Our American Cousin, an Opera in Three Acts by Eric Sawyer, Librettist: John Shoptaw

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Our American Cousin: Donald Wilkinson (Lincoln) and Janna Baty (Laura Keene), photo Clive Grainger
Our American Cousin: Donald Wilkinson (Lincoln) and Janna Baty (Laura Keene), photo Clive Grainger

Our American Cousin
An Opera in three acts by Eric Sawyer

Librettist: John Shoptaw
Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Conductor, Gil Rose
Stage Director: Carol Charnow
Academy of Music, Northampton, June 20, 2008

A young man, having outsmarted a haughty woman seeking a wealthy husband for her daughter, crows in triumph: “I guess you found your hymnal page, you sock-dologizing ole man-trap!”Hard as it may be for us to imagine, this line brought the house down every time in Tom Taylor’s 1858 hit play Our American Cousin. And appropriately so: a “sockdologer” (a corruption of “doxology”), was in American slang a decisive or knockout blow. The line might be lost to all but theater historians were it not for the fact that Taylor’s play was performed at Ford’s Theatre the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and that John Wilkes Booth used the famous line as a cue for his own decisive blow.Eric Sawyer and John Shoptaw’s new opera, Our American Cousin, revisits that night and charts the intersection of real life and that of the theater.The opera offers us a play within an opera: a recreation of the performance Lincoln was attending at Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination.Taylor’s play was a popular and cleverly-made comedy/melodrama about a distant–and rich–relative from America who appears suddenly at the estate of his titled but financially troubled English relations.The plot and characters of this largely forgotten play turn out to matter in unexpected ways, and point towards the thematic heart of the work.

The audience members, including Lincoln, respond to and comment on the performance.Lincoln sees something of himself in the underestimated American bumpkin of the play, Asa, who is transformed from a laughable figure into a kind of savior, bearing cash and a redemptive moral code: “he’s sure common enough for me,” Lincoln sings, before launching into a tragic aria on the state of the nation, which, like him, is “hard to look at, difficult to see.”But Lincoln is not the only commentator in the audience: war veterans and citizens of Washington are in attendance, and the veterans in particular respond to the play with vigor.Seeing the food on stage during a dinner scene, one amputee wonders, “You reckon that there’s play food?”Told to hush and watch the characters dine, he is outraged: “Like we ain’t even here? Wal, I ain’t a gonna set fer that!” –and tries to rise and join the dinner guests.When Asa smokes a cigar on stage, another Veteran sings out, “Say friend, how about a smoke?” Told that the actor is “jest pretending,” he insists, “it shore smells real to me!”There’s an old joke in here about the “stage American” as a dimwit from the sticks who can’t understand the theater: this trope goes back to the very first professionally staged American play, Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787), which memorably featured a rural American in the city who doesn’t realize he is at a play, but thinks a family has left its curtains undrawn.Of course, on stage the apparently dumb Americans always turned out to be clever and knowing and brave.Shoptaw’s libretto engages this notion of the blurring between the real and the theatrical, of the lack of awareness.For no one on the stage knows what is coming; even the actors in Taylor’s play–central figures in the opera–are unaware of the tragic pattern that is emerging.Connections are persistently drawn between the world of Taylor’s play and the lives of the actors; key moments in both turn on that old melodramatic device of the significant letter.John Wilkes Booth and the actor Harry Hawk (who played Asa that night) are connected by just such a device, and the opera features a duet (shortly before the shooting) in which the play’s villain and Booth both sing of the power of hidden letters to reveal truth.The action of the opera gradually builds towards a convergence of art and life, with the two finally intersecting at the moment when Booth changes the script, carefully staging his own would-be heroic scene (which he muffs by tripping as he leaps from Lincoln’s box).Both the actors and audience on stage speak and move unsurely at this point: “It’s just a gag,” one suggests.

Up to the point of the assassination, the musical style is varied.We hear strains of American folk music, “Dixie,” and “Hail to the Chief.”We even get a drinking song, as the actors rehearse a crucial scene from the play, one that would never, in fact, be sung that night. A highlight of the performance is an interlude from musical comedy, as the character Asa (played with great gusto by the tenor Alan Schneider), happily playing on English ignorance of America, sings of the traditional American pastime of “Possum Herding,” creating a comic/romantic moonlit image of“the ceaseless patterin’ of their paws, and the listless swishin’ o’ their tails.”The varied style of the music in the first two acts underscores the sense of unknowingness: for those actors and theatergoers on stage, the meaning of the night’s performance is as yet undetermined.

Once those actors and theatergoers realize what has happened, the opera shifts tone, and the search for understanding and meaning begin in earnest.The actress/theater manager Laura Keene (Janna Baty, in an assured performance) attempts to control her cast and audience, but the line between stage and spectator is lost.Taylor’s play, with its neat restoration of order through marriage, is lost as well.Keene, dressed for her role in the night’s comedy, sings a backstage aria in which she reenacts Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, trying and failing to get the President’s blood out of her costume and off of her hands.Following on a moment in which soldiers arrest members of the cast, saying “you’re actors, ain’t you?” Keene’s lament points to her own fearful sense of responsibility: “Was I wrong, all these years, to hold open our doors?Was I wrong to believe that art brings peace?”

The Shakespearean reference is furthered by the shade of Lincoln—a kind of ghost at the feast—who appears to Keene and confides that his favorite play was in fact Macbeth.But it isn’t Lincoln who will close the play, nor any other single character.Instead, we are faced with the theatergoers, who turn away from the stage within a stage to direct their song to us.The closing chorus has an elegiac, at points liturgical quality, as the theatergoers chant the names of Civil War battles, attempting to “piece it all together.”Lincoln walks among them as they sing.The ending is far from that of a Shakespearean tragedy, lacking any clear sense of closure or restoration of order.The line “E pluribus pluribus pluribus” remains unfinished.Sawyer and Shoptaw build a complex thematic structure here, but don’t entirely manage to avoid some false notes (Lincoln can appear alternately too lugubrious or winsome) and echoes of all-too familiar historical pageants.The actors—Harry Hawk, Laura Keene, and company—are in the end the heart of the show, and the tragedy is theirs.

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