Lincoln loved Chicago theater

March 4, 2011

Today, March 4, marks the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of one of our most theater-loving Presidents, Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, Lincoln loved theater just a little too much for his own good, giving rise to the often-quoted send-up of a disaster, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

That fateful and fatal night at Ford’s Theatre notwithstanding, Lincoln has a direct connection to Chicago’s theater history. His surviving letters carry a number of references to the plays and great stars he saw in performances at the McVicker’s Theatre on Madison Street. Lincoln lived in Springfield, IL for 25 years practicing law, during which time he frequently represented clients in cases brought before the Illinois Circuit Court, which still was a traveling body at that time. Attorneys would travel to where the court was sitting. When the court was in Chicago, Lincoln would spend a period of days or even weeks here, wiling away some of his free nights at the theater. And all the better if it was a Shakespeare play.

Among the actors he saw more than once was Junius Brutus Booth, the greatest American tragedian of the period and the father of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. It’s very likely that Lincoln even saw a young Edwin Booth—John Wilkes’ more talented big brother and heir to his father’s stardom—at the McVicker’s, perhaps in a role opposite his father. It would be a potent irony indeed if Lincoln even saw John Wilkes Booth himself at the McVicker’s, acting some inconsequential role in his father’s troupe.

The McVicker’s Theatre was the finest and most famous playhouse in Chicago for many decades. Always located on Madison Street in the heart of today’s Loop, there were three McVicker’s Theatres in all, a new and better one built as its predecessor burned down. The final McVicker’s played host in its last years to movies as well as the occasional theatrical attraction before falling to the wrecker’s ball in the 1970’s. The last show I saw there was a traveling company of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” starring Phil Silvers as Pseudolus.