DL Fowler's Blog

Political Theater

A recent news item reminded me of an ominous episode of political theater that took place some 153 years and twelve days ago. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not my intent in this post to compare or contrast the two occasions, or the people involved. I’ll leave that to you.

By the way, the event I recalled isn’t the one that happened on April 14, 1865. My mind is too complex to travel somewhere that easy.

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The reason the earlier event popped into my mind is that, all along, I have planned to include a scene based on it in my current manuscript Lincoln’s War, which covers Lincoln’s years in the White House. Lincoln’s War is the sequel to Lincoln Raw: a biographical novel.

Even though my draft of Lincoln’s War hasn’t progressed as far into the chronology of his presidency as November 1863, I pressed myself to learn as much as I could about the occasion, fearing that if I didn’t do the research now, I’d forget to do it later. So here is what I found.

On November 9, 1863, Abraham Lincoln and guests were at Ford’s Theater watching young John Wilkes Booth star in The Marble Heart. The Lincoln party occupied a VIP box on the same level as the stage, and were separated from the actors only by a railing. As a side note, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address only ten days later, while suffering from a mild case of smallpox. Most likely, by the time he arrived at Ford’s Theater that evening, Lincoln had spent some time weighing what he’d say at the dedication ceremony in Pennsylvania.

In the The Marble Heart that evening, Booth played the antagonist, a sculptor named Raphael. In a late scene, Booth’s character is chided by a rival who says, “I presume from the ardor with which you applaud liberal sentiments [a reference to Raphael’s reaction to Uncle Tom’s Cabin] that you are in favor of the emancipation of the blacks.”

“Death and dishonor!” cries Raphael, as he moves threateningly toward the man.

When Booth delivered his line, it appeared to some in Lincoln’s entourage that Booth pointed directly at the President, rather than making his gesture toward the other actor he was supposed to be addressing. In fact, one of the Lincolns’ guests, later recalled her exchange with Lincoln.

“Mr. Lincoln,” she said. “He looks as if he meant that for you.”

“Well,” Lincoln replied. “He does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?”

At the end of the play, Lincoln was reported to have applauded enthusiastically over Booth’s performance. Afterward he invited Booth to call on him in person, but Booth declined the invitation.

It’s likely that the Lincolns attended the play that night specifically to see Booth perform. Almost three years earlier, Booth was in Albany, New York, when the Presidential Special passed through en route to Lincoln’s first inauguration. Lincoln probably read glowing reviews of Booth’s performance in The Apostate at Albany’s Gayety Theater on the evening of a reception given in the President-elect’s honor by the state legislature.

So what does this account of Lincoln’s evening at the theater say to you? I’m curious to read your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.

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