Our American Cousin

Our American Cousin

Overview
Our American Cousin is an 1858 play in three acts by English playwright Tom Taylor
Tom Taylor
Tom Taylor was an English dramatist, critic, biographer, public servant, and editor of Punch magazine...

. The play is a farce
Farce
In theatre, a farce is a comedy which aims at entertaining the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, disguise and mistaken identity, verbal humour of varying degrees of sophistication, which may include word play, and a fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases,...

 whose plot is based on the introduction of an awkward, boorish but honest American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

, Asa Trenchard, to his aristocratic English relatives when he goes to England to claim the family estate
Estate (law)
An estate is the net worth of a person at any point in time. It is the sum of a person's assets - legal rights, interests and entitlements to property of any kind - less all liabilities at that time. The issue is of special legal significance on a question of bankruptcy and death of the person...

. It premiered at Laura Keene
Laura Keene
Laura Keene was a British-born American stage actress and manager. In her twenty-year career, she became known as the first powerful female manager in New York.-Early life:...

's Theatre in New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

 on October 15, 1858, and the main character was first played by Joseph Jefferson
Joseph Jefferson
Joseph Jefferson, commonly known as Joe Jefferson , was an American actor. He was the third actor of this name in a family of actors and managers, and one of the most famous of all American comedians....

. Although the play achieved great renown during its first few years, it became best known as the play U.S. President
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 was attending in Ford's Theatre
Ford's Theatre
Ford's Theatre is a historic theater in Washington, D.C., used for various stage performances beginning in the 1860s. It is also the site of the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865...

 when he was assassinated by actor and Confederate
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

 sympathizer John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth was an American stage actor who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. Booth was a member of the prominent 19th century Booth theatrical family from Maryland and, by the 1860s, was a well-known actor...

 on April 14, 1865.


Among Our American Cousins cast was British actor Edward Askew Sothern
Edward Askew Sothern
Edward Askew Sothern was an English actor known for his comic roles in Britain and America, particularly Lord Dundreary in Our American Cousin.- Early years :...

, playing Lord Dundreary
Lord Dundreary
Lord Dundreary is a character of the 1858 British play Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor. He is the personification of a good-natured, brainless aristocrat. The role was created on stage by Edward Askew Sothern. The most famous scene involved Dundreary reading a letter from his even sillier...

, a caricature of a brainless English nobleman.
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Unanswered Questions
Encyclopedia
Our American Cousin is an 1858 play in three acts by English playwright Tom Taylor
Tom Taylor
Tom Taylor was an English dramatist, critic, biographer, public servant, and editor of Punch magazine...

. The play is a farce
Farce
In theatre, a farce is a comedy which aims at entertaining the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, disguise and mistaken identity, verbal humour of varying degrees of sophistication, which may include word play, and a fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases,...

 whose plot is based on the introduction of an awkward, boorish but honest American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

, Asa Trenchard, to his aristocratic English relatives when he goes to England to claim the family estate
Estate (law)
An estate is the net worth of a person at any point in time. It is the sum of a person's assets - legal rights, interests and entitlements to property of any kind - less all liabilities at that time. The issue is of special legal significance on a question of bankruptcy and death of the person...

. It premiered at Laura Keene
Laura Keene
Laura Keene was a British-born American stage actress and manager. In her twenty-year career, she became known as the first powerful female manager in New York.-Early life:...

's Theatre in New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

 on October 15, 1858, and the main character was first played by Joseph Jefferson
Joseph Jefferson
Joseph Jefferson, commonly known as Joe Jefferson , was an American actor. He was the third actor of this name in a family of actors and managers, and one of the most famous of all American comedians....

. Although the play achieved great renown during its first few years, it became best known as the play U.S. President
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 was attending in Ford's Theatre
Ford's Theatre
Ford's Theatre is a historic theater in Washington, D.C., used for various stage performances beginning in the 1860s. It is also the site of the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865...

 when he was assassinated by actor and Confederate
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

 sympathizer John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth was an American stage actor who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. Booth was a member of the prominent 19th century Booth theatrical family from Maryland and, by the 1860s, was a well-known actor...

 on April 14, 1865.

Theatrical acclaim and "Lord Dun-dreary"



Among Our American Cousins cast was British actor Edward Askew Sothern
Edward Askew Sothern
Edward Askew Sothern was an English actor known for his comic roles in Britain and America, particularly Lord Dundreary in Our American Cousin.- Early years :...

, playing Lord Dundreary
Lord Dundreary
Lord Dundreary is a character of the 1858 British play Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor. He is the personification of a good-natured, brainless aristocrat. The role was created on stage by Edward Askew Sothern. The most famous scene involved Dundreary reading a letter from his even sillier...

, a caricature of a brainless English nobleman. Sothern had already achieved fame on the New York stage in the play Camille
The Lady of the Camellias
The Lady of the Camellias is a novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils, first published in 1848, and subsequently adapted for the stage. The Lady of the Camellias premiered at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris, France on February 2, 1852. The play was an instant success, and Giuseppe Verdi immediately set...

 in 1856, and had been reluctant to take on the role, because he felt that it was too small and unimportant. He mentioned his qualms to his friend, Joseph Jefferson, who had been cast in the lead role, and Jefferson supposedly responded with the famous line: "There are no small parts, only small actors."

Our American Cousin premiered in New York on October 15, 1858. After several weeks of performances, Sothern began portraying the role more broadly, as a lisping, skipping, eccentric, weak-minded fop prone to nonsensical references to sayings of his "bwother" Sam. His ad-libs were a sensation, earning good notices for his physical comedy and spawning much imitation and mockery in both the United States and England. Sothern gradually expanded the role, adding gags and business until it became the central figure of the play. The most famous scene involved Dundreary reading a letter from his even sillier brother. The play ran for 150 nights, which was very successful for a New York run at the time. Sothern made his London debut in the role when the play ran for 496 performances at the Haymarket Theatre
Haymarket Theatre
The Theatre Royal Haymarket is a West End theatre in the Haymarket in the City of Westminster which dates back to 1720, making it the third-oldest London playhouse still in use...

 in 1861, earning rave reviews. The Athenaeum
Athenaeum (magazine)
The Athenaeum was a literary magazine published in London from 1828 to 1921. It had a reputation for publishing the very best writers of the age....

 wrote, "it is certainly the funniest thing in the world... a vile caricature of a vain nobleman, intensely ignorant, and extremely indolent".

"Dundrearyism
Dundrearyism
A Dundrearyism is an aphorism, proverb, colloquial phrase, saying or riddle humorously combined with another in such a way to render it nonsensical. An example is "Birds of a feather gather no moss."...

s", twisted aphorisms in the style of Lord Dundreary (e.g. "birds of a feather gather no moss"), enjoyed a brief vogue. And the character's style of beard — long, bushy sideburns
Sideburns
Sideburns or sideboards are patches of facial hair grown on the sides of the face, extending from the hairline to below the ears and worn with an unbearded chin...

 — gave the English language
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

 the word "dundrearies".

Dundreary became a popular recurring character, and Sothern successfully revived the play many times, making Dundreary by far his most famous role.

A number of spin-off
Spin-off (media)
In media, a spin-off is a radio program, television program, video game, or any narrative work, derived from one or more already existing works, that focuses, in particular, in more detail on one aspect of that original work...

 plays of Our American Cousin were written, all focusing on the Lord Dundreary character, including Henry James Byron
Henry James Byron
Henry James Byron was a prolific English dramatist, as well as an editor, journalist, director, theatre manager, novelist and actor....

's Dundreary Married and Done For, Charles Gayler's Our American Cousin at Home, or, Lord Dundreary Abroad (1859 at Keene's Theatre, starring Sothern), and John Oxenford
John Oxenford
John Oxenford , English dramatist, was born at Camberwell, London, England.-Life:He began his literary career by writing on finance...

's Brother Sam (1862; revived in 1865), a play about Dundreary's brother.

Principal roles and original cast

  • Asa Trenchard (a rustic American) – Joseph Jefferson
    Joseph Jefferson
    Joseph Jefferson, commonly known as Joe Jefferson , was an American actor. He was the third actor of this name in a family of actors and managers, and one of the most famous of all American comedians....

  • Sir Edward Trenchard (a baronet) – E. Varrey
  • Florence Trenchard (his daughter) – Laura Keene
    Laura Keene
    Laura Keene was a British-born American stage actress and manager. In her twenty-year career, she became known as the first powerful female manager in New York.-Early life:...

  • Mary Meredith (a poor cousin) – Sara Stevens
  • Lord Dundreary (an idiotic English nobleman) – E. A. Sothern
  • Mr. Coyle (a businessman) – J.G. Burnett
  • Abel Murcott (his clerk) – C.W. Couldock
  • Lt. Harry Vernon (of the Royal Navy) – M. Levick
  • Mr. Binny (a butler) – Mr. Peters
  • Mrs. Mountchessington – Mary Wells
  • Augusta (her daughter) – E. Germon
  • Georgina (another daughter) – Mrs. Sothern

Synopsis



Act I


In the drawing room at Trenchard Manor, the servants remark on their employer's poor financial circumstances. Florence Trenchard, an aristocratic young beauty, loves Lieutenant Harry Vernon of the Royal Navy, but she is unable to marry him until he progresses to a higher rank. She receives a letter from her brother Ned, who is currently in the United States. Ned has met some rustic cousins from a branch of the family that had emigrated to Vermont in America two centuries earlier. They related to Ned that great uncle Mark Trenchard had, after angrily disinheriting his children and leaving England years ago, found these Vermont cousins. He had moved in with them and eventually made Asa, one of the sons, heir to his property in England. Asa is now sailing to England to claim the estate.

Asa is noisy coarse and vulgar, but honestly forthright and colourful. The English Trenchards are alternately amused and appalled by this Vermont cousin. Richard Coyle, agent of the estate, meets with Sir Edward Trenchard (Florence's father) and tells the baronet that the family faces bankruptcy unless they can repay a debt to Coyle. Coyle is concealing the evidence that the loan had been repaid long ago by Sir Edward's late father. Coyle suggests that the loan would be satisfied if he may marry Florence, who detests him. Meanwhile, Asa and the butler, Binny, try to understand each others' unfamiliar ways, as Asa tries to understand what the purpose of a shower might be, dousing himself while fully clothed.

Act II


Mrs. Mountchessington is staying at Trenchard Manor. She advises Augusta, her daughter, to be attentive to the presumably wealthy Vermont "savage". Meanwhile, her other daughter, Georgina, is courting an imbecilic nobleman named Dundreary, by pretending to be ill. Florence's old tutor, the unhappy alcoholic Abel Murcott, warns her that Coyle intends to marry her. Asa overhears this and offers Florence his help. Murcott is Coyle's clerk and has found proof that Florence's late grandfather paid off the loan to Coyle.

Florence introduces her beloved cousin Mary Meredith to Asa. Mary is the granddaughter of old Mark Trenchard, who left his estate to Asa. Mary is very poor and has been raised as a humble dairy maid. Asa doesn't care about her social status and is attracted to her. Florence has not been able to bring herself to tell Mary that her grandfather's fortune had been left to Asa. Florence tells Asa that she loves Harry, who needs a good assignment to a ship. Asa uses his country wile to persuade Dundreary to help Harry get a ship. Meanwhile, Coyle has been up to no good, and the bailiffs arrive at Trenchard Manor.

Act III


At her dairy, Asa tells Mary about her grandfather in America, but he fibs about the end of the tale: He says that old Mark Trenchard changed his mind about disinheriting his English children and burned his Will. Asa promptly burns the Will himself. Florence discovers this and points it out to Mary, saying: "It means that he is a true hero, and he loves you, you little rogue." Meanwhile, Mrs. Mountchessington still hopes that Asa will propose to Augusta. When Asa tells them that Mark Trenchard had left Mary his fortune, Augusta and Mrs. Mountchessington are quite rude, but Asa stands up for himself.

Asa proposes to Mary and is happily accepted. He then sneaks into Coyle's office with Murcott and retrieves the paper that shows that the debt was paid. Asa confronts Coyle and insists that Coyle must pay off Sir Edward's other debts, with his doubtless ill-gotten gains, and also apologize to Florence for trying to force her into marriage. Moreover, he demands Coyle's resignation as the steward of Trenchard Manor, making Murcott steward instead. Murcott is so pleased that he vows to stop drinking. Coyle has no choice but to do all this. Florence marries Harry, Dundreary marries Georgina, and Augusta marries an old beau. Even the servants marry.

The Lincoln assassination



The play's most famous performance was at Ford's Theatre
Ford's Theatre
Ford's Theatre is a historic theater in Washington, D.C., used for various stage performances beginning in the 1860s. It is also the site of the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865...

 in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

 on April 14, 1865. Halfway through Act III, Scene 2, the character of Asa Trenchard, played that night by Harry Hawk, utters a line, considered one of the play's funniest, to Mrs. Mountchessington:
During the laughter that followed this line, John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth was an American stage actor who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. Booth was a member of the prominent 19th century Booth theatrical family from Maryland and, by the 1860s, was a well-known actor...

, a famous actor and Confederate
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

 sympathizer who was not in the cast of the play, fatally shot Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln assassination
The assassination of United States President Abraham Lincoln took place on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, as the American Civil War was drawing to a close. The assassination occurred five days after the commanding General of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee, and his battered Army of...

. Familiar with the play, Booth chose this moment in the hope that the sound of the audience's laughter would mask the sound of his gunshot. He then leapt from Lincoln's box to the stage and made his escape through the back of the theater to a horse he had left waiting in the alley.

The 2008 American opera Our American Cousin
Our American Cousin (opera)
Our American Cousin is an opera in three acts by the American composer Eric Sawyer with libretto by John Shoptaw. The main plot depicts the assassination of Abraham Lincoln from the standpoint of the actors presenting the play of the same name at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1865...

presents a fictionalized version of the night of Lincoln's assassination from the point of view of the actors in the cast of the play of the same name.

External links