The America Play

by

Suzan-Lori Parks

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The America Play: Act 1: Lincoln Act Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After an epigraph from philosopher John Locke, who said that “In the beginning, all the world was America,” the play begins “In the middle of nowhere,” in a hole that is “an exact replica of The Great Hole of History.”
Locke’s quote raises the question of what defines America in The America Play: he sees it as a kind of metaphor or model for the whole world, but he was specifically referring to native Americans before colonization in this passage in order to make a state about humankind’s “natural” way of being. The play’s cryptic setting—“an exact replica of the Great Hole of History”—evokes emptiness rather than an expansive wholeness and suggests that perhaps Locke’s view of the world either leaves out some of history (relegating it to a “Great Hole”) or is simply out of touch with historical reality (which he turns into such a “Hole”). Indeed, it is ironic that Locke opportunistically justifies his arguments for liberty and equal rights by citing a people who have had their liberty and rights taken away by the American government—which takes its concepts of liberty and rights for all from Locke himself. In this sense, the juxtaposition of Locke's quote and the play's setting highlights the irony in American ideas of rights and equality, which have never been truly extended to everyone in the United States. 
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Dressed as Abraham Lincoln, the Foundling Father utters a series of cryptic, chiasmic phrases, and “takes a “rest” between each pair. Three are from the dictionary, including, “I cannot dig, to beg I am ashamed,” and one is his own invention: “He digged the hole and the whole held him.” The Foundling Father notes that “he sported” a goatee “when he died,” which is “not my favorite,” and then repeats his line, “He digged the hole and the whole held him.” 
The play’s mysterious opening scene looks remarkably different on the page and on the stage. Notably, Parks explains the chiasmus that she is using (and the origins of the Foundling Father’s different lines) in footnotes, which allow her readers to understand the conceptual structure of this introduction and connect it to the way Abraham Lincoln and the Foundling Father are dependent on one another for their identities in this play. Similarly, while the Foundling Father’s name is clearly symbolic to readers—it recalls the “Founding Fathers” of American democracy (of whom Lincoln was not one), but also suggests that he has been orphaned or abandoned—theatergoers might never actually hear the Foundling Father’s name or have the opportunity to make any of these connections.
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The Foundling Father speaks of a man who looked like Abraham Lincoln—he shared “the Great Mans” long legs and big hands and feet. The man carries a box full of beards, which he made from hairs his barber sold him, and which “were as authentic as he was, so to speak.” Like his family members in the “Small Town,” this “Lesser Known” is a gravedigger. The Foundling Father pauses and declares, “a wink to Mr. Lincolns pasteboard cutout,” then winks.
Although he is talking in the third person, the Foundling Father is clearly talking about himself (as the “Lesser Known,” whereas Lincoln is the “Great Man”). His resemblance to Lincoln is unlikely because he is black, but also highly symbolic because of Lincoln’s specific role in American history (as the leader of the Union that eventually incorporated African Americans into American society). The Foundling Father’s various beards, like his wink and nod to images of Lincoln, suggest that he recognizes and is comfortable with the fact that he will never literally look like Lincoln—he foregrounds to the audience the fact that he is playing a character (even though the audience will never ultimately meet or learn anything about him out of this character).
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The Foundling Father notes that “It would be helpful to our story if” the Lesser Known got to bury the Great Man—he imagines Mary Todd Lincoln saying, “Emergency, please put the Great Man in the ground,” and digresses about Lincoln’s family and the end of the Civil War, noting that Lincoln died while he was laughing “at thin jokes in bad plays: ‘You sockdologizing old man-trap!’ haw haw haw.” After repeating the “Emergency” line, he remarks that “it is said that” the Lesser Known would leave “his digging,” or his family dinner, to hide and listen to the calls of “Emergency.”
The Foundling Father does not talk about what is or isn’t true about the past, but rather what serves “our story” (his monologue and the play as a whole). He weaves together many more famous quotes from Lincoln and those who surrounded him, including his assassin and the actual line of onstage dialogue during which he was shot, into a narrative that blurs fact and fiction and makes them indistinguishable from his own voice. The “Emergency” line is peculiar because one might expect the “emergency” to be Lincoln’s wound, and a dying person’s spouse to ask for time to mourn, rather than putting the deceased “in the ground” as fast as possible. By repeating this peculiar line, the Foundling Father illustrates one way of coping with loss—shutting it in the past—and also implies that, back when he was a gravedigger, he was drawn to Lincoln by the man’s extraordinary way of dying.
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“It would help,” the Foundling Father continues, if Mary Todd Lincoln had “summoned” the Lesser Known to go “gawk at the Great Mans corpse.” But he concludes that “none of this was meant to be”—he abruptly announces and performs “a nod to the bust of Mr. Lincoln”—because the Lesser Known was born long after the Great Man’s death, so “couldnt hear” if there was “summoning.” He wished he could have been dug the Great Man’s grave, since he’s a gravedigger and people always told him “that he and the Great Man were dead ringers.” He comments that his holiday beard and shoes are “a little much” together and notes that Lincoln’s son did not look like him. He mentions that it’s “always slow on Sunday” before again winking to the cutout of Lincoln.
Although he is a mere impersonator, the Foundling Father can’t help but imagine himself into history and wonder if he could truly find a place for himself within it, perhaps along with “Lesser Known[s]” like the everyday people, African Americans, and others whose stories are seldom told in history books. Indeed, by talking about Lincoln and himself as the Great Man and the Lesser Known, respectively, the Foundling Father suggests history is a domain for “Great” people and leaders alone, something that is venerable but disconnected from the present. This language also indicates that the Foundling Father’s identity is entirely dependent on his relationship to Lincoln—in other words, he defines himself entirely through his narrow view of history. His strange desire to “gawk at the Great Mans corpse” suggests that there is something voyeuristic and completely passive about his attitude toward history, even as he reenacts it, but also directly foreshadows the last scene of the play, in which the audience is called to gawk in precisely this way.
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After a pause, the Foundling Father declares that all lives have their “shape”—Lincoln moved from “his log cabin” to the “Big Town,” and is remembered through “his words and image,” while “The Lesser Known had a favorite hole. A chasm, really.” It was “one he’d visited” when he was newly married to Lucy, and they were planning to “build a mourning business.” They found “A Big Hole. A theme park. With historical parades.” Impressed by the beautiful park’s size and “Historicity,” he cheered from the sidelines of the parades. This all “gave a shape to the [Lesser Known’s] life and posterity.” He shows the audience his beard and shoes, and notes that the Lesser Known started “record[ing] his own movements” just in case.
The “shape” of a life is another way of talking about the way that people’s lives are narrated (whether to themselves or to others). But while Lincoln’s “shape” is based on things the “Great Man” did, said, and looked like, the Foundling Father’s shape is based on a thing outside himself, the watered-down amusement park story of History as a contextless parade, which inspired him to start impersonating Lincoln (and gradually lose his individual identity in the process). So a “chasm” separates Lincoln from the Foundling Father, no matter how hard he tries to bridge it, and the Foundling Father’s own identity and legacy have become a chasm, void, or hole. The Big Hole is the original Great Hole, whereas the play is set in the replica—a reenactment of a reenactment park. This setting, combined with the fact that the only character’s identity is completely derivative of a reinterpretation of a dead man, shows how fiction, revision, and reinterpretation actually create new contexts bring new truths to light, even if their greatest aspiration is to perfectly copy the original on which they are based.
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On the train home from his honeymoon, the Foundling Father explains, he could not stop thinking about “the Reconstructed Historicities he ha[d] witnessed,” which went past him—“not 'on past’ him but past. Behind him. Like an echo in his head.” At home, he “hear[d] the summoning,” which (unlike the echoes) turned out to get “louder not softer.” (He shows the audience his yellow “fancy beard,” which “deviate[s] too much” from Lincoln’s dark hair to convince his audience.) All alone, he continues, “the Lesser Known […] went out West” seeking “his own Big Hole,” and “the Westerners” always told him he looked like Lincoln. (He even put “a false wart on his cheek” to look like Lincoln.) “Goatee,” he remarks, before repeating two of the phrases from the beginning of the scene: “He digged the Hole and the Whole held him,” and “I cannot dig, to beg I am ashamed.”
Again, the Foundling Father is fascinated not by actual history, but by a particular way history is packaged and sold as the triumph of the “Greats.” The “echo” he feels both foreshadows the appearance of such echoes in Act 2 and illustrates how the past affects the present by making a mark on people’s sense of reality—in short, by inspiring them. The paradoxical concept of “Reconstructed Historicities”—things that are really part of history only because they are created in the present day—directly illustrates how the past, for all intents and purposes, simply is what it is narrated to be: what is taken as true of the past, like how the past affects people in the present, is constantly under revision and open to debate. Indeed, by using the “fancy beard,” the Foundling Father engages in this kind of revision, creatively reinventing the figure of Lincoln for everyone who sees him perform. Given this context, the two chiastic phrases from the beginning of the play take on new meanings: the Foundling Father is talking literally about how his digging has brought him into the “Whole” of history, but also exhausted him and left him without recourse.
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Each evening, the Foundling Father “would stand in his hole reciting” Lincoln quotes and wondering if he could get paid to impersonate him. He decided to try “inviting [people] to come and throw old food at him while he spoke,” and found “moderate success.” When someone told him “he played Lincoln so well that he ought to be shot,” he discovered his new act: he let people “pay a penny” to “‘Shoot Mr. Lincoln.’” This made him “famous overnight.”
The Foundling Father initially hoped to portray Lincoln’s heroism and nobility, but soon realized that people had little interest in celebrating the important or consequential parts of history—they wanted to turn it into a spectacle and a game instead. His audiences’ desire to assault and abuse him as Lincoln points to an underlying current of racism, as much because Lincoln’s great achievement was forcing the nation to take equality seriously as because the Foundling Father is black. In fact, it is impossible to know whether the audience wants an excuse to take out their anger towards Lincoln and his push for equality (no matter what the impersonator looks like), or merely want an opportunity to attack a black man (no matter what character he’s playing).
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Suddenly, “A Man, [dressed] as John Wilkes Booth, enters” and “point[s] the gun at the Foundling Father’s head.” The Foundling Father starts laughing boisterously, until the man shoots and he “slumps in his chair,” as though dead. The other man jumps up and declares “thus to the tyrants” before leaving. The Foundling Father comments that most people repeat that line, and others also say “The South is avenged!” (which are John Wilkes Booth’s other alleged words after killing Lincoln).
This scene can be uncomfortable and disturbing, at once because the man who shoots the Foundling Father is taking pleasure in reenacting a heinous crime motivated by virulent racism, because the scene translates this crime into a direct attack on black man (thereby recalling the endless incidents of brutal racialized violence throughout American history), and finally because the Foundling Father is completely oblivious to this context and the way it appears to degrade his humanity. In fact, as a black actor he is only able to make a living by allowing himself to be sensationalized and exploited as a victim of violence, which is Parks’s way of commenting on the racial predilections of art and theater more broadly.
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The reenactment repeats: the same man enters dressed as John Wilkes Booth, the Foundling Father laughs, “Booth shoots,” and “Lincoln ‘slumps in his chair.’” This time, the man yells “The South is avenged!” and then thanks the Foundling Father for his time—“till next week,” he says, and he leaves. The Foundling Father notes that this man “comes once a week” and “always chooses the Derringer” and says the same two lines. “He’s one for history,” the Foundling Father concludes: “As it Used to Be. Never wavers. No frills. By the book. Nothing excessive.” He nods at his bust of Lincoln.
The repetition of this scene and the Foundling Father’s jarringly normal chat with his client underline the fact that this scene of humiliation is routine and unexceptional for him: like African Americans throughout history, he is forced to accept and withstand a subordinate social status throughout his entire life, as nobody takes his noble intentions seriously. Notably, when they reenact the assassination, the Foundling Father and his client change identities in the stage directions, becoming “Lincoln” and “Booth” instead, which can be understood as Parks’s commentary on the way that narratives of history are taken as reality and come to define history for the people who hear them, but also the sense in which actors become the roles they play (or cannot cleanly divide such roles from their own identities). The “by the book” client further shows the limits of strictly-factual narratives of history: readers and audiences are left to wonder what this man can possibly gain from recreating the same narrative over and over (at least the Foundling Father makes his pennies), and the man’s insistence on historical accuracy adds nothing to anyone’s experience or understanding of the past.
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The Foundling Father explains that he is putting on Lincoln’s “beard of uncertainty,” the one he used in the early days of the Civil War. He remembers “not knowing much about” the Civil War, except that he looked like Lincoln and “wanted to make a great impression” like him. He explains that this led him to study “all aspects of” Lincoln’s life, and he notes that he found the murder the most interesting—but a woman dressed as Booth interrupts him to reenact the murder. He laughs, she shoots, and she proclaims, “Strike the tent.”
This time, the scene intentionally strays from a literal representation: the shooter is a woman, and she picks a line that wasn’t even Booth’s (“strike the tent” were Confederate leader Robert E. Lee’s last words). Indeed, the huge variation in reenactors and last words underlines the fact that nobody quite knows what Booth actually said in triumph after shooting Lincoln. However, this uncertainty adds to the play’s capacity to explore the implications of Lincoln’s death, because it forces the audience to think critically and imaginatively about Booth’s motivations and other details that might never have been recorded. In other words, these variations are a way of marking the fundamental unknowability—and therefore ultimate irrelevance—of what actually happened during the Lincoln assassination.
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The Foundling Father continues talking about details of the murder (the distance Lincoln and the stage, the people sitting with him, the principal actress of Our American Cousin, and the play’s plot). Another woman interrupts him to reenact the murder, and the now-familiar scene replays—except now she repeatedly screams “LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIES!” and “LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRS” after shooting him.
The Foundling Father’s deep knowledge about Lincoln’s life and death reveals that he probably knows his admiration for the Great Man is being turned into a cheap trick. While he did take a special interest in the murder, it is unlikely that he would have found it exciting and sensationalistic in the same way as his clients—rather, his fascination likely paralleled Parks’s and the audience’s interest in the assassination’s racist political motives, profound consequences, and symbolic setting in a theater during a play. The “LIARS” line is ironic because it is definitely ahistorical at the same time as it raises an accusation of (presumably historical) dishonesty.
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After this woman exits, the Foundling Father decides that it is time to “wear the yellow beard,” for “variety.” He notes that Lincoln did not really wear his famous hat indoors, “but people dont like their Lincoln hatless.” He apologizes to Lincoln but decides that he will “pretend” he was blonde. The Foundling Father quotes from his own unpublished writing about Lincoln’s radiant hair and comments on how John Wilkes Booth “broke his leg” jumping from Lincoln’s seat onto the stage, and how Mary Todd “hysteric[ally]” screamed for him and grieved when her husband died before talking to their son Tad—and then ended up institutionalized. “‘Emergency,’” the Foundling Father repeats, “‘please put the Great Man in the ground.’” A man enters, shoots the laughing Foundling Father, and then proclaims, “Now he belongs to the ages,” before noting that Lincoln isn’t supposed to be blonde.
The Foundling Father’s yellow beard and indoor hat are further examples of how he believes that straying from strict historical reality actually provides a richer and more “true” experience than following the details exactly. At the same time, the fact that “people dont like their Lincoln hatless” also points to the way that his character is shaped more by popular myths and assumptions about Lincoln than what is actually worth knowing about the man. By discussing Mary Todd Lincoln’s alleged insanity, the Foundling Father adds a new layer of meaning to the “Emergency” line and implicitly suggests that it is futile or mad to try and bury the dead quickly, forever. Notably, much of this section is in square brackets, which Parks uses throughout this play to mark sections that she thinks directors should have the liberty to omit. This technique allows her to refuse complete control over the shape and meaning of her work, but rather let the team that stages her work make wide-ranging creative decisions about how to interpret her text. This is consistent with her underlying skepticism of single narratives and consistent focus on the way different layers of acting and interpretation create different kinds and qualities of truth.
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The Foundling Father tells the audience that he has “no side effects” from his job, besides “a slight deafness in this ear.” He takes his beard off and goes “clean-shaven,” since “the face needs air.” He remarks that “the Lesser Known […] dug over 7 hundred and 23 graves,” plus the Big Hole and “hundreds of shallow holes” for “faux-historical knickknacks.” A pair of newlyweds enters and holds the gun together, then shoots the laughing Foundling Father. The woman exclaims, “Theyve killed the president!” The Foundling Father predicts that this couple will “bring their children here” to see him in the future and repeats that “slight deafness” is his only “side effect,” so he “cant complain.” He repeats that he records his life, in case “posterity” cares about him and nods to Lincoln.
The Foundling Father wavers between optimistically claiming “no side effects” and admitting his “slight deafness” as a result of hearing a gun fire at short range all day, every day. While the audience may see his job as humiliating and absurd, the Foundling Father himself seems committed to making the best of it—or, at least, refusing to fully acknowledge the damage it has caused him and the humiliation it brings him daily. At least it’s better than gravedigging, he seems to think—and yet he accomplished something measurable as a gravedigger. It is no accident that he mentions the couple’s future children right before considering “posterity”—again, he subtly nods to his own family, which is otherwise essentially invisible in Act 1 (but ends up stealing the show in Act 2).
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The Foundling Father contrasts the Great Man’s life in “time immemorial” with his own in the present, which has become an exercise in “trying somehow to equal the Great Man in stature, word and deed.” But he does not know if he is “catch[ing] up” or “running too fast in the wrong direction.” In fact, when he was told “that he ought to be shot,” the Foundling Father repeats exactly as before, he felt that “the Great Mans footsteps had been suddenly revealed.” He repeats his description of the performance and recalls that it made him “famous overnight.”
This comparison again illustrates the Foundling Father’s specific view of how history operates: he seems to think that some “Great” people are inducted into the triumphant realm of “time immemorial,” whereas everyone else simply disappears. The second act will show why this is not the case, but the Foundling Father already appears to be doubting it, as he realizes that impersonating the Great Man does not mean becoming him, or anything like him. This makes the Foundling Father’s condition doubly tragic: not only does he spend his days pretending to get killed, in order to be like his idol (Lincoln), but he does not become anything like Lincoln in the process. In other words, he defines himself entirely through Lincoln in an impossible attempt to become Lincoln.
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A man dressed as Booth comes inside and shoots the chuckling Foundling Father, then yells “Thus to the tyrants!” After a long, unwritten “spell”—the dialogue just says “LINCOLN” and “BOOTH” over and over, with blank lines for each of them—Booth leaps and declares that “The South is avenged!” The man and the Foundling Father thank each other and promise to meet again “next week.”
This client appears to be the same “by the book” regular who visited the Foundling Father before, which implies that a week has somehow passed since the previous scene that took place on the stage just a few minutes before. Time, it becomes clear, is compressed and distorted in this play, and the Foundling Father is not speaking from any particular moment, but rather jumping in and out of time, as though he were speaking from the perspective of history. The consecutive blank lines of “LINCOLN” and “BOOTH” (a dramatic technique Parks calls a “spell”) is significant for two reasons. First, Parks ironically gives her actors and directors freedom to interpret the very reenactment that is supposed to be “by the book,” which implies that such absolute fidelity to the original is impossible in recreations and reenactments of the past (including those of written texts, like this play). Secondly, for the play’s purposes, the scene again literally transforms the characters into the people they are reenacting, which shows both how the boundaries between actor and character are porous and how the “true” nature of historical figures is always up for debate and constructed through narratives and reworkings of history in the present.
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The Foundling Father comments on his “ringing in the ears” and “slight deafness,” offers his wink and nod, and declares that he is “striding in the Great Mans footsteps.” He recalls their resemblance and wonders if “the Greater Man could have caught up” to him if he were to die or move backwards. The Greater Man could “sneak[] up behind” him and attack him, screamed, “Thus to the tyrants!” or even “shot him maybe.” While “the Lesser Known forgets who he is and just crumples,” in contrast, “The Greater Man continues on.” The Foundling Father repeats Mary Todd Lincoln’s “Emergency” line, then mentions his “ringing in the ears” and “slight deafness,” and finally proposes he “wear the blonde.” Act 1 closes with the echo of a gunshot.
As he closes Act 1, the Foundling Father returns to many of the motifs he has repeated throughout his monologue, citing one after another in short order. While he uses these motifs to try to define his identity for the audience, he also admits that he has failed, as he “forgets who he is and just crumples.” Although he left gravedigging and started impersonating Lincoln precisely because he wanted to define himself and achieve greatness, perhaps he should have sought to do something original, of his own creation, rather than acting out a well-worn story over and over. On the other hand, his commentary on Lincoln being behind him is not only a metaphor for time (in which he is “ahead” of the deceased Lincoln), but also a suggestion that his contribution has been the way he reinterpreted Lincoln and contributed to his legacy. In other words, perhaps the Foundling Father has accomplished something as and for Lincoln, rather than as and for himself.
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