Guarding Lincoln—A Verse Play in Five Acts
by Amit Majmudar
The Scene is one man’s memory throughout, pulling walls and props into configuration, holding them there and letting them go. (In some ways this play, for all its characters and activity, is a one-man show.) Accordingly, many events are telescoped, expanded, spliced, or juxtaposed as if chronologically successive when historically they may have occurred weeks, months, even years apart. There needn’t be great effort at keeping the transitions imperceptible; they must not be loud, however, simply because Hill is often speaking through them. The lighting has a role in signaling the end of a remembered sequence and in emphasizing or de-emphasizing a region of the stage; its role is detailed in the course of the play, second in significance only to Hill’s. I have divided the play into Acts and Scenes simply for convenience of reference. Continuity should be emphasized in performance, and I have made this continuity explicit in the stage directions. Except for the Petersen House and State Box scenes, the stage should have the minimum amount of scenery necessary to suggest the location.
The Time: Hill, the narrator/Chorus, reminisces an unspecified number of years after the events. Most of the play’s action takes place around the time of Lincoln’s assassination (April 14th-15th, 1865), beginning in Act I Scene ii at 9 p.m. of the 14th, but the action fluctuates widely in time and space.
The Stage is the present-day Ford’s Theater, with the façade of a decorated State Box overlooking the stage on the right.
Cast of Characters. Casting and costumes will benefit from the easily accessible historical photographs of several characters in the play, including Ward Hill Lamon himself. Where the appearance or overall demeanor of the character is not of great importance, I have given an indication of their role instead of a description.
WARD HILL LAMON: Lincoln’s personal friend and bodyguard; called “Hill” by the President, and hence by the play; a huge man, with drinker’s eyes and a faint Southern accent.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: A few characteristic touches (beard, hat) should be enough to indicate his identity; he and Hill should be the two tallest people in the cast.
MARY TODD LINCOLN: Round, with an aggressive voice.
JOHN WILKES BOOTH: Handsome, slender, catlike in his movements.
GEORGE ATZERODT: Scruffy and dirty; a German accent, but not overdone.
JOHN BUCKINGHAM: Ticket-taker at Ford’s Theater.
JOHNNY PEANUT: Late adolescence, a little slow.
JOHN PARKER: Lincoln’s substitute bodyguard the night of the assassination; well-groomed, but two details of his uniform must be off: his shirt should be tucked asymmetrically, and he must have his badge on at a slight angle.
MISS LAURA KEENE: A famous actress.
MISS CLARA HARRIS: A family friend of the Lincolns.
FORBES: The President’s valet.
BURNS: The President’s coachman.
STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS: Short.
CLARK MILLS: An artist who made Lincoln’s life-mask.
DR. CHARLES LEALE: A 23-year-old doctor.
DR. TAFT: An older doctor.
HARRY HAWK: Comic actor in Our American Cousin.
MARY WELLS: Comic actress in Our American Cousin.
EVE GERMON: Comic actress in Our American Cousin.
EDWIN STANTON, SECRETARY OF WAR: Bespectacled, small in stature; little-dictatorish; a nasal but commanding voice.
PETERSEN: Owner of Petersen House, where Lincoln died.
GENERAL AUGUR: Commandant of the Department of Washington.
JUSTICE CARTER: Older than Augur.
ROBERT LINCOLN: Lincoln’s young son.
GIDEON WELLES: Secretary of the Navy.
SENATOR CHARLES SUMNER: Should look very patrician.
YOUNG LAWYERS; CROWDMEMBERS; SOLDIERS; 6 WITNESSES to the assassination.
Scene 1 (Prologue). Bare stage. Ward Hill Lamon enters and addresses the audience.
WARD HILL LAMON.
You’d hoped for Mr. Stanton, I suspect.
Or Dr. Leale, who kept that night’s crimson cuffs
In a brass case—reliquary for the blood.
Well, either could have told this story, both
Better than me, I bet. I never dug
The slug out with my naked fingers, never
Twisted a porcelain probe in the wound.
I wasn’t there saluting when his spirit
Raced up the sky the morning of the 15th.
It wasn’t his no more, that spirit. Wasn’t
Even America’s. ‘Now he belongs to the ages.’
Maybe. But these my memories belong
To me, and me you’ve got, full fourteen stone,
Atrociously sober on a Saturday night.
I’ll tell my memories, as my host requests me.
Believe me, though, if Lamon had his druthers,
He’d sooner douse these memories with whiskey
Than floodlight a stage with their embers....
Abraham, Father of the Tribes.
The white tribe, the black tribe,
The blue tribe, the gray tribe.
Clashing colors, clashing dyes.
Father, too, of all the cottonmouths,
Sidewinders, and Copperheads
That vied to strike his heel.
Personal bodyguard, personal friend
Of President Abraham Lincoln, I
Am Ward Hill Lamon. Friend: always.
Guard: always—save the night he needed saving.
[Hill points into the audience, to a seat at the far right aisle, causing a spotlight to come on over John Parker, who watches the stage. At the recorded sound of a theater, laughing, John Parker laughs, oblivious to Hill pointing at him or the spotlight on him.]
Scene 2. The Performance of Our American Cousin, Good Friday, April 14th, 1865. Approximately 9:45 pm. The stage remains bare until Hill steps off it, and Scene 3 starts being set up.
—is John Parker.
The play he’s watching: Our American Cousin.
Is it funny the third time around, John?
[Louder laughter overhead; John Parker laughs, stretches, takes out a fob watch and puts it back. Hill shakes his head.]
John Parker…let me guess: Never heard of him?
[Hill walks menacingly and slowly across the stage and down the steps toward John Parker. His voice has accusation in it and grief. Parker remains oblivious to him, periodically laughing or giggling with the recorded laughter overhead.]
John Parker was assigned
To guard the President at Ford’s
Theater that April night,
To catch the hole, flecked bright
With fresh wood, bored
In the State Box door
And the dark eye
Blinking behind it.
[Hill crouches so he’s level with John Parker.]
Why ain’t you up there, Parker,
With your face to the corridor
Where you’re supposed to be?
God damn it, man, why haven’t
You been keeping your pistols oiled
And both hands free?
[Hill straightens and addresses the audience again.]
He wasn’t assigned to wander off downstairs
And guffaw with his fellow Americans.
A pleasant evening at the theater!
[Recorded laughter again, Parker enjoying himself.]
That silly bumpkin—Asa! Took the will
That named him heir to his uncle’s millions
And used it to light a cigar!
[He looks down at Parker again.]
How could anyone be so stupid?
[Recorded laughter again, Parker enjoying himself. Hill is pretty much on top of him by now. As if made uncomfortable by Hill’s glower (which he remains oblivious to), he looks around furtively, checks his fob watch again; then gets up and heads up the aisle and out of the theater. Hill addresses the audience.]
Time enough to get a drink in? Sure.
No one will know. Thirsty, thirsty, sneak out
Real quick, then back here for
The final act. Ain’t there a bar next door?
[Hill follows Parker out of the theater while the lights come on onstage.]
Scene 3. Outside Ford’s Theater. Two facades, Ford’s Theater and Taltavul’s Tavern. Burns, slouching in the driver’s seat of President’s carriage; Forbes, standing on the ground by him.
You ever see a battle?
Not a battle. Just
A battlefield, afterward. Shiloh. I recall
Raindrops testing a crushed snare drum.
Funeral taps. The dead don’t rise and march.
Confederate banner surrendered its orange to sundown.
No constellation for its stars. No consolation.
The sky must be darker this evening in Richmond.
Five years this Union interlocked its fingers.
Five years. One hand trying to break the other.
Say, were they really what they said they were?
A people? Did we keep a thing alive?
Or kill a thing that wasn’t born yet?
Come easy, after Appommatox. Truth is,
I wished ’em hellfire just a week ago.
You see the prisoners they marched through here?
Five hundred of them nearabouts I saw.
They came on up this road here, skygray jackets.
Balconies, doorways, storefronts, lawns
Watched them shuffle on. Untucked, unkempt,
Uncountried. Soaked gauze on a stub knee,
The medic’s bullet still between the teeth.
[During Forbes’s lines, enter Parker out of Ford’s Theater. He approaches Burns and Forbes.]
Not interested in the play there, John?
Play’s fine. I’m just a tad more interested,
That’s all, in a drink.
You talking bout those rebel prisoners
They marched up Constitution Avenue?
Not a soul jeered, here to F Street.
You see them, John Parker?
We whooped the bastards, we did.
If I’d a been there, I’d a spit.
It wasn’t like that. Didn’t even feel
Like victory, not in front of them at least.
Just bodies on the ground.
Just losses all around.
No way to hate them, once you saw them.
Hmph. Ask the Union boys they fired on.
The President speaks of the South as a house
Hurricane-hit he’s eager to rebuild.
There’s money to be made down South, there is.
The manors Sherman kicks to bric-a-brac
Have got to be stacked up again, you know,
Factories, foundries. Labor’s plentiful
What with the freed slaves rubbin’ at their wrists
And wondering what it is to own two hands.
You plan to pack a carpetbag, John Parker?
And leave this beauty of a job I’ve got?
Where else can a guy cop a malt at Taltavul’s,
On the clock no less, and see
Miss Laura Keene perform for free?
“Would you care for a little ale?”
FORBES (glancing at Burns, shrugging).
[Exeunt into Taltavul’s Tavern. Re-enter Hill.]
He’ll come out soon—from the very door!
Ale from the same tap brims him up with courage
And empties out their minds. Did he scoot off
His barstool when they came so they could sit
Three in a row, and bump their pints, and toast
The Union? Did he tip his hat?
[John Wilkes Booth comes out of the bar and looks up at the sky. As soon as he leaves it, the spotlights focus on the two actors, the façade of the scene is rolled away and the stage starts being reset into the next scene (see below). Booth takes out his Derringer discreetly and slips it back. He checks his knife as well.]
These all are moments I was never there for—
But God, I can imagine—he’s so close—
[Hill takes out a pistol of his own and points it at the oblivious Booth. Hill looks at the audience.]
You wouldn’t mind it, would you, if I change
A detail here? If I indulge my heart
And down a shotglass full of wish-I-had,
Wink at the barman,
Tell him to put it on history’s tab?
No way to shoot a bullet through time past.
[Booth begins to whistle and turns to enter Ford’s Theater. Hill puts his pistol away and exits.]
Scene 4. The Lobby of Ford’s Theater. John Buckingham, the ticket-taker, reading a book. He holds out his hand without looking.
Ticket please. The play’s already started, though.
BOOTH (tilting up his stovepipe hat).
“You don’t need a ticket from me, do you?”
Why, Mr. Booth! I did not recognize you!
You care much for the comedy, Mr. Buckingham?
It’s a good one. Our American Cousin.
Been running off and on five years this June.
You know it line for line by now, I bet.
Ain’t no way could I say those lines like you.
So what’s your favorite line in the whole thing?
Don’t s’pose I could think of one, just like that.
I acted in this play, in Richmond once.
I’ll tell you what my favorite line was:
(affecting a caricatured, country-bumpkin voice)
“Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside
out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man-trap!”
[Buckingham bursts out laughing.]
Low comedy, high tragedy, how do you do it?
Now here you are a better Asa Trenchard
Than Mr. Harry Hawk himself—when just
Last January, I saw you as Brutus.
BOOTH (smile fading).
I see myself as Brutus this month and ever after.
Antony’s speech designs to choke us up,
But the way you delivered your lines, Mr. Booth,
We were rooting for Brutus
And booing the fellow who followed you.
Brutus hated tyranny. What you heard
Were the Bard’s words, to be sure, but my own heart.
Your style’s your own, too, what with the way you leap,
Your lines shot forth so high, you’re carried airborne.
That is what my critics have called me, you know—
The “Gymnastic Actor.”
Your fight scenes make you seem a real swordsman,
Like you indulge the actor across from you.
When you were Roderick in The Marble Heart—
Now when’d that one come out? Three years ago?
The Marble Heart. You know I debuted Roderick
Before the President himself, in that one.
That night the fellow opposite me fell
Into the pit when I lunged at him first
Earlier than we rehearsed.
Will we be seeing you onstage again?
BOOTH (walking past him).
Tonight, sir, shall be my finest performance.
Is that so? Are you in the play, Mr. Booth?
A guest appearance, in the President’s honor.
A walk-on—no. A leap-on part.
Who as? Not Lord Dundreary’s butler?
BOOTH (finger to his lips, winking).
Don’t tell, but I’m the God in the machine.
Brief role, but long enough to end the scene.
[Exit Booth into the theater.]
End of Act 1.