When Laura Keene took the stage of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. to greet the audience on April 14, 1865, she had every good reason to anticipate a fine evening ahead.
With her theater company, she was poised to present a sure crowd-pleaser, Broadway’s first smash hit. The assemblage included distinguished guests President Lincoln and the First Lady. And five days earlier, the surrender of Confederate General Lee to U.S. Grant at Appomattox had ended the long nightmare of the Civil War that had split the nation in two.
Keene had fought fiercely through debt and disapproval to keep her Broadway theater company onstage during the war, committed to the notion that art had a role to play in bringing peace. That April night, as she had countless times over the past four years, she invited the audience to forget their cares and sorrows, just for one night, and enter their made-up world - something on the order of:
“We invite you to forget awhile everything that’s come and gone till your memories come back to you refreshed.”
“The beginning of the healing is remembering,” said Amherst composer Eric Sawyer, a music faculty member at Amherst College. He’s given it some thought. For the past 10 years, Sawyer has been working with California poet and professor John Shoptaw on an operatic rendition of the events of that night, when, halfway through Act III, Scene 2 of Tom Taylor’s comedic romp Our American Cousin, John Wilkes Booth, a premiere American actor and dedicated son of the Confederacy, took advantage of a momentary roar of hilarity to fatally shoot the nation’s 16th president.
Next week in Amherst, Sawyer and Shoptaw present the premiere concert performance of their opera Our American Cousin, preparatory to its fully staged world premiere in September at the Academy of Music in Northampton. The concert event, March 31 at 8 p.m. in Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College, is free and open to the public.
The three-act opera presents the evening of April 14 from the perspective of the people who were there that night at Ford’s Theatre. “Lincoln was such a populist, I wanted the American people to be front and center in this opera,” said librettist Shoptaw, who taught in the English departments at Princeton and Yale before joining the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley, where he now teaches American poetry and poetry writing.
“John writes with a very rich language, in this case the language of the period,” Sawyer said. “It’s musical and rhythmic.” He said that as a composer, that presented him with both a challenge and inspiration.
“The very first thing you hear is a musical theme that you hear throughout the opera for forgiving and forgetting,” Sawyer said. “The prelude is a meditation on [Lincoln’s] second inaugural address,” which he delivered a scant five weeks before his assassination.
Lincoln had closed the five-minute speech with a plea for reconciliation: “With malice toward none, with charity for all...let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
“Every time you read [Lincoln’s] works you think, ‘That’s what I’m working toward as a human being.’” said the opera’s co-producer and stage director, Linda McInerney, the founding producer and artistic director of Old Deerfield Productions.”This is an amazing mesh of a story that informs our country, our character, and who we are as a people.”
You are there
Act I takes a listener backstage as the 19th-century players prepare for the show, and the audience files in. Some are rehearsing their lines. One of the actors who had paid for a replacement to his service in the war is informed that his proxy has died in combat. Booth approaches another actor with a sealed letter and a request to deliver it the next day to a newspaper editor.
Reflecting the demographic of the crowd that night - women waiting for their men to come home from the war, freed men and women, injured veterans, nurses who’d been caring for them, and businessmen who’d prospered during wartime - five chorus groups sing their particular perspectives as they arrive. Act I ends with Keene’s welcome to the president.
Act II is an adaptation of the play Our American Cousin, in which hilarity is wrung from the visit of a “backwoods” American cousin to a land-poor English lord. McInerney describes the play as “a kind of ‘Spamalot,’ Neil Simon comedy that was all the rage at the time.” Even Lincoln, whom many considered rough around the edges, saw in the American cousin a likeness to himself, a recognition he shares in an Act II aria.
The assassination begins the third act, along with the ensuing chaos and recriminations among the audience and the players - could they have done something to prevent the tragedy?
“One of the themes that plays out in the opera is guilt,” Shoptaw said. For one thing, he said, Lincoln felt guilty about the war. The historic record reveals that he wasn’t eating well - sometimes only an apple a day.
Keene had a burden to bear; she had invited the President and First Lady to the show. The actor Harry Hawk tried to apprehend Booth as he dashed across the stage after jumping 15 feet from the Lincolns’ box (ironically breaking his leg when his foot caught in the American flag). But by then Booth had traded his derringer for a dagger, and Hawk fled.
Perhaps the most important missed opportunity to avert the tragedy involved another actor, Jack Matthews. Two months previous he had declined an invitation by Booth to join in a plot to kidnap Lincoln to ransom Confederate prisoners of war. He had reason to be suspicious when Booth handed him the sealed letter backstage, asking him to deliver it to a Washington newspaper the next day. He said it was news of an event that hadn’t yet taken place.
“Had he opened the letter,” Shoptaw said, “there would have been no assassination.” After the shooting, Mathews opened, read and burned the letter rather than risk being charged as a co-conspirator.
As for the dazed and hysterical audience, it split into two camps, those advocating mercy and those for justice, said Sawyer. Keene’s refuge and sanctuary, the theater, was violated, her belief that art can bring peace in tatters.
“An underlying theme of the opera is forgiveness and forgetting,” McInerney said, “because everyone in the opera has done something they need to be forgiven for. Great pain has happened to everyone.
“At the end, the choruses reflect back on that war,” she added, “and you can’t help but think of what we’re going through now.”
The Boston Modern Opera Project, under the direction of Gil Rose, performs the piece, along with professional singers from Boston, New York and the Pioneer Valley, as well as the Amherst College Concert Choir. Janna Baty, Alan Schneider and Aaron Engebreth sing principal roles.
The music ranges from the spirituals of the freed men and women to echoes of Hail to the Chief and Dixie. “There’s a little bit of a Stephen Foster sound and a nod to the popular operettas of the time,” Sawyer said, “but it’s not meant to be a collage.” The music is unified by Sawyer’s signature style, which he describes as lyrical extended tonality.
“The music is so beautiful and so startling that it really expresses the essence of [Lincoln], of the event and the wrenching change of the times,” said McInerney. “There’s a rawness to it that really opens your heart up to that and [echoes] what [so many of us] are feeling right now.”
Tickets to the concert performance are free, but reservations are recommended by calling (413) 542-2195 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the opera, visit www.ouramericancousin.com.