By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
A couple of years ago a local theater impresario asked me to consider directing Our American Cousin as part of an Abraham Lincoln thing. The play, of course, is what the ol’ rail splitter was watching when John Wilkes Booth shot him. The idea was to present the play up until the moment of the assassination.
Intrigued, I read my way through the script … and major problems immediately leapt out. Wilkes didn’t pull the trigger until the third act – so the audience would have to sit through a whole lot play before the big moment. And the actual play?
Yoiks! Are we totally sure Lincoln didn’t commit suicide?
The script is very much of its time; a big, broad farce with references to people, places and things unknown today and a style of theater which would seem dusty and distant to a modern audience. Here, for example, is the line when Booth fired his gun: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap!” (Yeah, I don’t know what it means either.)
I found myself remembering all of that when I was watching Throughline Theatre’s production of André by William Dunlap.
This play has the distinction of being considered the first American play written on a genuinely American subject. Dunlap ran two theater companies in New York City following the Revolutionary War and wrote several plays, of which André is considered to be his best.
It opened in 1798 and is loosely based on the final days of Major John André who you may or may not know was a British spy in cahoots with Benedict Arnold. André was caught and eventually hung, but displayed such dignity and nobility during his imprisonment that people actually cried when he was put to death. Today they’d make a podcast about him, but Dunlap uses this historical event as a jumping off point.
The problem is that once you’ve said André is the first American play on an American subject you’ve pretty much said all there is to say.
The dialogue is from another time, both ornate and proclamatory in a way which renders it mostly unintelligible to a contemporary ear. Although I am excited to say I learned a new word: “Thriven” the past participle of “thrive.” I need to see if I can make that happen.
Additionally, André is so specifically about the time in which it was written it feels almost like an exhumation. It wasn’t until I was reading later I found out that the character, “The General”, is actually George Washington. I guess back then everybody knew that automatically – like everyone today knows that “The Excrescence” is actually Stephen Miller.
But Throughline has carved a space for itself presenting plays which appeal on an academic/intellectual and, certainly, the “first American play on an America subject” fits that bill.
But heavens, have they set before themselves a difficult task. On the big plus side they’ve cut it down from its original five acts (can you imagine?) to two short ones (the whole thing’s over in under two hours.) And there’s just something so inspiring in watching this young company brimming with young talent fixing on a point and pushing through, no matter the odds.
The production is being held at Aftershock Theatre, a former Slovenian social club nestled on a hill in Lawrenceville. This is my first visit and I loved the rawness of the space and its enormous potential. On the other hand, it’s still very much in process and, acoustically, the unfinished walls, ceiling and floor both smother and echo the actors, not necessarily a good thing when making sense of such antiquated dialogue is already a challenge.
I’m not sure how entranced someone who doesn’t care if it’s the first American play on an American subject will be. Director Shannon Knapp keeps a very firm hand on a pace and energy but hasn’t quite decided whether the production should be a period piece or a modern one. There are several different acting styles happening on stage, each as “right” as the other, but they can’t be in the same play at the same time.
It’s a large cast and all of them have worked their fingers to the bone to mount this piece of theatrical history which, to today’s audiences might seem outdated but, in 1798 would probably have thriven.