The America Play’s plot revolves around death: specifically, those of Abraham Lincoln and the Foundling Father, a black man who is Lincoln’s “dead ringer” and who makes charges customers to watch him reenact Lincoln’s assassination. These deaths are constantly reenacted onstage, and the protagonists’ lives revolve around death, too: the Foundling Father, his wife Lucy, and their son Brazil make a living by digging graves, listening to dying people’s secrets, and mourning for the dead, respectively. While their jobs presumably serve to help the dead sleep soundly and the living make peace with the departed, in fact the characters are constantly aware of how the dead never truly disappear: Lincoln lives on through his reenactors, people speak from beyond the grave, and rather than getting a “proper burial,” the Foundling Father’s corpse sits propped up in his “exact replica of The Great Hole of History” (a kind of historical reenactment theme park), waiting to be mourned at a funeral that never comes. Parks ultimately rejects the notion that the dead can be buried, and instead shows how they always speak their case, influencing the living through the “Echoes” they leave behind.
Many of Parks’s characters seek to bury and be done with the dead, which means relegating them to the past and building the future without them. The Foundling Father, Lucy, and Brazil’s jobs all ostensibly have this aim. As a gravedigger, the Foundling Father literally buries the dead, and as a “Confidence” who listens to and keeps the secrets of dying people, Lucy appears to give them closure and ease their transition out of the world. Brazil is both a “Digger” like his father—indeed, he is the only character who actually digs onstage—and a professional mourner who knows how to “Wail,” “Weep,” “Sob,” “Moan,” and “Gnash” for the dead at funerals, to help the living process their loved ones’ absence. Throughout Act One, the Foundling Father raises the metaphor of gravedigging to talk about Abraham Lincoln’s legacy: he imagines Mary Todd Lincoln telling him, “Emergency, oh, Emergency, please put the Great Man in the ground,” and repeats this line over and over. Rather than saving her husband, Mary Todd seemingly wants to bury him—to close his story and legacy. Meanwhile, the Foundling Father constantly resurrects this legacy by acting as Lincoln. Similarly, Lucy and Brazil travel out West in Act Two because they want to give the Foundling Father the “proper burial” he deserves. Just as the Foundling Father dreams about burying Lincoln, defining his legacy, and closing his story for good, Lucy and Brazil hope to do the same with the Foundling Father.
But the dead are always alive in this play, whether literally or figuratively. They speak from beyond the grave, through surrogates or their own voices, and continue to define the lives and worlds of those who come after them. In this sense, for Parks, the dead are never truly buried or gone. The clearest example of this is how the Foundling Father speaks for Abraham Lincoln, inventing stories about Lincoln’s life and literally sustaining Lincoln’s legacy by impersonating him, reciting his speeches, and (of course) reenacting his assassination. But The America Play also suggests that the dead speak more literally. Throughout Act Two, Lucy searches for the traces, or “Whispers,” of her dead husband. In addition to Whispers, she clarifies, the dead leave various other kinds of echoes. She believes the dead literally speak to her, which is in line with Parks’s artistic process (she contends that she does not invent characters, but rather that characters invent themselves and then speak to her). While Lucy has trouble detecting the “Whispers,” they are clear to the audience: the Foundling Father returns throughout Act Two to present moments from the play Our American Cousin (which Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated) and then “to say a few words from the grave.” Indeed, while Lucy wonders if the “Whispers” will come out, Brazil believes that, even if his Pa died alone, he would have “just dribble[d] thuh words out” so that “Confidencell gather up thuh whispers when she arrives.” In fact, Lucy is the “Confidence”—this is what she calls her job, which entails packaging the traces left by the dead into a coherent message and determining how and when to let that message out. For instance, she recalls a man named Bram Price and his son, “Little Bram Price Junior,” both of whom used her services. She kept Bram Price’s secret for 19 years (before revealing it onstage during the play). Meanwhile, Bram Price Junior’s “Echo” came back “and [ate] up everybodys food just like he did when he was livin.” For Lucy, then—and for the Price family—the dead are still an important force in the world of the living.
In Parks’s play, it is impossible to fully “put the Great Man in the ground”: the dead speak to the living, even if only some can hear the wisdom in their “Whispers.” In this way, The America Play boldly challenges the dichotomy between life and death: when the Foundling Father returns in Act Two, he is both already dead and clearly alive. He gives his own eulogy, noting that he “buried all [his] things”—the same things Brazil uncovers, christens “Wonders,” and gives new life in a new show. Tellingly, at the very end of the play, the Foundling Father never gets his “proper burial”—rather, Brazil “prop[s him] upright in our great Hole” and adds him to the “Hall of Wonders,” while he and Lucy wait for the “hundreds upon thousands” of funeral guests to arrive. Brazil implores the audience to “Note: thuh last words.—And thuh last breaths.—And how thuh nation mourns—.” But this mourning is the start, not the end, of the Foundling Father’s fame and impact: for Parks, then, mourning is not only a display of grief or source of closure, but also a way of sustaining memories of and lessons from the departed.
Death, Mourning, and Resurrection ThemeTracker
Death, Mourning, and Resurrection Quotes in The America Play
BRAZIL: [We’re from out East. We’re not from these parts.
Mv foe-father, her husband, my Daddy, her mate, her man, my Pa come out here. Out West.
Come out here all uhlone. Cleared thuh path tamed thuh wilderness dug this whole Hole with his own 2 hands and et cetera.
Left his family behind. Back Last. His Lucy and his child. He waved “Goodbye.” Left us tuh carry on. I was only 5.
My Daddy was uh Digger. Shes whatcha call uh Confidence. I did thuh weepin and thuh moanin.
His lonely death and lack of proper burial is our embarrassment.
BRAZIL: You hear im?
LUCY: Echo of thuh first sort: thuh sound. (E.g. thuh gunplay.)
Echo of thuh 2nd sort: thuh words. Type A: thuh words from thuh dead. Category: Unrelated.
Echo of thuh 2nd sort, Type B: words less fortunate: thuh Disembodied Voice. Also known as “Thuh Whispers.” Category: Related. Like our Fathuhs.
Echo of thuh 3rd sort: thuh body itself.
BRAZIL: You hear im.
LUCY: Cant say. Cant say, son.
BRAZIL: My faux-father.
BRAZIL: We could say I just may follow in thuh footsteps of my foe-father.
LUCY: We could say that.
BRAZIL: Look on thuh bright side!
LUCY: Look on thuh bright side!
BRAZIL: So much tuh live for!
LUCY: So much tuh live for! Sweet land of—! Sweet land of—?
BRAZIL: Of liberty!
BRAZIL: Mail the in-vites?
LUCY: I did.
BRAZIL: Think theyll come?
LUCY: I do. There arc hundreds upon thousands who knew of your Daddy, glorified his reputation, and would like to pay their respects.
THE FOUNDLING FATHER: Howuhboutthat.
To my right: our newest Wonder: One of thuh greats Hisself! Note: thuh body sitting propped upright in our great Hole. Note the large mouth opened wide. Note the top hat and frock coat, just like the greats. Note the death wound: thuh great black hole — thuh great black hole in thuh great head. —And how this great head is bleedin. —Note: thuh last words. —And thuh last breaths. —And how thuh nation mourns —
(Takes his leave)