How being a theater person got John Wilkes Booth killed
Rachel Manteuffel is an actor who works in the Washington Post‘s Editorial Department. She writes:
Friday is the 152nd anniversary of one of the foulest deeds in American history. It is also a day in which American actors swallow hard and recognize parts of ourselves in the villain of the story. Being an actor gave John Wilkes Booth the opportunity to murder America’s greatest president, but being an actor was also his tragic flaw. Arguably, it got him killed.
Enough has been written about why Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln. But what he did next, according to many accounts, is inexplicable unless you treat him as not entirely rational, even for a presidential assassin. You have to consider him as . . . a theater person.
When disaster hits you during a live performance — say, a spontaneous onstage nosebleed — you think fast. If you can, you keep the audience from knowing something went wrong. If you can’t, you make sure the audience knows that someone has a plan to fix it. The worst thing that can happen at your play is that the audience realizes it’s watching boring old real life.
Okay, the worst thing that can happen at your play is that someone shoots Lincoln. But once Booth had already done that — using his familiarity with the play to make sure the sound of the single derringer shot would be drowned out by the biggest laugh of the night — his actor’s ego took over, and he realized he had blown it. What made the assassination so successful had killed it as theater. The climax had come so suddenly and quietly that the audience didn’t know it had happened. They were robbed.
For an ordinary, sane person concerned with escape and survival, someone not afflicted by the theater, the smartest exit route would be to turn and leave through the unguarded door through which he’d come in. But for Booth, there was an audience, and so he was not sane. What made sense theatrically was a knife fight with the army major sitting near the president and a swashbuckling leap onto the stage.
Did any of this make logical sense? No. He went from the anonymous darkness of the presidential box onto the bright stage, where the 1,500-odd people in the room would see his famous-actor face, which instantly became the most wanted face in America. It was terrible getaway strategy, but it was great theater.
And having had no rehearsal to work out the kinks, he tripped and fell. Decades before “break a leg” became a thing, Booth literally did it.
No matter. His show had to go on. He had a line, his line was in Latin, and he needed to get to center stage to get it out. But confronted with a bewildered audience that didn’t even realize the president had been shot, he had to ad lib a little playacting as exposition. He waved his bloody knife around, saying, “Sic semper tyrannis!” So it always goes for tyrants! And then, because many people still didn’t seem to be getting it, he added, helpfully, “I have done it.” . . .