There is something crass and congenitally wrong with continuing to produce live performances at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. President Lincoln was shot in the back of the head there by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.  Why do Americans totemize the gory deaths of our leaders?  The limousine President Kennedy was assassinated in is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

When I worked on a couple of productions at Ford’s Theater in the late 1980’s, you could visit the museum in the basement and see the actual blood-soaked white shirt and evening coat the President was wearing at the time of his assassination.

It was hauntingly horrible to imagine the evil done in that theatre.  There is a human disconnect between the yearly production of “A Christmas Carol” — performed only feet away from where President Lincoln lost his life — and the meaning of a misbegotten life.

Seeing a show at Ford’s Theatre is the ultimate test of the Suspension of Disbelief against the wake of an indescribable Stench of Death wafting forever in the gunsmoke around you.

You can even stand in the same spot as Booth and pretend to be Lincoln’s assassin if the urge is within you.

I don’t think Ford’s Theatre will let you make Booth’s famous leap from Lincoln’s box to the stage to shout — “Sic semper tyrannis!” — but you could always try.  Break a leg!

Here is Ford’s Theatre as I knew it.

Here is the “renovated” Ford’s Theatre today, completed in 2009 after 18 months of work, with a new, shifted, entrance that isn’t even part of the old theatre, and an amusement park marquee, a whole new gift shop — I wonder if they sell any John Wilkes Booth memorabilia? — and remodeled bathrooms and a whole new lobby museum.

The gentrification of our most horrible moment in American history can only leave behind private shame and a bitter public taste of a memory some want to whitewash with spotlights and singalongs — but the stain of bloodshed forever marks Ford’s Theatre — and it should have been made into a national memorial and no live performance should have ever been attempted again after Lincoln’s killing.

Every living President I have seen visit a Ford’s Theatre performance has always looked pale and sickly as they sit there in the midst of Lincoln’s living grave.  The Presidents know the history of the place and they absolutely cannot help but feel the chill of Lincoln’s assassin creeping along the back of their necks because they know their similar fate is only but a bullet shot away — and for them to sit there and pretend to ignore the killing of their predecessor is shudder-inducing and their fear cannot be hidden as they meekly applaud and and try to smile while looking for the nearest exit.

We dishonor Abraham Lincoln as a man and we discredit his memory as a monument in the frothy performances at Ford’s — and for what reason?  So we can all forget our troubles?  Or so we can try to whistle “Good King Wenceslas” in the graveyard as we try to ignore the assassination hanging above us up and to our right?

Here is the Ford’s Theatre stage after the renovation.

Theatre seats have replaced the regular spoke-back chairs that gave the theatre its hardy character — but there’s no way any renovation can remove the viciousness of a moment frozen in time that lingers forever in the heart of every American who dreams of freedom at night and tries to pinch away the Stench of Death in the daylight that still indelibly soils Ford’s Theatre today.

11 Comments

  1. The whole experience of Ford’s Theatre is to soak in the place of Lincoln’s assassination. It’s a pretty morbid mandate, but there it is… I’m sure some people people are good at repression; but for others like me… there is a haunted horribleness being in that building and not able to think of anything else but the killing. It took me a good three weeks to work up the nerve to stand where Booth stood during the assassination. It was a step-by-day process of moving my body there even though my mind was resistant. When I finally got there, I thought I would feel fascinated and relieved when all it did was make me feel sicker to my stomach.

  2. I think some people are really oblivious about the gory details of life…I have seen people visiting these places like “Ford’s Theatre” with an indifferent academic interest which always bothered me…I kept on thinking – am I overreacting?
    I still remember visiting Vietnam Veterans Memorial while going to Lincoln Memorial but the experience was not something that I relished…

  3. I don’t mind the Lincoln Memorial or even the Vietnam Memorial. They are both appropriately powerful — but no one was shot or killed RIGHT THERE on the spot of the monument.
    Ford’s Theatre is the very place where an assassin found the back of Abe Lincoln’s head and landed a fatal bullet in his brain. To continue to perform in the space is just insulting to his memory and ours as a cogent nation.
    I’d love to know the first person at Ford’s Theatre who said, after the assassination, “Sure, Honest Abe was shot dead here; let’s put on a show!”
    Ronald Reagan commented on the weird Ford’s Theatre sensation in his memoir:

    On Saturday March 21, Nancy and I made our first trip to Ford’s Theater in Washington to attend a black-tie gala to raise money for support of this historic building. During the performance, I looked up at the presidential box above the stage where Abe Lincoln had been sitting the night he was shot and felt a curious sensation. As you look up there, you can’t help but run those events of 1865 through your mind: You imagine the figure of John Wilkes Booth bursting through the door at the rear of the box, shooting the president, then leaping onto the stage and running away before a stunned audience.
    It occurred to me that until that night probably no one had ever given much thought to the possibility someone might want to kill the president. As I watched the show, I thought about all the security provided for Nancy and me and the children and how different things were now. Looking up at the flag-draped box, though, I thought that even with all the Secret Service protection we now had, it was probably still possible for someone who had enough determination to get close enough to a president to shoot him.

    http://www.ronaldreagan.com/march30.html
    Reagan was shot nine days after his first visit to Ford’s Theatre — after he had given a speech at a Washington, D.C. hotel.
    Now, if we sort of meander and follow the Ford’s Theatre logic… the hotel should’ve created the “Ronald Reagan Presidential Suite” right there on the street next to where Reagan was shot so people could check in and look at the scene of the attempted assassination. Room service, included!
    The Book Depository overlooking Dealey Plaza is no longer a book depository — there’s no cordoned-off area where Oswald aimed and shot while book depository work is still being done around it. It’s a government landmark and museum now.
    http://www.jfk.org/go/about

  4. That’s an excellent link, though I wish you weren’t pointing to Wikipedia.
    When we first moved here to NJ, there was a terrible murder in the neighborhood. Blood stained the sidewalk for months. I watched people who knew exactly what happened on that spot walk over the killing ground every single day. I always cross the street to avoid walking on that invisible bloodstain indicating the last gasps of life.

  5. Oh shoot! sorry about wikipedia.
    Ok, to make that up, here is one more link:
    http://www.tn.gov.in/pressrelease/archives/pr2003/pr101003/pr101003-2.htm
    The lady in front is Sonia Gandhi, the wife of late Rajiv Gandhi — an Italian by birth….married to an Indian…lost both her husband and mother-in-law (Indira Gandhi) in a vicious murder…finally joined politics to carry the family baton. One heck of a woman I really admire till today.

  6. David I don’t see it that way at all.We can’t stop having shows since Ford’s is part of a very long history.In doing so the fear has won.We can’t live in fear and must move forward while being able to look back to see our history.We need to feel these errie experiences beause it’s part of learning and human experience.I see a great beauty in the Ford’s Theatre which lasts through the centuries to teach us the reality of strife but also community.