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Some things we read and remember, others we read and forget, and once in a while something comes along it feels almost improper to know. A good example is the name of the play Abraham Lincoln was watching at Ford's Theatre the night of April 14, 1865, when he was assassinated. It was something called Our American Cousin. So what? Let the play molder in the total obscurity it deserves. Has it been performed since?
But now I have a different view of the matter. We went out to the coast last week and we saw Our American Cousin. A professional company called Parson's Nose Theater that specializes in trimmed, commedia versions of classic theater staged it in Pasadena. My brother-in-law Paul Perri was in the cast.
It's a farce. Paul explained that John Wilkes Booth, an actor, knew the play well, and he timed his shot to be drowned out by the third-act laughter that always followed the funniest line in the play:
"You sockdologizing old mantrap!"
Language goes in and out of fashion, and to judge from the reaction I heard, "You sockdologizing old mantrap!" isn't the sure thing it used to be. But the play is still a hoot, and I found myself in my folding chair putting myself in Lincoln's shoes. After four years of war, and just five days after Appomattox, he'd treated himself to a bit of fun and by God he was surely having it. The lines we all guffawed at were lines that must have made him whack a palm against his thigh 150 years earlier. I'd never looked at it this way before, but when Booth fired a bullet into his skull, Lincoln died laughing.