With Victorian times, the comedy of manners transformed into a drawing room comedy, a play in which the upper classes could be scoffed at as they tried to remain oh, so proper as crazy events took place around them. The name “drawing room play” or “Drawing room comedy” probably originated because of the short playlets wealthier folk would perform for guests in their drawing rooms after dinner.
One of the most popular drawing room comedies was “Our American Cousin,” the story of an English aristocratic family dealing with a bumpkin American cousin who has come to England to claim their estate. Lord Dundreary, an English nobleman and the estate’s proprietor, must figure out how to keep the brash American from taking over. He enlists the help of a baronet and his two flighty daughters. Hijynx ensue.
The Lord Dundreary character was immediately popular and mis-spoken adages, called “dundrearyisms” became all the rage. An example would be “a bird in the hand gathers no moss.” The play itself was so popular that sequels were quickly written and produced, including “Our Female American Cousin,” “Our American Cousin at Home, or Lord Dundreary Abroad” and “Dundreary Married and Done For.”
Well beyond that, however “Our American Cousin” is most famous for two things:
When originally casting the role of Lord Dundreary, a British actor named Edward Askew Sothern was approached. He had recently achieved acclaim performing in “Camille” on Broadway and was reluctant to take a role that he believed to be too small for an actor of his caliber. Joseph Jefferson, who had been cast in the lead role, listened to Sothern lament about the situation then offered the admonishment, “There are no small roles, only small actors.”
Sothern took the role and was a huge success. He even traveled with the show when is opened in London where it did 498 performances and was touted as “the funniest thing in the world.”
Of course, the other claim to fame for the play occurred on April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
The play’s first and second acts had gone incredibly well, delighting everyone in attendance, including America’s war-weary president, Abraham Lincoln. Halfway through the third and final act, Asa, the American cousin, delivers a line considered one of the play’s funniest. It is a retort to Mrs. Mountshessington, an annoying busybody who has accused him of bad manners.
“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!”
The audience burst into applause and gales of laughter. Taking advantage of the distraction, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth burst into the box in which the president was sitting and shot him in the back of the head.
The play and its sequels were instantly aligned with one of the great tragedies of America’s short history. Perhaps the sensationalism helped, but the play and its sequels were crowd-pleasing hits.