Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln. Welcome Back.
February 10, 2011
The Scene: Washington, D.C.
The Setting: Ford’s Theater
Abraham Lincoln always had a furrowed brow, but the worried lines had grown deeper. He was greatly haunted by the dream that troubled his sleep. He could not forget it. He sat down in April of 1865 and wrote in his journal:
About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible.
I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of the distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the room; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this?
Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully.
“Who is dead in the White House?” I demanded of one of the soldiers.
“The President,” was his answer. “He was killed by an assassin.”
Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.”
Ten days later, Mr. Lincoln walked into Ford’s Theater.
Ten minutes later, he and his wife sat down in their balcony seats.
A few scenes later, while a performance of Our American Cousin was unfolding before them on stage, an actor named John Wilkes Booth placed the muzzle of his pistol near the President’s head and pulled the trigger.
The night passed with a throng of people gazing mournfully upon the countenance of a man not quite yet a corpse while others wept pitifully, sobbing as though their hearts would break. It was a scene Mr. Lincoln had seen before. But he was unable to view it that night.
By morning, the whispers were passing up one street and down another. “Who is dead in the White House?”
“The President. He was killed by an assassin.”
There are some who say Mr. Lincoln has never left Ford’s Theater. They are the ones who have heard voices and laughter coming from a darkened stage, who have been unnerved by the muffled footsteps of John Wilkes Booth running toward the Presidential box, who have been stunned by the sudden sound of a gunshot in the night, who have seen the apparition of Mary Todd Lincoln leaning over the balcony and pointing toward the stage.
Sometimes the President sits slumped in his seat. Sometimes he, too, is a faint silhouette, standing at the balcony rail, the worried lines of a furrowed brown growing ever deeper.
At times, transparent faces, trapped between one layer of life and another, appear on an empty stage. Suddenly there. Suddenly gone. The footlights, without warning, turn themselves on and off. Light, then dark, like the passing of life itself.
It is, they say, as if the final moments on the last night of Abraham Lincoln’s life have been condemned to perform again and again in a curious time warp that quite can’t let go or escape the past. The curtain never falls on a play that never ends.