Lincoln’s Murder Is Often Re-enacted, but Not at Ford’s Theater

Since Ford’s Theater reopened as an active theater in 1968, no one has staged a dramatic re-enactment of Abraham Lincoln being shot to death there on April 14, 1865.

“Manhunt,” the Apple TV+ series, said it recently asked for permission and was turned down. Robert Redford considered it at one point but was dissuaded, an executive at the theater said.

The theater’s website explains the reasoning.

In a posting titled, “Why Ford’s Theatre Doesn’t Stage Assassination Re-enactments,” the historian David McKenzie, who worked at the theater for nine years, wrote in 2021:

“For us at Ford’s, in the place where the tragedy actually happened, a re-enactment of the Lincoln assassination would take attention from the gravity of the event and its impact on our society at large,” adding that “it would focus attention instead on the macabre details of one night. It could prove kitschy, downplaying the event’s significance. It would also give John Wilkes Booth the prominence he desired in his quest to topple the United States government and preserve a system of white racial superiority.”

Paul Tetreault, the Washington theater’s veteran director, said that, despite the resolute tone of McKenzie’s posting, the rationale against such a re-enactment is not a formal policy, but more a matter of “common sense.”

“So the reality is,” he said, “there is nothing written that says no re-enactments. It’s just that it’s just respectful. You know, at Ford’s we have an obligation. We have an obligation to the facts. We have an obligation to truth, we have an obligation to, you know, be respectful and be reverential. This is a memorial site. It’s a national historical site.”

Tetreault said Robert Redford considered using the theater in his 2010 film “The Conspirator,” and even toured the space to mark camera angles.

“What I ended up saying was, ‘Quite honestly, I’m not sure it’s worth the cost, the extra costs, that you’re going to have to put into this project to shoot at Ford’s,’” Tetreault said. “And you know, Redford kind of agreed.”

Those costs would have included reimbursing the theater for the value of ticket sales in the event performances were canceled, Tetreault said, as well as daily charges from the National Park Service, which jointly operates the historic site. The filmmakers would pay up to $750 a day to use the site, plus salary and overtime costs for Park Service employees, such as those who would monitor the filming.

Redford, who could not be reached for comment, ultimately opted to recreate Ford’s Theater in a Georgia warehouse, but he held the premiere for his film at Ford’s.

Monica Beletsky, the showrunner for “Manhunt,” which recreates the 12-day search for Booth, said that her team and James Swanson, the author of the book on which the series is based, had hoped to film at the scene of the crime.

“I campaigned so hard to get in there,” Beletsky said, in part because of how difficult it was to find a comparable 19th-century theater. (Above-stage boxes, such as those at Ford’s, were often sacrificed when older theaters designed for stage acting were converted to cinemas.)

Tetreault said he had several conversations with Swanson, but warned him about the costs and logistical concerns, rather than telling him “no.”

A spokesman for the Park Service, Mike Litterst, said the agency had not received a “formal application” for on-site filming at the theater from the series.

Ford’s Theater was only open a few years before the assassination, and after the shooting it tried to continue to stage performances before shutting down in 1866. It languished for a century, first as a government warehouse and later as a shrine-like Lincoln museum. But in the 1960s Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Johnson, and Actors’ Equity, the union for stage performers and stage managers, pushed for a major restoration project, believing that an avowed lover of Shakespeare like Lincoln would be better honored with a working theater.

Restoring the theater without putting plays onstage “would make the space a monument to what John Wilkes Booth did, rather than a place to commemorate Lincoln,” McKenzie wrote in his blog post.

William F. McSweeny, a special assistant to Johnson who has served on the Ford’s board since the early 1970s, said that to his knowledge, no re-enactments have occurred at the theater since it reopened. His modus operandi as longtime board chair was, “never do anything that would be damaging to the name or memory of Lincoln.”

Today the theater offers actors the highest-paying regional contracts in Washington. A typical season includes an American history play, “A Christmas Carol” and a spring musical. About 650,000 people visit each year, and on most weekday mornings, hundreds see “One Destiny,” a one-act play where two actors share eyewitness accounts of the assassination.

One performer depicts an actor who starred in “Our American Cousin,” the play onstage when Lincoln was shot. The other portrays the theater operator Harry Ford. Together, they recall the night of April 14. Although a shot rings out and the lights in the presidential box dim, neither actor impersonates Booth or Lincoln.

“One Destiny” is one of several scripts set in the Civil War era that Tetreault commissioned since taking over Ford’s in 2004. He has also expanded the repertoire to include more 21st-century plays.

“Manhunt” went to great lengths to recreate the look of Ford’s Theater at the Miller Theater in Philadelphia, where its assassination scene was filmed. As would have been the case in Washington, Beletsky navigated restrictions to protect the historic structure. But it was worth it, the showrunner said, to end up with footage that conveys both Lincoln’s humanity and Booth’s depravity.

“The Lincoln assassination is one of those things that you know happened, and you’ve seen it in your mind, but I don’t know how much we’ve really sat with it, and thought about what happened and how horrific it was,” Beletsky said, emphasizing that Lincoln was shot while enjoying a popular comedy.

“He wasn’t able to defend himself,” she said. “He wasn’t ever able to speak again. And so I think living through that scene dramatically really has an effect on people. Hopefully we show what America lost by that crime being committed.”

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