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.
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.