- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

The humorous play “Our American Cousin” is forever associated with the fateful performance at Ford’s Theatre the evening of April 14, 1865, when President Lincoln was assassinated. One might think people would have wanted nothing more to do with the play after that. Amazingly, however, the play’s most popular character, a comic aristocrat named Lord Dundreary, remained one of the most beloved figures in 19th-century pop culture for many more years.

“Our American Cousin” was written in 1851 by an English playwright named Tom Taylor. Judging by the play’s story line, Mr. Taylor rather liked Americans, especially when compared to more critical writers of the day, such as Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope.

The title character is one Asa Trenchard, a rich Yankee from Vermont visiting his money-hungry relatives in England. Although unpolished in manners and speech (especially speech), the good-hearted Asa saves his relatives from a corrupt lawyer who has swindled them. Asa does this even after he sees through their fortune-hunting schemes.

Meanwhile, wandering on and off the stage at odd intervals is Lord Dundreary, a likable but chuckleheaded friend of the family.

Ironically, the play was first performed in the United States, in New York. In 1858, it was sold for $1,000 to Laura Keene. Keene was not only a successful actress, but also a manager, producer and writer — quite a resume for a woman in mid-l9th-century America or anywhere else.

She gave the part of Lord Dundreary to an initially reluctant English actor named Edward Askew Sothern, along with permission for him to expand the character’s role and even ad-lib. The play began its run Oct. 15, and over the succeeding weeks, Lord Dundreary became its most popular character.

Mr. Sothern costumed Lord Dundreary in a long, full-length coat with vest, cravat, collar and — of course — a monocle. Dundreary also had a droopy mustache, massive mutton-chop whiskers and hair parted neatly down the middle.

Dundreary doesn’t actually have much effect on the story, although at one point, Asa successfully pressures him to help one of the characters get a job. Instead, Lord Dundreary comments on the play and almost anything else that comes to his mind — in a lisping voice and with a logic all his own, such as: “It’s so seldom I get an idea that when I do get one it startles me” or, “I never can forget — when I can recollect.”

“Our American Cousin” gained in popularity over the next few years, being shown across America and in Britain, too. Inevitably, there was a flood of (unauthorized) spinoff merchandise. Those so-minded could purchase “Dundreary shoes” or other items of attire as well as monocles and false whiskers. Musicians composed Dundreary dances. People could read brand-new Dundreary stories. Like Sherlock Holmes, Lord Dundreary soon had outgrown his original story line and could appear in almost any setting.

Despite Lincoln’s assassination, Lord Dundreary retained his popularity. For example, the July 17, 1880 issue of Harper’s Weekly printed a lengthy poem, “Lord Dundreary on Going to the Country.” Dundreary, it seems, doesn’t like the rural life at all, and says so, in an r-less voice like Elmer Fudd’s: “There’ll be horses to dwive a-and wambles to take, / And the mountains d-don’t have any stairs, / And howwid untidy dinners to eat, / Without any tables or chairs.”

Lord Dundreary even returned to the Washington area for a George Washington birthday parade in Alexandria on Feb. 22, 1889. As described in The Washington Post, the parade included not only historical figures, but also a devil, two harlequins and Lord Dundreary “accompanied by two lady impersonators.”

And E.A. Sothern? His rendition of Lord Dundreary just possibly may have been the making of him. Sothern became a major figure on the American stage for years. Although he played many serious roles, he never quite got away from his fictional creation, and he continued to play Dundreary until 1880, a year before his death. His son, E.H. Sothern, then took up the role and played it as late as 1915.

Perhaps what George Orwell once wrote about the English applies to Americans too, that we are “extremely fond of the titled ass.”

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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