspire a certain spirit.

The passage above as it appears in Burton’s manuscript.

The humor is both rather silly and intensively allusive, referring to a 15th-century dialogue by Giovanni Pontano (1426-1503) whose work would have been well-known to its academic audience. The overall tone and the prominent role that students played in the production suggests that Philosophaster was something akin to an early version of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, which similarly burlesque academic mores and university life. Burton’s manuscript is a rather remarkable survival, one that offers a window into the theatrical and academic world of the early seventeenth century. Even more exceptional is the fact that it was only ever performed once…on this evening four hundred years ago.

A short bibliography of Philosophaster appears below the fold. See also an earlier post on the Houghton Library blog by one of our student interns for additional information.

Continue reading “Philosophaster: A 400th Anniversary”

Underground Boston Theatergoing

On PBS tonight, the American Experience series will be featuring a new documentary that chronicles how Boston became the first city in the United States to construct a subway system. The first chapter of The Race Underground can be viewed here:

It is always striking to see how much opposition infrastructure projects like this engender, particularly when balanced against how important they are to our modern lives. We must confess to being mass-transit boosters, but has anybody really wished there were less convenient transportation options? In any case, the documentary describes how traffic congestion led to the construction of the Tremont Street Subway, which eventually became the Green Line. Construction began in the spring of 1895 and the first sections opened on September 1, 1897.

Boston Globe (November 27, 1898)

For the theatergoers of Boston, the new subway was particularly noticeable insomuch that it alleviated nightly traffic problems by removing streetcars from Termont and Boylston Streets and curtailing the crush of carriages that crowded downtown when the shows let out. Unfortunately, the subway proved so popular that the theater crowds were soon facing what the Boston Globe described as an “underground crush” in the subway. This entertaining article noted that the station just after the theaters let out was “a great time and place to observe people actuated by their more primitive impulses and instincts; for there, possessed solely by the desire of getting home as quickly as possible…men and women in rich and immaculate attire struggle and push with the meanest raiment, and almost every face is an index to an anxious, disappointed or angry state of mind.” And so, as it goes, solving one problem created several new ones.

The Diaries of Harry Watkins

TCS 18

Harry Watkins (1825-1894) was an actor and playwright who had long, if rather mediocre, career in the American theater. Indeed, his most notable legacy was neither a performance or a play, but a series of lively diaries he kept from 1845 to 1860 that offer a window into the mid-nineteenth century entertainment business. After Watkins passed, the thirteen volumes of diaries were kept by his daughter for a number of years, but when she fell are hard times, they were given to Maud Durbin Skinner. Her husband Otis Skinner was a celebrated actor and their daughter Cornelia Otis Skinner was a popular actress and author. Maud and Otis subsequently edited and published an abridged edition of the diaries as One Man in His Time (1938).

At length the Skinner Family papers, including Watkins’ journals, were given to the Harvard Theatre Collection. In 2012, Amy E. Hughes and Naomi Stubbs initiated a project to digitize, transcribe, and publish all 1200 pages of the diaries.

MS Thr 857

The digital images of the full run of the diaries can be found here, but a more useful (and word searchable!) full digital edition and one-volume print edition should be available by the end of the next year. In the meantime, the project is running a delightful Twitter feed as Harry Watkins, offering up daily excerpts from his diary exactly 171 years after he wrote it. Some of our favorites thus far:

Hamilton’s Address

Vice President-elect Mike Pence went to see the musical Hamilton last evening and was lustily booed by the audience. The cast also took to the stage at the end of the show to deliver a statement, which was read by actor Brandon Victor Dixon:

Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical, we really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show. This wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.

According to the New York Times, Pence heard the speech and left the theater smiling, though Donald Trump reacted with less equanimity.

I think reasonable people would agree that the hopeful and inclusive message offered by the cast of Hamilton was hardly rude, even if the behavior of the audience could be construed as such. Whatever the case, Trump’s tweet is notable for its evident naiveté. The notion that “proper” theater should be apolitical and/or simply comforting entertainment is a shibboleth. Given the broad acclaim that it has generated, there seems to be little doubt that Hamilton has been offering audiences a “safe and special” experience. Indeed, that the show is able to offer a progressive message and be wildly enjoyable belies the notion that politics and entertainment do not mix.

Beyond this, the President-elect might also look to history. Pence is hardly the first politician to be booed at a theater. One historical precedent that springs immediately to mind is an unfortunate evening that President-elect John Quincy Adams experienced at the Washington Theatre in 1825. The election of 1824 was a bruising four-way battle of candidates from across the ideological spectrum with strong bases of regional support. IN the end, no candidate received enough electoral votes to win outright, although Andrew Jackson (99 electoral votes and 40% popular vote) led John Quincy Adams (84 electoral votes and 30% popular vote) by a not insignificant margin. This meant that the House of Representatives would decide the election, and when it convened in early February 1825, Adams won on the first ballot with the support of the Speaker of the House Henry Clay. Jackson denounced the result as a “corrupt bargain,” and Adams was hounded by his supporters wherever he appeared. When President-elect Adams and his family went to the Washington Theatre to see the ballad opera Love in a Village, both the actors and the audience hectored him. Louis McClane, a Representative from Delaware, was also in attendance and wrote to his wife the next day describing the scene:

Last night it was announced that the P. elect would attend the theatre. I went, he was there & his family. In one or two of the comic songs some allusion was made to the election of the 9th which was rec’d with death like silence. After some time, a song called the “Hunters of Kentucky” was sung, alluding to the conduct of Jackson at New Orleans–at this a universal shout carried all around by repeated cheering for some minutes & I really feared it would have been difficult to quell it. It was an awful knell for the Pres elect-& he felt it. What will he feel when he hears this shout penetrating every part of the Union? Well may he say, he would not take the office if he could avoid it (Louis McClane to Catherine McClane, February 12, 1825)

For those wondering about the significance of the song, “The Hunters of Old Kentucky” was written by Samuel Woodworth in 1821 to celebrate the American victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans. General Andrew Jackson was the leader of the American forces and the song became an anthem of his political campaigns.

AB8 W8793H 1841, Houghton Library

This 1841 broadside is one of many versions and editions of the song, but highlights the populist rhetoric and veneration of Jackson that it promulgated. After disrupting the performance and going through several verses while Adams sat “with death like silence,”the audience eventually relented. Adams would not visit the theatre again for years, so all in all he certainly seemed to have had a rougher time of it than Pence did the other night.

Hamlet’s Ghost

Hamlet's Ghost Flyer

In the first act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of the dead King of Denmark appears to his son, setting off a chain of events that culminates in the play’s notoriously bloody finale. But how would this mysterious figure have been understood in Shakespeare’s world? Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s new HarvardX course, Hamlet’s Ghost, takes learners through an exploration of the Ghost’s uncanny theatrical power and the historical contexts from which it emerged.

The online course is free and open to all, requiring only a short registration process. A prompt at the start of the course asks users to introduce themselves by giving their name, location, and a short statement about why they are interested in the class. The responses thus far paint a fascinating picture of the global community that digital projects like this can help foster.

Part I of the course leads off with a look at Shakespeare’s source material and a discussion of the way directors have staged the appearance of the ghost in Act I of the play. This dramatic print depicts Hamlet’s first encounter with the ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore.

TS 680.12.1, Houghton Library

The print was engraved by Robert Thew after a painting by Henry Fussell at the behest of John Boydell, an enterprising British publisher who promoted a Shakespeare-inspired revival of the visual arts in the late eighteenth century. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of his efforts was the publication in 1803 of a two-volume “elephant” folio of Shakespearean prints created by some of the era’s foremost artists. But we digress. Although we are only just working through Part I, the course is both educational and entertaining. One exercise asks you to imagine how you might direct and stage the ghost for a production of the play. If any other students are in need of ideas, the Harvard Theatre Collection is a great place to look!

A Short Look at Presidential Theatergoing

TCS 50 (Reagan, Ronald)

Today’s election will bring to a close a rather melodramatic presidential campaign. There is of course much that could be said about stagecraft and performance in presidential politics. Ronald Reagan, most notably, was a professional actor before becoming a politician. But our concern here is with theatergoing rather than the performative aspects of the American presidency. For those interested in the latter, we can recommend Jodi Kanter’s new book Presidential Libraries as Performance, which is everything a politically-inclined performing arts librarian could ask for.

In the fall of 1774, the articles of association put forth by the Continental Congress formalized the idea of an independent American government. It also included a clause that the Congress would “discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.” Although theater was clearly seen as a distraction by the political arm of the American Revolution, its military leadership felt rather differently. George Washington, for one, was an avid theatergoer, and famously countenanced performances during the long winter in Valley Forge to keep up his army’s declining morale. While remonstrances from the Continental Congress led Washington to become more circumspect, his love for theater never faded. It is also of course with Washington that the proper history of presidential theatergoing begins.

New-York Daily Gazette

Just days after he was inaugurated in New York City as the first president under the newly ratified Constitution, Washington attended a performance of The School for Scandal at the John Street Theatre on May 11, 1789. The appearance of the phrase “by particular desire” in the theatre’s advertisement has been taken by some as an indication that Washington himself chose the bill for the evening. Sheridan’s celebrated satire was supplemented with the musical comedy The Poor Soldier, which centered on Irish troops returning home after the Revolutionary War. When the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Washington took advantage of that city’s comparatively greater range of entertainment options. His patronage of equestrian shows performed by John Bill Ricketts in the spring of 1793 helped establish the circus as a legitimate form of entertainment in the United States.

Hippolyte and Adele Monplaisir, 1847

While Washington was undoubtedly the biggest booster of American theater amongst the early presidents, the religiously-minded James K. Polk was just as clearly its greatest detractor. Indeed, the only time that Polk set foot in a theater during his presidency (and perhaps ever) was on March 19, 1849. That evening a crowd of well-wishers in Mobile, Alabama, somehow convinced the ascetic President to visit the local theater, where a touring French ballet company led by Hippolyte Monplaisir was performing. According to Polk’s diary, he “remained but a half hour” at the crowded theater before retiring.

2008T-17, Houghton Library

Although he was only introduced to theater late in life, Abraham Lincoln became an enthusiastic patron of the stage during his time in Washington. Many biographers have suggested that his frequent theatergoing gave relief from the burdens and sorrows attendant on the ongoing war. On the fateful day of April 14, 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln decided that she would rather attend Laura Keene’s benefit performance of Our American Cousin than a pantomime at Grover’s Theatre to which they already had tickets. John Wilkes Booth happened to be at Ford’s Theatre picking up his mail when the news that the president would attend filtered through. A new playbill announcing Lincoln’s presence was duly printed. That evening as actor Howard Hawk delivered a laughable line describing a departed gadfly as a “sockdologizing old man-trap,” Booth shot the President at point-blank range.

The shock of the assassination and its setting reinforced lingering prejudices about the supposed perils of popular entertainment. It was not until the 1880s that first Chester Arthur and then Grover Cleveland (who arrived at the White House a bachelor, but patronized the theatre at the behest of his young wife) that regular nights out were again part and parcel of the office. As the range of entertainments available expanded in the twentieth century, so did the presidential palate. Woodrow Wilson, for one, was a fan of vaudevillle and spent many Saturdays at B. F. Keith’s Theatre. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Wilson sardonically remarked that while a bad vaudeville act was unfortunate, it was also soon over, “but from a bad play there was no escape.”


Although it was not necessarily a bad play, president-elect John F. Kennedy spent a somewhat uncomfortable evening in December 1960 at a performance of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (find drafts of that work here). The play was an only somewhat veiled and at times unflattering portrait of the politicking involved in that year’s election, with a philandering and amoral candidate named Joseph Cantwell as the villain. The character ostensibly draws on both Kennedy and Nixon, although it was a subject that Vidal was demure about. Whatever JFK’s thoughts on the performance, it did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm for the arts that suffused the White House during the next few years, though much of this might more properly attributed to Jackie Kennedy. Whatever the case, the Kennedy years represented something of a high-water mark for presidential patronage and regard for American theater, which JFK at least also saw as an asset to the United States in the “cultural Cold War.”

Fast forwarding to the twenty-first century, a combination demands and security concerns have undoubtedly hampered the president’s ability to attend the theater regularly in person, whatever their individual inclinations. And although George W. Bush was no great theatergoer, it must be said that he did rather charmingly attend several local community theater productions in which his sister-in-law Margaret performed. The Obamas brought a renewed enthusiasm for the arts with them to Washington, although Michelle, Malia, and Sasha have been much more active than the President in actually attending outside performances. One of the signatures of the Obama administration has been the hosting a series of star-studded literary, musical and theatrical evenings at the White House.

In retrospect, perhaps the most culturally significant of these was a 2009 performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda of the song that would eventually lead off the theatrical phenomenon Hamilton. And it seems appropriate to end the Obama era with a song from the musical that reflects King George’s limited understanding of American democracy (“I Know Him“):

They say George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away.
‘Zat true?
I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.
I’m perplexed.
Are they gonna keep on replacing whoever’s in charge?
If so, who’s next?
There’s nobody else in their country who looms quite as large…