The Play Lincoln Was Watching When He Was Killed

our american cousin

Our American Cousin, Tom Taylor, 1858

Our American Cousin has the dubious distinction of being the play that Abraham Lincoln was attending when he was assassinated. Ironically, given its dark history, the play is a delightful, farcical comedy. The plot centers around the visit of an American to his aristocratic English family. I believe a description of the characters will serve to illustrate Tom Taylor’s humor.

  • Asa Trenchard—the titular American cousin. “I’m Asa Trenchard, born in Vermont, suckled on the banks of Muddy Creek, about the tallest gunner, the slickest dancer, and generally the loudest critter in the state.” He’s rustic, a good shot with a bow and arrow, worldly-wise and savvier than his British relatives. Asa speaks in a stream of folksy colloquialisms. He is unrefined, but kind and practical. Taylor’s depiction of Asa’s culture shock cracked me up. Asa finds the valet assigned to him astoundingly useless, quipping “Hold on, say, I may want to yawn presently and I shall want someone to close my mouth.” After a few days in England, Asa figures out the foibles and hidden agendas of every member of his uncle’s household.
  • Lord Dundreary—a silly British nobleman visiting the family. “I never can forget—when I can recollect.” A lisping buffoon with odd facial hair, and a habit of mixing up words. Dundreary became an iconic comic character. Actor Edward Askew Sothern’s physical comedy and ad libs became so famous that bushy sideburns were known as Dundrearies and mixed metaphors as Dundrearyisms for a while. Dundreary is in love with Georgina.
  • Sir Edward Trenchard—a proud but terribly indebted lord. “A pretty time for such levity when ruin stares me in the face.” He considers suicide or marrying his daughter to a scoundrel as means to ending his financial difficulties.
  • Coyle—an old servant of the household who is now attempting to defraud them of all their property and marry Florence. “And now to show this pompous baronet the precipice on which he stands.”
  • Florence Trenchard—Sir Edward’s daughter. “Why will papa not trust me? Oh, Harry! I wish he would. I wish he would find out what a lot of pluck and common sense there is in this feather head of mine.” Florence truly is plucky. She realizes Asa’s value and helps him resolve the family conundrum.
  • Mary Trenchard—a cousin dispossessed by the will that gives Asa the family property. “Well, I must look to my dairy or all my last week’s milk will be spoiled.” Disinherited Mary must make her own living in her dairy. She’s sweet and domestic. Asa falls in love at first sight, because she’s the only productive person he’s met in England.
  • Georgina—a girl who’s trying to marry Lord Dundreary. “I’m too delicate.” Georgina pretends to be a delicate invalid, because that’s what turns on Dundreary.

While Asa seems to be the comedic figure, the play actually satirizes foolish, affected, avaricious British nobility. It is pretty funny to read a Victorian Brit’s take on Americans. I mean, I know I can’t speak for more than 30 seconds without including a metaphor involving possums, eels, or pigs in hollers. So, a pretty accurate portrayal of Americans.

You might like Our American Cousin if:

  • you’re a curious history buff.
  • you have a sense of humor.
  • you like puns.
  • you enjoy a little satire in your farce and a bit of farce in your satire.

You might not like Our American Cousin if:

  • you’re more serious than a badger in a bunny hole.

Final thoughts: This was well worth reading. I reread it before writing this post and I enjoyed it the second time too. It’s funny, entertaining and quite short. A good read.

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