Our American Cousin tells the story of the assassination of President Lincoln from the standpoint of the actors presenting the comedy of the same name at Ford’s Theater. It offers something new in the realm of American contemporary opera, an American myth told in an unfamiliar way, with both poetic and musical language drawing from the past but refracted through the present.
The opera is the collaborative invention of composer Eric Sawyer and librettist John Shoptaw, whose libretto is freely imagined within the framework of the documented historical event and adapted plot of the original Broadway comedy. Its three acts comprise the backstage events prior to the play, the play itself, and the rupture of the stage drama by the assassination and its immediate aftermath. Lead roles fall to Laura Keene, manager and star actress of the theater company, and Harry Hawk, the American cousin of the play.
As a fixture of our national mythology, this evening in history offers a natural operatic vehicle. Laura Keene, then the first lady of American theater and in her managerial career well ahead of her time, is a heroine with a personal vision of theater, a power to hold her cast in fear and her audience, including the President, in thrall. Harry Hawk, who played the American cousin that evening, is in the opera a mock-Lincolnesque frontiersman gone East to set the world right. He bears an offstage burden of guilt and tragedy connected to hiring a substitute to serve for him in the Civil War.
Supporting actor Jack Matthews’s historical relationship with the assassin Booth offers an especially interesting sub-plot. Booth in fact approached Matthews the day of the assassination with a letter to convey to the newspapers, detailing his actions to come. According to Matthews’s later testimony, he carried the letter during the performance and following the assassination, fearing for his life, burned it hastily. The enactment of this action precedes the arrest of the cast in the opera’s penultimate scene.
The juxtaposition of comedy with tragedy calls for a wide range of musical character, drawing upon traditions both of the opera of discrete musical numbers and the continuous music-drama. Musical period references and operatic genre pieces are incorporated within a language of lyrical extended tonality. The opera’s arias range from the American cousin’s tall tale of possum herding to Mary Lincoln’s post-assassination outburst. Choral material from the theater audience ranges from the bitter humor of wounded veterans to a freed slaves’ song of liberation. Lincoln himself muses on his own constitution and that of his country.
The play never finished that evening. It was cut off at its narrative climax, leaving its own story unresolved. The retelling of this evening as an opera provides an occasion to contemplate our own still unfinished national history.