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Chicago by John Olson

Hershey Felder Turns to American History
in His Newest Piece

An American Story


Hershey Felder
"I didn't know Lincoln played the piano." Hershey Felder says that's a common reaction when he tells people of his newest piece, An American Story, opening in Chicago Sunday, March 10 at the Royal George Theatre. Felder is known for the one-man shows he's created and performed that celebrate the lives of some of the music giants of the past two centuries. His biographies of Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin and Bernstein all offer ample opportunity for him to display his skills as a concert pianist along with portraying a myriad of characters and employing tens of European accents. An American Story, however, is about the young surgeon who found himself thrust into the role of doctor to the mortally wounded President Lincoln just for attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865.

That doctor, the 23-year-old Charles Augustus Leale, was a lover of theater and presumably music as well, but not a pianist. As Leale, Felder has no need for a piano, though he sings and a live orchestra accompanies him and plays his score of original compositions as well as music of the time. At a recent lunch meeting with Hershey Felder and An American Story's director, Trevor Hay, we discussed the new show and how it differs from Felder's previous pieces. Apart from the different profession of his most recent subject, there's the distinction that Leale, unlike Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven or Bernstein, was not a celebrity. In fact, the first time he spoke publicly of his involvement in the aftermath of the assassination wasn't until 1909—44 years after Lincoln's death.

Hay sets up the story of this remarkable physician: "Dr. Charles Augustus Leale was a Union Army Doctor who loved theater, having been introduced to it by his father, who was also a surgeon and a military man. By circumstance Charles Leale was the doctor who was closest to Lincoln when he was shot. He was called into the box by Mary Todd Lincoln, who put him in charge, and he was by the President's side for the next nine hours. Just six weeks earlier, he had graduated from Bellevue Hospital Medical School in New York City." Though the nature of the wound caused by John Wilkes Booth's bullet made it impossible to save the life of the President, Leale is believed to have provided comfort to the dying Lincoln. "The piece is about the way an ordinary man responds when thrust into extraordinary circumstances," Felder explains, "and that's interesting to me. Gershwin wasn't always a lauded songwriter—Beethoven didn't explore the depths of the human condition really, until he lost his hearing. Dr. Leale was a very simple doctor who ended up in extraordinary circumstances. The question is what would the rest of us do in those circumstances?"

A look at Leale's life both before and after the assassination shows how he had an exceptional opportunity to be a witness to American history. Born in 1842, he lived until June 1932—a life span that made him a contemporary of 22 American presidents from John Tyler to Herbert Hoover. His 90 years of life coincided with well over half the country's history at the time of his death. A man who lived through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the First World War and the beginnings of the Great Depression, Leale seemed oddly destined to intersect with some of the key figures surrounding the Lincoln assassination. Felder and Hay explain how Leale's life story gives perspective to the historical era and the tragic event itself.

"He was introduced to the theater by his father," Felder tells me, "a father who took him to see minstrel shows but objected to their depiction of the slaves. In the opening scenes of our play, he and his father are watching Christy's Minstrels performing Jim Crow. We think of slaves of the era being presented in minstrel shows as dimwitted fools, but in fact it was surprising to see the reality—they were also presented as threatening and murderous. I sing the original lyrics from some of these songs, to show how racist and hateful they were."

Hay jumps in to explain their reasons for including such potentially inflammatory material. "It wasn't that long ago that that was the theater norm. That's what was going on. I just found that unbelievably dark and a little close to home in an uncomfortable way. Leale's father was a man of great ethics, he was a humanitarian. He taught Charles to honor life, that all life is precious and all men are created equal. That minstrel show is so dark and ugly it's hard to watch, but we didn't want to soften the blow. What would that accomplish? We push it just to the point where they're uncomfortable, and then we take it back."

Moving to loftier forms of theater, Leale became a lover of Shakespeare as well, even attending the one-night-only performance on November 25, 1864, of Julius Caesar by all three of the famous Booth brothers—Edwin, Junius Jr., and John Wilkes. The historic performance was performed inside the (now gone) Winter Garden Theatre in downtown Manhattan as Confederate sympathizers set buildings ablaze on the streets of New York. Hay explains, "When you think of Civil War fighting, you picture a giant open battlefield with cannons, but there were corpses in the streets of New York City. Inside the theater, the Booths were performing Shakespeare and it was vibrant and exciting, but outside they were burning down New York and that's something people have no idea about."

Before Leale and John Wilkes Booth would cross paths again on April 14th, 1865, Leale would have another chance encounter with one of the figures of An American Story. Felder explains the anecdote with great relish:

"In January of 1865, Dr. Leale is returned to Bellevue to finish his training. He encounters Stephen Foster—the young composer who wrote the most popular American songs of the day, most notably 'Oh Susanna.' Many of his songs, like 'My Old Kentucky Home' and 'Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon the Sewanee River),' were romantic depictions of the southern states, though Foster had been to the south just once."

Foster had composed songs for the minstrel shows Leale had seen as a boy and Leale would later comfort Lincoln with Foster's music on the President's deathbed. Foster was living in a hotel on New York's lower east side and was injured when, in a state of drunkenness, he fell on his washbasin. The washbasin shattered into pieces, one of them lodging itself in his skull. Impoverished at this time, he believed no one cared about him or his music any more. When he died three days after admittance to the hospital he had just 38 cents in Civil War scrip and a few pennies in his pocket. The pocket also carried a piece of paper on which he had written the words 'dear friends and gentle hearts.' "What was the rest of that story?" Felder wonders aloud.

With Leale's life a panorama of American history that touched so many well known historical figures, Felder will have many opportunities to employ his skills at creating characters and assuming accents:

"There are more characters than in any of my other plays. I get to play young, old ... There are all the things that happened to him afterwards. Leale was determined not to be remembered for the rest of his life just as the doctor who failed to save Lincoln. He was an Army surgeon in World War I. He lived until 1932 and died just months before President Roosevelt was elected. The play allows me to show the New York City of 1932 through the eyes of a man who lived through the Civil War."

Hay adds, "This is a playground for Hershey. He gets to have a lot of fun. People who have followed Hershey are going to see parts of Hershey they don't know. He's redefining himself."

Felder sees a larger theme in his story of Dr. Leale, telling us "As noble as this guy was, it's the nobility of what is specifically American that the piece is about. As Leale says ... 'In all my travels with all the people I have met all over the world, I can safely say that good Americans are not to be excelled when occasions demand strength, endurance, calm, good judgment, ardent loyal devotion and self sacrificing love.' "

An American Story will play the Royal George Theater, 1641 N. Halsted St., Chicago, March 7 - April 14th. For ticket information visit www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com/.


Photo provided by Eight Eight Entertainment

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-- John Olson



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