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'The Play's the Thing' at Most Legitimate Theaters

  • Ted Landphair

President Lincoln was sitting in a rocking chair, similar to this, in the presidential box at Ford's Theatre, now faithfully restored, when actor John Wilkes Booth snuck up behind him and shot him.

President Lincoln was sitting in a rocking chair, similar to this, in the presidential box at Ford's Theatre, now faithfully restored, when actor John Wilkes Booth snuck up behind him and shot him.

But not for most visitors at one in Washington

A theater that draws a million people a year is mighty popular. Even more so when you consider that it offers only about 700 seats and that it's not a movie theater or some kind of arena.

It's strictly a legitimate theater, where live plays are performed. Good ones, too.

OK, this has been a bit of a trick. Only about one-fifth of the patrons come to see the PLAYS. The other 800,000 or so are actually visiting the BASEMENT as well as the auditorium - not to see a show but to see a large exhibit and the private box where one of the most tragic events in American history took place. This 1875 lithograph by Alexander Hay Ritchie shows the dying president, surrounded by friends and acquaintances, including some of his cabinet members.

This 1875 lithograph by Alexander Hay Ritchie shows the dying president, surrounded by friends and acquaintances, including some of his cabinet members.

A lighthearted comedy called Our American Cousin was staged in this theater 145 years ago. And enjoying it was the man whom many consider to have been America's greatest president: Abraham Lincoln. He and his victorious army had restored the fractured Union in a long and bloody civil war.

That night, the actor and southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shot and mortally wounded Lincoln. The president was carried across the street to a private residence, where he died before dawn.

Ford's Theatre closed immediately, and when owner John Ford tried to open it again, there were so many threats to burn it down that he ended up selling the theater to the Federal Government, which gutted it and turned it into office space. There, in 1893, 22 government clerks were killed when the floors collapsed. The presidential box at Ford's Theatre where Abraham Lincoln was shot.

The presidential box at Ford's Theatre where Abraham Lincoln was shot.

It was not until 1968, 103 years after the assassination, that the theater as well as the house across the street were re-dedicated as the Ford's Theatre Lincoln Museum.

Since then, both the theatre and the Lincoln exhibits below - including Booth's pistol and the president's blood-stained shirt - have been refurbished. Visitors can still see a play many nights a year, as well as the box where Lincoln was shot. The flag-draped balcony is decorated just as it was that evening.

Lots of the plays feature a Lincoln story and character. And truth be told, there aren't many comedies among them.

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