Family Fun With Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth

abraham-lincoln-shooting[Hat-Tip to Steve West]

How would you like to attend a reenactment of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. On March 7 the Sovereign Majestic Theater in Pottsville, Pennsylvania will be transformed into Ford’s Theater. Booth will be played by Charles Sacavage, a retired Pottsville Area School District history teacher who now teaches history part-time at Alvernia University, Reading. He started reenacting Booth as a way to get his students interested in the subject:

We were on the Civil War. They weren’t impressed. I was inspired somehow. We were on the death of Lincoln. (Portraying Booth) I got up on top of my desk and glared at them, and all of a sudden I got their attention. Then I jumped off my desk and yelled ‘Sic semper tyrannus.’ That became almost required in my course. Every kid in Pottsville expected to see me jump off my desk.

Well, whatever works. There is something a little disturbing about reenacting the murder of a president. Given the reference to John F. Kennedy how would we feel about a reenactment of his murder? In that case they could also reenact the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby – 2 for 1. The news article noted that children under 12 get in free. In all seriousness, would you bring children under 12 to see the reenactment of a murder? Am I missing something here?

19 responses... add one

While I’ve always wanted to see a complete performance of Our American Cousin, I see no value in attending a reenactment of the assasination. Somehow, I don’t think “in poor taste” is enough to describe my thoughts on this.

Glad to hear it’s not just me. I don’t have children so it’s difficult for me to judge what is inappropriate given that we are such a violence-obsessed culture. For a minute there I thought we were heading from “Hey kids, how about dinner and a movie” to “How about dinner and a murder.”

Well, and that sort of says something about Civil War reenactments altogether… “hey kids, how about a day out watching men pretend to die in battle and suffering from some horribly debilitating and life-altering wounds!” Yipppeee!

For another surreal step through the looking glass, view videos on Youtube by James David Manning, a man who says that he wants to help heal the nation. He almost had me going, it sounded so good. Black men and women would lead the way for the healing of the entire nation by having a meeting of all races at Gettysburg. Yes! That is the way it should be. Then, I kept going. A little further, and little further, and a little further, and just around the next corner, happily skipping behind the rabbit, I bumped into it–a video entitled “Obama Omonkey” by Reverend James David Manning–a virulent racist rant if ever I heard one. I know that moderate voices in this conversation in the many different forms that the conversation takes, most definitely do not feel as this man feels–in fact, 99.9999% of the readers and contributors to this blog do not feel this way, I would venture to say. Also, I actually thought that the blogger who linked to James David Manning was himself moderate, and that I had misunderstood him. After viewing this video, all I can say –(wish; ! hope for it not to be so)–is “You’re kidding, aren’t you?? What unbelievable hatred is expressed in that diatribe. Is this the philosophy on race that the SCV condones? If you a SCV member and you don’t condone this philosophy, then please say so, and speak out against this sort of verbal violence.

A footnote on this, Kevin:

James David Manning is black, so the argument can be made that he can rant all he wants to rant about his own race, and that argument is valid, to a point. The cynical aspect of this situation –and cynical to the point of being almost brilliantly Machiavellian–is that I reached the link on Manning via a blog run by a white man who is a member of the SCV. Do we really have to depend upon little children to address this problem, America, or are we, the supposed adults, going to do something about it? The Attorney General was right. We are a nation of cowards when it comes to race–North, South, East, and West. If you don’t think so, please take a look at the video referenced in the above comment, then stand up on your hind legs and demand that it be removed from Youtube.

Kevin,

Let me play devil’s advocate here for a moment. As someone who has appeared in a documentary on Lincoln’s assassination, is that, in principle, any different from a re-enactment of Lincoln’s murder in whatever form it might appear. While I’m not really sure I approve of what this teacher is doing I also can’t say that if it was done for educational purposes that I think it’s wrong out of hand. In the Hunt for Lincoln’s Assassin, there were several instances of an actor shooting a pistol at Lincoln’s head with the sound of gunfire. It wasn’t done for shock value, but as part of the story. Is there room in the educational experience for what could be seen as a similar re-enactment, or are there different standards for television and live presentations?

Best
Rob

Kevin, Robert,

You are right, it does not seem to be “family entertainment.” And I’d personally question what a reenactment would possibly offer that has not been done by way of dramatizations in the various documentaries already on the market.

However, it seems the world has shifted a bit under my feet as I’ve grown older. We’ve had a three hour yawn-fest from big name producers with big-name actors offering gory details of the JFK assassination (as a plot prop, I’ll give you). Oh and not to mention the fictional assassination of what was our current setting president a few years back, portrayed in film. There just was not a shock value to measure, sadly, when the movie aired. When I was young, even the hint at such a screen play would have sparked outrage.

My prediction, given the “Lincoln” buzz in the pop-media associated with both current events and the anniversary, we’ll see a “Hunting Booth” or “Assassination of Lincoln” video game done in FPS style…. But it won’t be seen in my house, I tell you!

Craig.

I guess I’ll be the somewhat contrary voice here.

It’s not something I’m mark on my calender, and I certainly wouldn’t take a young child to such a thing if I had one, but I also don’t think it’s all that odd.

Is a “live” performance of the assassination any more disturbing than a filmed historical recreation? Those started with a startlingly realistic re-creation in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915. It’s been repeated in other films and documentaries over te last 93 years. The latest I’ve seen was on the History Channel a couple of weeks ago in “Stealing Lincoln’s Body.” That’s not going to be the last one. I’m sure Stephen Spielberg is going to go all-out in his Lincoln movie, and the movie based on the “Manhunt” book is also likely to include a death scene.

From the perspective of Civil War Memory, if you take Lincoln’s murder on Easter weekend as the starting point of the memory of Lincoln as a Christ figure, the obsession and re-creation with with moment of assassination could be seen as a secularized version of the Passion Play — a tradition stretching back to at least the 15th Century.

No matter how vivid our imaginations, no matter how well-written a narrative, there is still a big difference between reading about an event and being presented with a tableaux that allows you to deploy more than one of your senses.

I keep coming back to a distinction between a dramatic movie/documentary and a live performance. I’m not quite sure what that distinction involves, but it seems to have something to do with its entertainment value. Perhaps we allow Hollywood a certain license that is not reserved for the local theater company. I have no problem watching O. Stone’s “J.F.K.” (though it is a horrific movie) but I can’t imagine taking part in a reenactment of his assassination. Heather’s reference to the tradition of the Passion Play is helpful, but I can’t imagine it changing the reaction of most Christians.

Thanks for the comments as they are very helpful.

“But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

What’s interesting is the assertion that it’s being staged to “honor” Lincoln’s 200th birthday. I guess it all depends on how it’s handled. Are people expected to stand and applaud afterwards? (For those who aren’t familiar, the “audience” usually does this after Civil War reenactments, when the dead and maimed miraculously rise to walk again.)

Here’s my take:

Given enough time, history devolves into caricature. Look at Shakespeare’s immortalization of Caesar’s assassination by Brutus, or . . . The Spanish Inquisition! (Nobody ever expects it!) Or what some view as the obscene commercialization of Gettysburg. The absence of photographs, Zapruder films, and, most importantly, people who feel a personal connection to the event, only hasten the process. The less relevant the event becomes in memory, the more likely it is to be reduced to a comic book vignette – to whatever ends – and the more likely people are to acquiesce to its occurrence. The SCV seems bent on reshaping history into just such a vignette. The total irrelevance of the Civil War to most people (not me or you, or any of the readers of this blog) gives them a leg to stand on. But I don’t think we’re dealing with quite the same issue here, unless Mr. Sacavage actually does have some hidden agenda. There is, however, one connection that ought to be fleshed out: the abandonment of a complex understanding of history by the majority (who consider the events irrelevant to their daily lives), and the ability of a determined minority (who consider the events supremely relevant) to fill the subsequent void with their own version of an equally uncomplicated history.

When it comes to teaching, history as vignette has its benefits. I know of a professor who stages a one-man reenactment of the caning of Charles Sumner. He reproduces it in detail, even depicting how the Senator wrenched his bolted desk from the floor in order to escape a wrathful Preston Brooks. An admittedly brutal incident, it’s also important. And the professor presented it in such a way that it would not be forgotten – which is exactly what would have occurred if it had been skimmed over in lecture or (not) read in a textbook.

But then, no one likely needs a reenactment to remind them of Lincoln’s fate.

So I’m left to wonder: does this signify that enough time has passed to render the event (and by implication, Lincoln) irrelevant to most Americans? Sure, academics, teachers, scholars – and ostensibly politicians – appreciate Lincoln’s legacy. But how much of it is really absorbed by the greater public, and how much of it is simply blurted back in the form of lip service and platitudes? Assuming there is a disconnect, how great is it, and what does it imply? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Or simply the way things are?

I am not a Lincoln scholar, and I’m sure some smart guy or gal has addressed this issue. If not, I sense a possible dissertation topic for someone.

There’s evidently just something different about Lincoln and Booth. I’m still trying to figure out why at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, a figure of Booth is prominently displayed in the main hall, since I can’t imagine, oh, the J.F.K. Library seeking out and prominently displaying a wax figure of Lee Harvey Oswald. In any context.

I agree that a performance by the teacher is a bit much and may be seen as over the top. I’ve always found it interesting that comedians make jokes about the Lincoln assassination but rarely about the Kennedy assassination. I guess that is because so many people are still alive that remember Dallas. I think the teacher could have used as a teaching tool instead the movie ‘The Day Lincoln was Shot’. That move is pretty accurate, well acted, and quite moving. After it was over the teacher could talk with the students and discuss many aspects of the assassination. I don’t see how an amateur performance instead does anybody any good.
Chris

Since Kevin acknowledged my post with the gracious hat tip, I thought I would weigh in on the discussion here.

Commenters have raised a number of comparisons to question whether re-enacting Lincoln’s assassination is really so distasteful or different from what’s already out there. Robert Moore makes the comparison to re-enacting Civil War battles. I think it’s true that the popularity of battle re-enactments helps explain the Pennsylvania event and why its organizers don’t see it as anything unusual. They’ve taken that re-enacting impulse and fused it with the obsession in some quarters with Lincoln’s assassination. Personally, I find each of those things somewhat distasteful in itself, but in combination, they’re toxic.

For my money, there are some fundamental differences between re-enacting a battle and re-enacting Lincoln’s assassination. From the late 19th century on, an important part of the dominant memory of the Civil War has emphasized the battlefield valor of common soldiers on both sides—displacing the focus, as David Blight and others have shown, from why soldiers fought to how they fought. Battle re-enactors, whatever else you think of them, are at least true to that longstanding aspect of the dominant memory of the war: they recreate soldiers doing what it is that the public honors them for.

Re-enacting what happened at Ford’s Theatre is a different case. Lincoln’s assassination is certainly important to his mythic place in American culture, but the act of murder itself —getting shot unawares in the back of the head—is not what we value about him. That’s why this seems such an inappropriate way to “honor” him, which is what the group claims to want to do, as James Bartek points out. Unlike the common soldiers of the Civil War, Lincoln wasn’t displaying any particular valor or making any knowing sacrifice when he sat in that booth at Ford’s Theatre—he was trying to watch a show. That’s also what sets this apart from Heather Michon’s analogy to the Passion Play. In the Christian narrative, Jesus has to die, and suffer in dying, or he wouldn’t be the Christ; dying of natural causes at a ripe old age isn’t really an option. While Lincoln gets compared to Jesus by those who want to find meaning in his death, the powerful cross-current in public memory is the wish that Lincoln had lived, and the belief that America would have been a better place if he had.

As for the comparisons to cinematic or stage dramas, I’m with Kevin—Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or even Oliver Stone’s JFK, this ain’t. Those are historically inspired works of imagination. This is an attempt at historical re-creation as an act of public commemoration, and it’s better compared to other commemorative events. And in comparison to grade schoolers or Lincoln impersonators reciting the Gettysburg Address, this seems a pretty gruesome and downright creepy way to make history “come alive.”

Excellent post Mr. West. Those are my feelings exactly about this.
Thanks for such an insightful post,
Chris

“Then I jumped off my desk and yelled ‘Sic semper tyrannus.’ That became almost required in my course. ”

Tyrannis, sir, tyrannis. Otherwise you’ve just done “thus always the tyrant,” which hardly makes a fitting motto. Must bad Latin be a requirement for the course as well?

I’ve had a handful of “epiphany” moments in museums (broadly defined). Two involved Lincoln. One was January 2009, at the Smithsonian’s Lincoln centenary exhibit, where I got turned around in the exhibit and, trying to find the exit, turned a corner and found myself eighteen inches from the padded hoods worn by the conspirators after their capture in 1865. I recognized them instantly from photographs, and it was emotionally shocking to suddenly be confronted with them.

The other Lincoln event was many years before, when I visited Ford’s Theater. It really sank in — this was not a movie set, or a display, but the actual location where the president was murdered. This is where it ended, right here.

No, there are lots of historical events that can be taught through entertainment. This isn’t one of them, and for sure not for kids.

I was wondering if you had heard about the replica Lincoln funeral train that is being built in Illinois. If you haven’t, contact me. I have all the info.

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