“There’s no justification, none of that, but it’s an incredibly interesting story. I don’t know that it’s ever been told before, and certainly not in this fashion,” Matty Griffiths said to me. He’s directing Don’t Die in the Dark, a play written by Joe Brack and featuring Brack in the role of the infamous actor-assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Booth was the scion of a famous theatrical family. His parents were stage stars; his brother Edwin Booth was arguably the leading classical actor of the 19th century American stage. So revered was Edwin that, in the 1920s, when John Barrymore was about to break Edwin’s record for the number of Broadway performances by an actor as Hamlet, Barrymore was visited by an august group of Edwin Booth devotees who pressured him to close his show before breaking Booth’s record.
John Wilkes Booth joined the family business and enjoyed some success as an actor himself. I’ve been to the Player’s Club on Gramercy Park in Manhattan, which is converted from Edwin Booth’s house. Artifacts on display include the dagger Edwin used during his performances as Hamlet (in at least one run of which his brother played Horatio) and also the letter of apology that Edwin wrote to the nation on behalf of his family after the assassination.
Creating the play
I asked Brack about the genesis of Don’t Die in the Dark. “It started because I am a bit of a Civil War buff, and one day I found this book,” he said, referring to Right or Wrong, God Judge Me: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth. “Up until that point, I didn’t realize we had anything that he had actually written. So I got the book, and about two-thirds of the way through, there’s a twenty-seven page section that’s basically his manifesto, his ideas about the nation, with some of his thoughts on Lincoln and slavery.
“And it was crazy. And I don’t mean that in the ‘insane’ way, that he was insane. It was just him giving a kind of Shakespearean soliloquy that he wrote himself; this massive tome about his thoughts on the nation. And then I started doing more research on Booth and found all these interesting facts about his family and stories about his theatrical career that I found intriguing, and it just kind of snowballed from there. I decided people should hear about this guy that we rightfully think of as such a villain in American history. And reading these things that not only humanized him, but also made you understand why he’s such a villain, I couldn’t help but start writing about it and developing these little scenes. And it just kind of started from there.”
Don’t Die in the Dark
I asked the writer-actor to talk about his title. “Sure. I would love to, actually. So, the original idea for the title: I was reading again, doing research about the Booth family. And when Edwin was on his death bed, he was surrounded by his family, his surviving family, some friends from the theatre and what-not, and while he was literally gasping for his last breaths, the lights went out. And his daughter said, ‘Don’t let father die in the dark.’ And then, when the lights were re-lit, he was gone.
“And I started to think about that: there are so many things in Booth’s life, in John Wilkes’ life, that — he did die in the dark. He didn’t know who he really was. And his last two hours of life — I mean, he was this actor who was known for being this live and virile performer and then, from the moment he shot Lincoln until he died, his physical body, literally a piece at a time — his leg was broken, he couldn’t walk [after leaping from the Presidential box onto the Ford’s Theatre stage] and then [twelve days later] he was shot through the neck and paralyzed from the neck down. So he was just living in his head for two full hours, not realizing the truth about himself. And there was something about that that was really poignant to me: about how we don’t really know ourselves. You know, they say history tells the story of the victor, and he thought that’s how he was going to go down [in history.] He thought he was going to be this glorious lover-of-country and that people would remember him for this just cause, and he couldn’t have been more wrong.”
“So,” I said to Brack and Griffiths, respectively, “you’re the writer and you’re the director.” Turning to a third interviewee, I said, “And you are the guitar. Are you a six string or a twelve string?” “Six,” Bradley Foster Smith replied. He is the other actor in the play’s cast of two, and his role is, indeed, listed as “Guitar,” so I asked him to explain what that is about.
“Well, obviously it’s a play that centers on John Wilkes Booth,” Smith said. “I play kind of a constant presence. The way I made sense of it is to think of it as a character flashing through [Booth’s mind] at the moment of death.”
Elaborating the description as “some confidant” who is “shape-shifting” so that Booth is seeing all the faces of Smith’s characters before he dies, Smith added, “Not to spoil — spoiler alert! John Wilkes Booth is shot in a barn after fleeing the assassination!” At this point, everyone in the room laughed heartily.
“But my character,” Smith continued, “it’s fun to play because I get to tackle Lincoln. You know, the sort of types that you’re usually cast in? It’s exciting that I get to tackle Lincoln, whom I’m a great admirer of. It made it really easy to enter the project because I’m also a great history buff, and I don’t know what it is about the Civil War that still captures people’s imagination so many years later, but it does. And this particular event is just sort of seared into the national consciousness.
“I play all sorts of characters,” Smith said. “I play Booth’s father and his mother and his friends and Edwin and some of the conspirators.” “ And some of his fellow actors,” Brack noted. “A general kind of miasma,” Smith concluded.
I asked whether the script had been in flux during rehearsal. “It was for a while,” was Brack’s answer, “like any new piece, but we haven’t done anything new to the script in probably a month or so.” “Yeah,” Griffiths confirmed, “it took about a year, back and forth, to develop: adding the music component, what that was about, and what that was going to do. And then, we were ready to go — some edits, tightening, one little reorder.”
When Griffiths mentioned that he has been working on the play for so long, I asked him to describe his part in the script’s development. “Joe and I have a pretty long relationship now and, having done a lot of shows together, and developing My Princess Bride together in a similar fashion, where he gave me a script and I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ [Laughter] And the shaping started. It started with a conversation about what this guy did.”
“We’re not trying to vindicate him. He’s not a hero,” Brack offered. “We’re not glorifying Booth,” Griffiths continued. “But for him to speak in his own words, on stage, is a powerful thing to watch. By no means was he on the right side of history, but he had some points to make and made them eloquently and then went way off the rails in his action. I like to say, it’s Booth’s life flashing before his eyes: the last two hours of paralysis in an hour and fifteen minutes. [More laughter] So the math doesn’t work, but…” “An extensive highlight reel,” Brack joked.
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I noted that the three laughed together frequently. “Like Lincoln said,” Smith responded, “‘You have to laugh to keep from crying.’ It’s not just a dour-fest.” “It’s definitely not,” Brack concurred. “But it’s not a laugh-fest,” Griffiths underlined.
“We held auditions,” Brack told me, “and when Bradley came in for us, we knew right away that he would be not only a perfect fit for the direction we wanted to take the piece, but that the things he brought to the table influenced the show we already had. He brought so much stuff to the table. He has become essential. The play would not be the play it is without what he’s brought to it.
“And that’s one of the reasons why Matty and I work together so frequently, and for as many years as we have, because we do have this great short-hand and this comfort. You know, we always talk about theatre and the rehearsal space being this safe place, where you feel free to fail, and in the failure, we grow and strengthen. And when Bradley stepped in, it was like he’d been there the whole time. And so I think we laugh so much because we know, typically, people think this is a dour subject or this is a really dark part of our American history, so the fact that we can look at it with a little bit of lightness I think just adds another layer of texture to the piece.
“One of the things that we’ve talked about a lot that has been very funny is that Booth,” Brack continued, “especially in that twenty-seven page manuscript, contradicts himself so frequently.” “All the time,” Griffiths agreed. “And in a really short space,” Brack said, “Like, from one line to the next, in some cases. And he becomes comical in that respect. Where he thought he was going to be all these glorious things, he ended up being just a fool, to a degree, and not understanding the repercussions of what his very selfish act would have on the rest of the nation.”
And what about parallels to the world today, when headlines are depressingly filled with violence motivated by intense belief? “Absolutely,” Brack said. “There’s a definite parallel. We’ve talked about: if Booth were around today, he’d definitely be a tea-partier. He would definitely have been this far-leaning advocate for his party. He wanted to get in everybody’s face. He was never shy about telling people what he thought of Lincoln in public.”
“At the same time,” Smith said, “he never joined the army and never fought.” “Exactly,” Brack agreed, pointing out that before shooting someone in the back of the head, “he didn’t actually do anything, he just talked a lot, and tried to rile people up. There’s even one of John Wilkes Booth’s reviews (which we use in the show) that talks about how he was a special devotee [of certain] types of characters. He enjoyed the rabble-rousers and the people who were trying to fight against the establishment. It was just kind of his thing.”
“I think, he probably expected applause or something,” Smith speculated. “I don’t know what he expected the papers to say — ‘John Wilkes Booth has liberated the yoke of the groaning tyranny.’ We’re also in an age where it seems like, tragically, the rise of the ‘lone misfit who snaps’ narrative — everybody’s always asking ‘Why, why, why?’”
“Yeah,” Brack picked up, “we have all of the ‘why?’ And, again, it’s not one of those things where anyone, back then, when the evil deed took place, was, like, ‘Why did he do this?’ Anybody who knew him knew why, because he was constantly talking about it. I mean, his own family was, like, ‘We can’t talk politics around John anymore. We just can’t. It’s too much. He’s out of control. He gets too mad.’”
Griffiths addressed the anniversary aspect of the production: “We realized very quickly that we were about to mark one hundred and fifty years since the deed and, premiering it at this time was really important to us.”
I asked about the connection between the talents needed for acting and for politics or activism. “I think it’s got a lot to do with the whole idea of grandstanding and this ability to bring subtext to things,” Brack replied. “And, also, actors are particularly used to speaking in front of large groups of people comfortably and with some kind of emotional attachment. Because if a politician just gets up there, and there’s nothing behind it, nobody cares. But he really didn’t do much. He talked a big game, but the only thing he did is, he would go to things where political happenings were going on, and he’d observe. And when it was over, he’d rail and rant at the bar, drinking whiskey with a bunch of other actors and stuff. He was there for John Brown, and he was there for Lincoln’s second inauguration — he just watched those things happen and then he was, like, ‘I helped in the capture of John Brown,’ but it’s, like, no he didn’t.”
“There’s something interesting to me about John’s day job,” Smith said, further illuminating the link between theatre and politics, “which was basically performing old politicians, Shakespearean kings, and the real deal-makers, in the presence of the actual people making the history, and probably wanting to enter the stage of politics and history. He wanted to be remembered. In a way he was a guy who lived under his father’s and his brother’s shadows. It’s kind of sad to chart his course from an optimistic young actor into someone so twisted. Just the way you go into chat rooms now and see the people saying such vile things. Like, go to a Fox chat room, and on any subject whatsoever, people are always blaming Obama.” “And then it very quickly goes racist,” Brack observed. “Yeah, just real quickly,” Smith concurred.
“It’s that anger, you know,” Brack elaborated. “He’s seething. Which is crazy to me, because you’d think someone who did spend so much time on stage portraying these angry, irrational people would kind of get it out on stage, but he clearly didn’t.” Griffiths wondered, “I’m not sure he could break away from those characters sometimes. Some actors still do that. They have a tough time breaking those characters, and reconciling that uber-power to regular life.”
Don’t Die in the Dark opened to a rave review on DCTS. Debbie Minter Jackson wrote that “There’s probably not a more perfect time to get inside of the head of John Wilkes Booth than now, the 150th commemoration of Lincoln’s death and Joe Brack smokes him out in his Don’t Die in the Dark…this piece sheds light on the circumstances [of the assassination] with artistic integrity and care.”
And John Stoltenberg raved, “I sat enthralled by a tour de force performance of a tough-minded two-hander about the notorious actor who fired the fatal shot…This play tells an important part of the story of our nation. It belongs onstage at Ford’s.”
“I always hope,” Brack concluded, “I mean, in a very selfish way, I always hope any play that I write, or build, has a future. And circumstances being what they are, we’d gladly remount the piece. I think if the opportunity was right, and we were available to do it, I’d be happy to do another Don’t Die in the Dark.”
But the chance to see the play now, during commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the events that inspired it, will be a special treat for audiences. Don’t Die in the Dark runs through April 26th.