Tom Taylor and Lincoln’s Last Laugh

This post is based on a review essay I published in the Times Literary Supplement in June 2015

An 1876 caricature of Taylor by

An 1876 caricature of Taylor by “Spy” aka Leslie Ward, in Vanity Fair.

Tom Taylor was the author of the play Lincoln was watching when he was shot. At least, he’d written the original script. Taylor had written a rather stilted comedy of manners in which a straw-sucking Vermonter called Asa (the ‘American Cousin’ of the play’s title) rocks up in an English country house and by turns shocks and amuses everyone with his rustic ways and homegrown sincerity. But the production first staged by Laura Keene in New York in 1858, which then toured the United States during the Civil War, had morphed through improvisation. By the time Lincoln saw it, Our American Cousin was a hilarious farce in which satire mixed with slapstick, melodrama with on-stage mayhem. When one of the company, British comic actor Edward Askew Sothern, grumbled that his character, Lord Dundreary, was too small a role, his friend Joseph Jefferson was said to have responded with one of the great thespian aphorisms: “there are no small roles [darling]; only small actors.” Sothern took the advice to heart; by upstaging everyone else and cavorting around like a Victorian Mr Bean, Sothern turned Dundreary into the star of the show: a foppish, lisping fool with the best of intentions but a brain the size of a pea.

Tom Taylor, 1817-1880: playwright, critic and editor of Punch.

Tom Taylor, 1817-1880: playwright, critic and editor of Punch.

And so a play that, in Tom Taylor’s original, was designed mainly to contrast American innocence with English sophistication became, in Keene’s production, an opportunity for Americans to laugh at English aristocratic pretentions. The character of Asa, intended by Taylor to be a figure of fun, became, by the time Abe Lincoln saw the play, the voice of homegrown American good sense. His wisdom was gleaned from real life rather than a classical education but he could outsmart the English (and win the girl, naturally). Asa dressed in backwoodsman’s jeans and a felt hat, just like Lincoln had back in his youth when he split logs and worked at odd jobs as he made his way in the world.

The character of Asa, played on 14th April by Harry Hawk, was the only one on stage when Lincoln was shot. “The play was going off so well, Mr and Mrs Lincoln enjoyed it so much,” he later recalled.

At the end of Act III, scene II, Hawk’s character had a confrontation with Mrs Moutchessington, played by “the old lady of the theatre” (as Hawk called her), Helen Muzzy in a style that, I imagine, anticipated the entire basis of Hattie Jacques’ career. In withering tones she told him he didn’t know how to behave properly and stalked off stage. “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh?” Hawk called out to her ample retreating figure. “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.” It was the most famous line of the play: oh the side-splitting hilarity of the honest American telling the pompous Englishwoman how it really was! Hawk’s line was the cue for John Wilkes Booth, also an actor, and a very good one, to burst into the Presidential box, and shoot Lincoln in the head.

As Richard Wightman Fox drily observes in his perceptive study of Lincoln’s body in American culture, “has any other martyr in history been dispatched while a thousand of his admirers were bent over in stitches?”

Harry Hawk, the only actor on stage when Lincoln was shot.

Harry Hawk, the only actor on stage when Lincoln was shot.

Harry Hawk, who at least had the advantage over the audience of knowing for sure that the gun shot was not part of the play, later told his father, that he looked up and saw a man jumping from the President’s box to the stage. “He slipped when he gained the stage,” Hawk remembered, “but he got upon his feet in a moment, brandished a large knife, saying ‘The South shall be free!’ turned his face in the direction I stood, and I recognized him as John Wilkes Booth. He ran towards me, and I, seeing the knife, thought I was the one he was after, ran off the stage and up a flight of stairs. He made his escape out of a door, directly in the rear of the theatre, mounted a horse and rode off.”

In those moments (“the space of a quarter of a minute” according to Hawk) the audience struggled to compute what they had just seen; their “glee” at Hawk’s hilarious line “slowing down their perceptions,” as Fox puts it.

The disorientation of the audience anticipated the disorientation of everyone else as the news of the tragedy spread. Lincoln was shot just five days after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox had, in effect, ended the Civil War. The North was jubilant. “The city only the night before was illuminated, and everybody was so happy,” wrote Hawk. “Now it is all sadness.”

In a culture where Puritanism still stalked, it was deeply regretful to many that the President had been shot in a theatre, a notoriously ungodly place. But he had been slain on Good Friday; to thousands of ministers in hurriedly prepared sermons that Sunday, the symbolism could hardly be more obvious: Lincoln had given his life so that the nation might live.

Fox describes in great detail Lincoln’s death and the drawn-out funeral procession, by rail from Washington back to Springfield, Illinois. All along the way, people wanted to view the body, to touch and see Lincoln for themselves just as, in life, only two weeks earlier, African Americans had pressed in upon him to touch his coat and his hands as he toured Richmond after the Confederate government had evacuated it.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who had tried and failed to make Lincoln take more seriously the threat of assassination when he was alive, micromanaged the President’s physical body after he was dead. Stanton overruled the undertakers who wanted to make the corpse look as much as possible like “the portraits of the president so familiar to the people” with the “broad jaw” and a “placid smile on his lips.” Stanton told them instead to retain the ugly bruises beneath Lincoln’s eyes that had developed through the long hours of unconsciousness and laboured breathing between Booth’s shot and the President’s final breath at 7.22am the following morning. They were the marks of suffering on his body that testified to the nature of the death “which this martyr to his idea of justice and right had suffered,” as the New York Herald put it.

Many thousands of pilgrims viewed the open coffin and those bruises; the “rolling funeral” lasting three weeks was part of Lincoln’s story. And the body, deeply embalmed, turned gradually blacker as the funeral train proceeded.

Fox’s book adds to a sizeable pile already written about the image of Lincoln in American and global culture. For those who have an interest in such things some of the material here will be very familiar. For at least a century after his death he was ever present in American culture. Places associated with his life — “Lincoln Shrines”, as the 1950s tour guides called them — became major tourist attractions, places of pilgrimage. As Fox writes, Lincoln “exemplified, more fully than anyone before him, the ideal republican life course: self-improvement in youth, public service in adulthood, and sacrifice for the people at the peak of his powers.”

Lincoln’s Body is an elegantly weaved account of how the physical Lincoln has been remembered, re-imagined and reconstituted – in bronze, stone, animatronic technology, or by Daniel Day Lewis. Fox does more than just document Lincoln’s impact; he explains why he has mattered. Lincoln’s lanky frame and dark eyes, his “homely” face and ill-fitting clothes became emblematic of American manners, thoughts and ideals.

If Lincoln was an icon, he was a rumpled human icon; his sad eyes and hollowed cheeks testifying to his personal suffering and his lack of refinement to his authenticity. This was why even Marilyn Monroe could say of Lincoln, “he was the only famous American who seemed most like me, at least in his childhood.”

Lincoln in his coffin.

Lincoln in his coffin.

As Fox puts it, “Lincoln’s body had its own story to tell.”

Tom Taylor understood this. A prolific journalist as well as a playwright he was a contributor to Punch and had penned many supposedly amusing verses satirising Lincoln as a buffoonish ignoramus. In the first issue of Punch after the shocking news of Lincoln’s death reached London, Taylor, rather startlingly, addressed himself some stern words in verse:

You lay a wreath on murdered Lincoln’s bier,

You, who with mocking pencil wont to trace,

Broad for the self-complacent British sneer,

His length of shambling limb, his furrowed face,

His gaunt, knarled hands, his unkempt, bristling hair,

His garb uncouth, his bearing ill at ease,

His lack of all we prize as debonair,

Of power or will to shine, of art to please.

Taylor must have known that Lincoln spent his last hour laughing at his play. Did that give him on some level a sense of personal responsibility, even of complicity? Whether or not that was a conscious feeling, that Taylor in moves so swiftly in this elegy to Lincoln’s hands, hair and bearing reinforces Fox’s argument: Lincoln’s presence in people’s imagination was inseparable from his body.

The reformer Jane Addams, who set up a settlement house in Chicago in the 1890s, recalled her father weeping at the news of Lincoln’s death. According to Fox, Addams found inspiration from Lincoln even while realising that he had lived and died in a different era before the battles between labour and capital that came to dominate her adult life. Addams used to walk to Lincoln Park to sit with “the marvellous St Gaudens statue… to look at and gain magnanimous counsel, if I could” The memory of Lincoln, she wrote, came to her “like a refreshing breeze from off the prairie.” Her presence near the material recreation of Lincoln’s physical body was a necessary part of her sense of closeness to him. Addams is one of many such accounts in Fox’s book that suggest how Lincoln’s person was engraved into Americans minds along with his words.

For Addams the words of Lincoln’s that meant most to her came from his second inaugural address: “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” But that phrase, especially out of context, is just an eloquent way of expressing sentiment with which few could disagree. So too Lincoln’s appeal in his first inaugural address to the “better angels of our nature”. What politician would ever admit he was appealing to the dark angels? Not even Nixon.

Alongside his lawyerly obfuscations and his beautiful poetics, Lincoln could be disarmingly honest. In his very last public address on the Tuesday before the Friday on which he was shot, Lincoln responded to a critic who attacked him for not being clearer about his plans for post-war Reconstruction. “I have purposely forborne any public expression upon it” Lincoln said.

In that same speech he indicated for the first time that he would support at least some black people (“the very intelligent” and “those who serve our cause as soldiers”) being given the vote. In the audience that Tuesday evening was John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln’s words may well have fixed his determination to carry out his deadly plan three days later.

In doing so, Booth unwittingly laid the basis for the transcendence of Lincoln: in a sense more physically present in death than in life. He did something else as well that was, ironically, quite fitting for a man whose homespun appearance oddly resembled the quintessential Yankee Asa in Taylor’s play. By choosing “sockdologising old man-trap” as his cue, Booth ensured that Lincoln’s last experience in life was to laugh.

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