On April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theater, the unthinkable happened. President Abraham Lincoln—riding high from the recent surrender of the Confederacy—was touted to take in a performance of Tom Taylor’s tried and true hit, Our American Cousin.
And he showed up late.
The actors had been performing for half an hour when President Lincoln, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Major Henry Rathbone, and Ms. Clara Harris arrived in the President’s Box. Following protocol, all performance stopped, and the orchestra offered a rousing chorus of Hail to the Chief.
Trained actors had been steeped in a trade that made “the show must go on” an inviolable rally cry. The mere idea that a latecomer would stop the proceedings cold enraged Harry Hawk. Hawk played Asa Trenchard—the lead, the lead, by God!—and imagined that this would be the peak of his career. He was merely a character actor, and had to spend the majority of his working life toiling in the shadow of Miss Laura Keene, the star of their company.
He actually supposed that Lincoln was a bit of a great man; he merely couldn’t abide rudeness in his audience. Especially when his one true moment of glory was at hand.
Others hated the President, and hated him blissfully. Why, just a few weeks ago a fellow actor had dinner with Hawk and railed for hours about States’ Rights, the superiority of the white man, and the dreadfulness of the Union. Although the other actor in question could make the agony of Shakespeare as real for the audience as the anguish in their own lives, Hawk’s dinner guest was an absolute bore when the applause died down. Abraham Lincoln was lucky that John Wilkes Booth was not in the cast of this production. The President would surely be in for an earful then.
The performance proceeded without a hitch after Lincoln’s interruption. Act Three reached its low-comic crescendo with Hawk’s Asa bellowing to the indefatigable Mrs. Mountchessington—as played by Mrs. Helen Muzzy—a line that was the absolute show stopper of the piece.
“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal…” Hawk offered the slightest of pauses before earning his player’s salary with the words, “you sockdologizing old man-trap!”
Laughter, and then everything changed. What was—not more than a half hour previously—thought unthinkable became relegated to mere annoyance.
A crack echoed through the playhouse. Outside of a war—and more than a few people in attendance had come fresh from one, including Major Rathbone—people never seem to register gunfire as what it is in the seconds after it occurs. The continued laughter—to think, getting to use the word “sockdologizing” in a public forum!—obscured the carnage for a few more seconds.
Hawk proceeded with the rest of his line, even though he knew that the laughter would drown out the next few words. “Well, now, when I think what I’ve thrown away in hard cash today I’m apt to call myself some awful hard names…”
Now the commotion could not be ignored. There was shouting and wailing, and not an ounce of mirth. This dignified audience had some misconceived notion that both they and the Man from Springfield had come to see some sort of burlesque.
Hawk then heard a deep sustained tearing from out in the crowd. The people were revolting. Our American Cousin was hardly Euripides, but it was hardy worth a rebellion!
Hawk slinked back from the full force of the limelight, when a loud crash upstaged him, shocking him out of what little tenuous hold he still had on his character. A figure fell to the stage along with the sound, having leapt from the Presidential box.
Was this figure Lincoln? Where did this guy get off?
Through the shocked gasps of the crowd, Hawk tried to makes sense of what was going on, but to no avail. Only after the shape took the spot that was meant for Hawk did the actor think that it bore a striking resemblance to the aforementioned Booth. Hawk nearly asked him what he was doing here, but he had enough decorum not to upstage another actor… even if that other actor had upstaged him in the first place.
The possible Booth raised his hand above his head, grasping a gleaming dagger reflecting the stage lights. “Siiiiiiiiic Semper Tyeranooooooooos!” he shouted and immediately hobbled his way back stage. He must have injured himself on the leap from his audience with Lincoln. Before disappearing into the alleyway behind Ford’s, Booth and Hawk exchanged the briefest of glances, almost as if Booth were trying his best to apologize for interrupting the performance. He also stabbed the orchestra leader before fleeing on horseback. It would appear there would be no more rounds of Hail to the Chief played, although Hawk supposed the Orchestra could try again on their own if need be.
The real news spread quickly from there. Helpful yet helpless people took the unmoving President to die across the street at the Petersen House.
After an hour, Harry Hawk remained frozen in the middle of his performance, and stuck in a situation that his training could not have prepared him for, and yet his training would not be denied.
Hawk whispered at first. His hesitance only being that Hawk was playing to an empty house. He gathered strength as he continued. “W-well! As I was saying earlier, you sockdologizing old man trap! When I think what I’ve thrown away…” And he proceeded to perform the rest of the play’s parts all the way through to the final curtain. The remaining cast had moved as close to the dying Lincoln as etiquette would allow. He was dead-set—too soon? he wondered—on finishing the show. It had to go on.