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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ofMelancholy, 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.
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.
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 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.
Another year of Shakespeare has drawn to a close. This week on Broadway the curtain came down on the hit show Something Rotten! whose song “I Hate Shakespeare” offered the closest thing to a respite from the past year’s tempest of fulsome tributes. Those weary of the much ado can take heart: the next anniversary won’t come around until 2039, when Stratford’s favorite son turns 475.
Over the din of universal praise, the Bard’s detractors seldom get much airtime. Houghton’s own exhibition last spring, Shakespeare: His Collected Works,somehow managed nods to poet-playwrights John Dryden and William D’Avenant while playing down the artistic quarrel between Shakespeare and his adaptors that overspread much of the eighteenth century. Mea culpa.
Instead the exhibition highlighted just one contrarian: President John Adams, whose complaint was hardly artistic. He objected on moral grounds, laying out his argument in a disapproving letter to a young, ambitious, and I daresay, unsuspecting, playwright.
By 1822 Samuel B.H. Judah had two plays mounted at the Park Theatre in New York with indifferent success. A third, dramatizing events at the Battle of Lexington, was to be performed on Independence Day. Perhaps in light of these patriotic stirrings, Judah presumptuously sent to both Adams and Thomas Jefferson copies of his newly published dramatic poem Odofriede, compelled, he wrote, by its favorable reception “in some of the first cities in our country.”
It was a shameless exaggeration.
Adams, then in his eighty-seventh year, patiently listened while Odofriede, eighty-three pages long, was read aloud, and then dictated, signed, and dispatched to its author the following letter:
Montezillo 25th June 1822
I have heard read your horrible Odofriede; although there are marks of genius and talents, which in so young a man; if hereafter carefully cultivated and applied to more proper subjects, may produce something agreeable and useful, yet I can neither applaud or approve this kind of composition in prose or verse. They serve only to continue in the minds of men chimerical fantasies, which never existed anywhere but in human imagination. They greatly diminish the sum of human happiness by keeping up a constant terror in the minds of a great part of mankind, for fear is a painful and distressing passion. I could wish that Shakespear had been asleep when he imagined or borrowed from Teutonic tales his gost [sic] of Hamlet, his Witches in Macbeth, his Queen Mab, and his Oberon. I could wish that the German Oberon had never been written and especially that it had never been translated into English by Sotheby beautiful as it is. I thank you however for your civility in sending me the Book.
and am your hearty well wisher J Adams
While it is tempting to credit the pugnacious elder statesman with a takedown, it is doubtful that Adams intended “horrible” to carry today’s meaning. (Another reviewer did confess, however, that he had “seldom met with a writer so entirely deficient in all the essentials of his art.”) More likely, Adams was using the word in its etymological sense, given what he has to say about fear later on. But it is the seriousness with which he takes up the mantle of literary critic that makes the letter so amusing. The reference to Mercutio’s lines on Queen Mab from Romeo and Juliet,he slips in as proof that he has studied the plays closely.
Adams’ distaste for the supernatural elements in Shakespeare is indicative of the general skepticism regarding works of fiction shared by the Founders. For his part, Jefferson gingerly declined to comment, replying that “the chill of 80 winters has so compleatly extinguished his sensibility to the beauties of poetry; as to leave him no longer competent either to enjoy or judge them.” Well played, Jefferson.
Despite their protestations, both men were lifelong admirers of Shakespeare. Decades earlier, in the spring of 1786, the odd couple had made the pilgrimage to his birthplace, only to find it, in Adams’ words, “as small and mean, as you can conceive.” Stratford wasn’t then the tourist mecca that it is today, and Adams bemoaned that the English hadn’t done enough to honor the immortal poet. Too bad his visit didn’t fall on an anniversary year. It might have changed his mind.
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.
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:
Passed a sleepless night in consequence of the great pain arising from my toe
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.
The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.
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…