Lincoln and Booth are in many ways similar to the men after whom their characters are named. With his cocky bravado and trigger-happy sensibility, Booth’s personality recalls John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and Confederate sympathizer who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 in the hopes of defeating the Union, winning the Civil War, and thereby ensuring the continuation of slavery. Likewise, his brother’s levelheadedness and patience resemble Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as a thoughtful man with a strong moral conscience. By naming these characters after such famous historical figures, Parks immediately foreshadows the play’s ending, in which Booth shoots Lincoln. She also implies that these two men have fundamentally different worldviews, as was the case with the real Lincoln and Booth, who were on opposing sides of the Civil War. More importantly, Topdog/Underdog’s engagement with history isn’t only a reference to President Lincoln’s assassination, but also a way of examining the relationship these two brothers have with their own pasts. In turn, Parks explores how Lincoln and Booth take cues from history—both personal and otherwise—to make sense of their lives.
Lincoln and Booth think about history mostly in terms of their own pasts. Since Booth is uncomfortable acknowledging the painfulness of his own personal history, he wants to erase his past. He reveals this desire when he lies about Grace while bragging to his brother. “She wants me back so bad she wiped her hand over the past where we wasn’t together just so she could say we aint never been apart,” he says. This optimistic statement seems like wishful thinking, considering that Booth later reveals he has killed Grace, indicating that she most likely didn’t want him back. Nonetheless, the statement itself provides a convenient window into the way Booth thinks about the difficulties of his past: he wants to simply “wipe” them away. He even announces to Lincoln in the first scene of the play that he wants to change his name from Booth to 3-Card. This is ultimately an attempt to erase part of his childhood, which left him scarred after the painful departure of his parents. To his credit, Lincoln accepts the idea of this name change, even suggesting that Booth assume an African name, something many black people have done as a way of “wiping away” the white slave owners who oppressed their ancestors and gave them Anglicized names. But Booth is interested in changing his name for more personal reasons, and wants to be called 3-Card—a name that has no basis in the past and which he hasn’t earned (considering that he has yet to establish himself as a card dealer). In this way, Booth emerges as a character constantly looking into an unrealistic future. Refusing to reckon with his past, he instead projects himself into a make-believe world in which he’s a successful dealer named 3-Card. Of course, he never properly learns to play Three-Card Monte, and the fact that he fails miserably suggests that Parks believes no future is possible that depends on the erasure or ignorance of history.
Lincoln and Booth’s family history is another perfect illustration of how these two men are profoundly affected by the past. Metaphorically speaking, the ghosts of their parents hang over them throughout the entire play. This is made especially clear by Booth’s reluctance (until the play’s end) to spend the $500 his mother gave him before leaving when he was a child. After all these years, he hasn’t spent a penny of this money. In fact, he even steals from department stores and other establishments in order to avoid using any of this cash, which obviously represents to him the last thing he has left of his mother. Even the fact that he and Lincoln refer to this money as an “inheritance” in the first place says something about the way they view their family history—after all, an inheritance is usually bequeathed unto somebody by a loved one who has died. Even though Booth’s mother merely left to start a new life, he acts as if she has died, treating the $500 as an inheritance rather than a parting gift. In this sense, the money becomes a family heirloom of sorts, un-spendable because it has too much significance. As much as Booth tries to “wipe away” his past in other ways, he inadvertently lets the memory of his mother follow him wherever he goes.
It is unclear whether Booth is aware of the emotional significance of his inheritance money. Lincoln, however, is certainly cognizant of the idea that a person’s haunting past can follow him or her throughout life. This, he argues, is precisely what must have happened to their parents; “Each of them had a special something that they was struggling against,” he says. “Moms had hers. Pops had his. And they was struggling.” He explains that their parents bought a new house and thought that doing so would help them escape their problems, which they hoped “would see thuh house and be impressed and just leave them be.” As he says this, Lincoln presents his parents’ mindset as naïve, insinuating that it was foolish for them to have thought they could outrun their past simply by moving to a new house. He himself has tried to efface history by burning his father’s clothes after the old man left the family behind, but of course this did nothing to diminish the pain Lincoln felt. Thus, he now understands that a person must live with his or her own history. Any measures to blot out bygone eras are pointless, and only lead to increased suffering.
When Booth tells Lincoln to spruce up his Abraham Lincoln act by screaming and writhing when the customers shoot the gun, Lincoln seizes the opportunity to explain to his brother that a person can’t intervene in history in this way. “People are funny about they Lincoln shit. Its historical,” he says. “People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.” And yet, as Booth’s killing of Lincoln at the end of play demonstrates, history often does repeat itself, unfolding in ways that are “raggedy and bloody and screaming” rather than “neatly like book.” In this way, Lincoln seems to acknowledge that, despite people’s attempts to erase or dispel the traumas of history, the past has a way of repeating itself, and unresolved issues have a way of rearing their heads in unexpected and ugly ways. Thus, when Booth shoots Lincoln at the very end of the play, it’s as though he is not only reenacting the shared historical trauma of President Lincoln’s assassination and the legacy of slavery, but also the age-old story of brotherly competition, as well as the very painful personal history of his parents’ abandonment. In Parks’ play, then, the only way move forward in life is to face the past, however painful that process may be.
History Quotes in Topdog/Underdog
She was putting her stuff in bags. She had all them nice suitcases but she was putting her stuff in bags.
Packing up her shit. She told me to look out for you. I told her I was the little brother and the big brother should look out after the little brother. She just said it again. That I should look out for you. Yeah. So who gonna look out for me. Not like you care. Here I am interested in an economic opportunity, willing to work hard, willing to take risks and all you can say you shiteating motherfucking pathetic limpdick uncle tom, all you can tell me is how you dont do more what I be wanting to do. Here I am trying to earn a living and you standing in my way. YOU STANDING IN MY WAY, LINK!
They say the clothes make the man. All day long I wear that getup. But that dont make me who I am. Old black coat not even real old just fake old. Its got worn spots on the elbows, little raggedy places thatll break through into holes before the winters out. Shiny strips around the cuffs and the collar. Dust from the cap guns on the left shoulder where they shoot him, where they shoot me I should say but I never feel like they shooting me. The fella who had the gig before I had it wore the same coat. When I got the job they had the getup hanging there waiting for me. Said thuh fella before me just took it off one day and never came back.
Remember how Dads clothes used to hang in the closet?
Until you took em outside and burned em.
Grace Grace Grace. Grace. She wants me back. She wants me back so bad she wiped her hand over the past where we wasnt together just so she could say we aint never been apart. She wiped her hand over our breakup. She wiped her hand over her childhood, her childhood years, her first boyfriend, just so she could say that she been mine since the dawn of time.
Its pretty dark. To keep thuh illusion of thuh whole thing.
But on thuh wall opposite where I sit theres a little electrical box, like a fuse box. Silver metal. Its got uh dent in it like somebody hit it with they fist. Big old dent so everything reflected in it gets reflected upside down. Like yr looking in uh spoon. And thats where I can see em. The assassins.
Not behind me yet but I can hear him coming. Coming in with his gun in hand, thuh gun he already picked out up front when he paid his fare. Coming on in. But not behind me yet. His dress shoes making too much noise on the carpet, the carpets too thin, Boss should get a new one but hes cheap. Not behind me yet. Not behind me yet. Cheap lightbulb just above my head.
And there he is. Standing behind me. Standing in position. Standing upside down. Theres some feet shapes on the floor so he knows just where he oughta stand. So he wont miss. Thuh gun is always cold. Winter or summer thuh gun is always cold. And when the gun touches me he can feel that Im warm and he knows Im alive. And if Im alive then he can shoot me dead. And for a minute, with him hanging back there behind me, its real. Me looking at him upside down and him looking at me looking like Lincoln. Then he shoots.
I slump down and close my eyes. And he goes out thuh other way. More come in. Uh whole day full. Bunches of kids, little good for nothings, in they school uniforms. Businessmen smelling like two for one martinis. Tourists in they theme park t-shirts trying to catch it on film. Housewives with they mouths closed tight, shooting more than once.
They all get so into it. I do my best for them. And now they talk bout cutting me, replacing me with uh wax dummy.
People are funny about they Lincoln shit. Its historical. People like they historical shit a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming. You trying to get me fired.
I think there was something out there that they liked more than they liked us and for years they was struggling against moving towards that more liked something. Each of them had a special something that they was struggling against. Moms had hers. Pops had his. And they was struggling. We moved out of that nasty apartment into a house. A whole house. It werent perfect but it was a house and theyd bought it and they brought us there and everything we owned, figuring we could be a family in that house and them things, them two separate things each of them was struggling against, would just leave them be. Them things would see thuh house and be impressed and just leave them be.