Dozens of novels and films, even stage plays, have been written with Lee Harvey Oswald at their center. But with John Wilkes Booth, the number’s closer to zero (David Stocton’s fine but forgotten novel, The Judges of the Secret Court, is a rare exception).
There’s a simple reason: Oswald remains a smirking enigma, a kind of historic black hole sucking in all the meaning we can throw at him. He was the wrong man at the wrong time, a self-proclaimed Leninist who defected to the Soviet Union, then defected back. Writers will be finding material in those knotted motivations for decades.
But Booth? Booth we know all too well, even if we know only the basics. He was a Confederate fanatic. He was a dashing peacock, the handsomest of the famous actor Booths but the least respected.
So: Booth was vain, resentful and glory-seeking, not just a Southern sympathizer but a rabid racist. He was precisely the kind of man, in short, who would murder Abraham Lincoln. He presents little doubt or complication to explore, little character to unfold. His emotional direction was as straight as a bullet. End of story.
Yet Booth, Steven Michael Walters’ new play at Second Thought Theatre, charges along like a racing locomotive, bellowing and shooting out sparks. Under the playwright’s direction, the drama is too long, it carries too much historical freight, there’s far too much shouting.
But it’s definitely not boring. It’s not a historical reenactment. That’s partly because of Walters’ rapid-fire narrative, the way he’s built all these scenes as swift, mini-confrontations. That’s also partly because of the contemporary, post-9/11 political spin the play gives the events. And it’s partly because of Booth himself. Yes, he’s repellent and not all that deep, but he’s a highly charged force, a matinee idol raging to prove he’s something more than a handsome mustache.
The dearth of fictional treatments of Booth over the years is actually a little odd, considering how self-consciously theatrical the man and his conspiracy were. Booth styled himself as Shakespeare’s Brutus, the noble rebel against the tyrant Julius Caesar; it was a tragic role he had performed to acclaim. There is also another, more buried, Shakespearean element: Booth is an illegitimate son loathing the president because Lincoln’s emancipation policies encouraged racial ‘half-breeds.’ Think of the bastard son Edmund in King Lear, betraying his father, Gloucester, while framing his half-brother Edgar. Booth’s rage feels that Oedipal, that violently personal.
But in the dramatic plot he created, Booth wasn’t simply an actor. He gathered his fellow conspirators — a gang of roadhouse drunks, criminals and Confederate vets — and manipulated them like a stage director. He even wrote their scripts. Ford’s Theater provided the perfect setting; Booth had the run of the place. He gave himself the starring role: He shot Lincoln in full view of the audience, leaped on the stage, shouted a grandiose quotation (the state motto of Virginia) before speeding away into the Maryland woods.
And there, desperate and in pain from his broken leg, Booth took the time to read all the thumbs-down reviews the newspapers gave his performance.
We get much of this in Booth — and much more. One of the sharper things Walters has done is to start, more or less, with the assassination and then work backwards and forwards at the same time. We see scenes from Booth’s limping escape and the federal manhunt scrambling after him. These are intercut with flashbacks to the plotters’ quarrels, to Booth’s stage life with his brother Edwin, even to his romance with a Washington society belle.
Theatergoers may well find all of this just too much to track. But it’s clear that if Walters (and co-story writer/researcher Erik Archilla) are not exactly deepening Booth, they are tracing the web of connections around him as a Southern agent, as a resident of the capitol in 1865.
Most significantly, Booth tries to transform Booth’s ugly hatred of Lincoln (and African-Americans) into a coherent political stand about liberty vs. despotism. Booth fumes against Lincoln’s wartime suspension of habeas corpus and his use of summary arrests: These were the precedents the Bush administration used to justify its own post-9/11 disregard of constitutional protections.
Essentially, Booth is articulating a libertarian argument — or a Constitutional one about civil liberties. He offers both a general case against government tyranny and, more narrowly, against executive overreach. The resemblance to our own War on Terror and its handling of arrests, detentions and secret trials is plain. This is the heart of what motivates Booth, the play. But what motivated Booth, the assassin, was simpler. Dressing him up as a serious ideologue or even a Constitutional martyr is, frankly, nonsense. Lincoln could have piously respected habeas corpus and foregone all of the backroom arm-twisting he used to get things done (see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln). None of it would have mattered. Lincoln freed the slaves and defeated the South in a brutal, slogging war. Those actions alone, in Booth’s mind, more than justified murdering him and inflicting whatever suffering he could on the North.
That’s evident in Booth’s pivot away from his original, somewhat fantastical plot to kidnap the president. The plan had a smidgen of tactical justification as a kind of behind-the-lines guerrilla raid. If successful, the kidnappers would have exchanged Lincoln for imprisoned Southern soldiers. Instead — given the collapse of the Southern war effort in the wake of Lee’s surrender — Booth decided simply to shoot Lincoln in the back of the head. And simultaneously, his co-conspirators would hack Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson to death as well.
Booth may have tarted up all of this bloodshed with outcries about oppression, but neither Seward nor Johnson was responsible for Lincoln’s unconstitutional efforts. As for Booth’s other slim justification — the triple homicide would ‘decapitate’ the Union effort, thus turning the war around for the Confederacy — not even John Surrat, Booth’s own connection to the Confederate spy network, thought it would work. He wanted nothing to do with it. The South was too far gone. He seems to have seen the assassination for what it was: a last-ditch act of bitter revenge that would seriously backfire on an already defeated South.
What lends Booth’s charges and self-justifications any credence is not Lincoln but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton’s drive for vengeance after Lincoln’s murder confirm Booth’s worst allegations about federal seizure of power. In effect, Stanton staged a rather Cheney-like coup. He barged past any legal nicety to hunt and prosecute the killers. Illegal searches, coercion of witnesses, influencing judges: Short of murder, there was little he didn’t do. And with Mary Surrat — John’s mother, who was convicted and hanged on very little evidence — one could even argue Stanton crossed that line as well.
He was, after all, a secretary of war — and with such an attack behind the lines in Washington, D.C., Stanton saw little distinction between battlefield and homefront. He would treat everything as a military campaign, regardless of the Constitution. These kinds of abuses, these grabs at the levers of government, often happen after American assassinations or catastrophic events like 9/11. The overriding fear that this surprise assault is just the beginning of a much wider attack, the impulse to protect (or avenge) the president, the desire to assure the public that, despite the chaos, the government is in control and going about its purposes: All of these motives have led to actions that were hastily arranged (the Warren Report) or later regretted — as with our own state of affairs with Guantanamo and the NSA’s justification for spying on Americans.
As a result, Walters paints Stanton as almost as much a villain here as Booth. So it’s wise of Walters to humanize him. Stanton can too easily be just the assassin’s mirror image: the same desire for revenge, the same resort to violence. But Stanton wasn’t a power-hungry bully. We learn he’s motivated by sorrow and guilt as much as a thirst for harsh justice. Stanton was supposed to insure the president was protected, but he tried to discourage Lincoln’s late-night wanderings by denying him a full military detail. The secretary recognizes his own responsibility in Lincoln’s murder, and it tears at him. In actor Stan Denham’s forceful portrayal, this is his best scene, cracking open the mask of the god of war to show his pain and grief.
The Second Thought Theatre production — if we set aside the over-emphatic performing style — has a fine cast, including several actors, notably Montgomery Sutton as Booth and R. Bruce Elliot as Senator Hale, who actually resemble their historic counterparts. Sutton’s John Wilkes Booth is a dark whirlwind, all flashing eyes and ruthless urgency. In contrast to the yelling around him, Brandon Sterrett makes a simple, vivid impression as Lewis Powell, a taciturn, cold-hearted killer. Ditto Aaron Roberts as the implacable pursuer Henry Wells. Walters has also given the quarrelsome conspirators the kind of ‘dumb bro’ comic insults that he’s excelled at in earlier plays (Pluck the Day). They’re welcome relief here, the kind of comic relief Drew Wall is expert at conveying.
Perhaps the desire to emphasize the play’s contemporary relevance has led costumer Jennifer Ables to dress the actors in a mix of period and modern dress. The resulting clash of eras is mostly distracting. Set designer Aaron Jackson, on the other hand, has found a more historically evocative and powerful treatment. In Bryant Hall, he’s built wall sections around the audience, wall sections made of charred, wooden slats. This means, from the start, we are seated inside the tobacco barn that will be Booth’s end, the barn federal troops set afire before shooting him. Overhead, Jackson has linked giant wooden beams with star-shaped holes emitting light — they form a giant X, the infamous Stars and Bars of the Confederate battle flag. The overall impression of the production design is the smoldering aftermath of great violence. It’s a foreboding atmosphere wonderfully augmented by slow, mournful renditions onstage of “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” played with a guitar or sung a cappella.
Booth is an ambitious effort from Second Thought — thanks to a $40,000 grant from the Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund — and a major step up in complexity for Walters as a writer. Here’s hoping it finds continued life as a mini-series or a bigger stage production. Ultimately, though, it opts for something of an easy ‘pox on both their houses’ conclusion. Walters can’t simply write off Booth as the headcase who inspired all the Mark David Chapmans and Arthur Bremers who followed him, all of the American loser-assassins who’ve been armed with a gun and a grudge. Walters needs Booth to make sense, to make a Constitutional case relevant to today’s political events so he more or less buys Booth’s self-image as Brutus. On the other side of the scales, Stanton clearly barged past legal procedures for his own ends. Yet one feels he would have nabbed and convicted such clueless and disorganized plotters in any event — without all the hard-knuckled lawbreaking.
In short, Booth can be taken as a staged provocation about security and justice, liberty and warfare. Yet it offers no fully satisfying dramatic resolution to these issues. History, it seems, is too thorny, too convoluted and contradictory.
But Walters might well argue that’s the point. There has been no happy resolution in recent American history, either.
- Art & Seek’s Friday Conversation with writer-director Steven Walters
- Gadi Elkon review
- Dallas Morning News review
- TheaterJones review
- Front Row review
- Dallas Observer review
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram review
- Critical Rant & Rave review
- Dallas Voice review