Mon. Feb 6th, 2023

For this story I had 48 hours to write it and was given the following prompts – It had to be historical fiction, the location had to be a dressing room, and it had to feature a pretzel somewhere. It also had a limit of 1,000 words. This story placed 3rd in a heat of 36.

APRIL 14TH

1865

The carriage arrived at Ford’s Theatre and Harry stepped out to see his name on the marquee above him. Our American Cousin – starring Harry Hawk as Asa Trenchard. Harry had toured with the production for some time, but he still always got excited at the sight of his name up there for everyone to see. He someday dreamed of giving a performance so memorable that everyone would talk about it for years to come. Perhaps tonight would be his night. With the surrender of the Confederate army, people needed the escape that theatre provided more than ever. As he approached the theatre’s entrance, Harry recognised fellow actor John Wilkes Booth, who sat on the steps reading a letter.

“John? I wasn’t expecting to see you here today. Has someone fallen ill? Are you taking their place?”

John looked up from his letter and smiled wanly.

“I’m done with the theatre, Harry. The only play I’ll perform from now on is Venice Preserv’d.”

Harry didn’t quite catch John’s meaning or get why a play about an assassination was the one exception to his early retirement.

“Just collecting my mail,” John clarified as he held up his letter. “I still have it delivered here.”

“Any good news?”

“No such thing as good news since the surrender. I saw ‘our’ President give a speech from the White House window yesterday. He wants to grant suffrage to the slaves. Can you believe that?”

“I try to stay out of politics. Though President Lincoln will be in attendance tonight, I hear.”

“That a fact? You sound almost pleased.”

“I do like to perform for people of influence. Perhaps I might even get to meet him.”

“I had the chance to meet him once, but I told his representatives that I’d rather the applause of a slave than the President,” John said as he got to his feet, struck a match, and set his letter ablaze. “If any of my friends come here looking for me, tell them I’ll be drinking in the Star Saloon. I hope you knock ‘em dead tonight, Harry.”

Harry fell back into a chair in the theatre dressing room and looked at his tired face in the mirror. He really should have gotten more sleep, but actors have social reputations to maintain.

“Good heavens,” said Laura, the director of the production. “Did you even get any sleep last night?”

“I prefer to live my dreams in the waking world.”

“We’ll need to get you powdered up and looking fresh. Have you eaten?”

“I confess that I couldn’t hold anything down this morning.”

“How about a pretzel?” Mr. Ford asked as he entered the dressing room with some playbills in hand. “We sell them by the entrance, but you can take one if you’re feeling low. Need you at your best if we’re going to impress President Lincoln.”

“Where’s your brother?” Laura asked Mr. Ford as she combed Harry’s hair. “I thought he was in charge of the house tonight.”

“We have relatives in Richmond that have fallen on hard times. With the surrender, the border to Virginia is open for safe travel again. He has gone there to lend whatever assistance he can. In the meantime, I’m in charge, and I won’t have it said that I didn’t do everything to make this night a huge success. Monty!”

Monty appeared at Mr. Ford’s side as if conjured out of thin air.

“Yes, Mr. Ford?”

“We have some American flag bunting stored up in the attic space. Fetch it down and decorate the box on the house right. This is one of the biggest weeks in the history of our country, and the President is taking the time to be with us. Everything must be perfect. Oh, and fetch our leading man a pretzel from the concessions while you’re at it.”

“Right away, Mr. Ford!”

The pretzel helped to perk Harry up somewhat as he changed into his costume and allowed Laura to apply some makeup to his face. He practiced his lines in the mirror as the theatre started to fill up. Excited chatter came through the curtain as the President took his seat in the upper box alongside his wife, Mary Todd.

The opening scenes went well with everyone nailing their lines. Harry could spy Abraham Lincoln quietly chuckling at all the right parts. Harry’s confidence grew, but something stuck in his mind as he returned to the dressing room for a quick costume change. John standing at the back of the auditorium. Not smiling, not laughing, not even looking. Eyes only for the President sitting up in his box. Harry had no time to dwell on it. The scene where he often got the biggest laugh of the night was coming up. He wanted to see Abe double over with laughter. Harry’s co-star, Helen, teed him up for the delivery.

“I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, you are not used to the manners of good society, and that alone will excuse you the impertinence of which you have been guilty.”

Helen left the stage, and Harry stood alone, ready to deliver the best line of the play. He quickly checked to see if Abe was paying attention and saw the light of the door opening behind the President.

“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!”

The crowd laughed. The President laughed loudest of all. Then the laughter stopped with the firing of a Deringer pistol. Old Abe folded over, but not the way Harry had intended. The attacker jumped from the box to the stage, and Harry backed up when he recognised who it was.

“John?”

John raised a knife as he faced the audience. “Sic semper tyrannis!” he shouted before making his getaway. Thus always to tyrants. Harry had gotten his wish. A performance that people would be talking about for years to come.

JUDGE FEEDBACK

{1751}  The fact that the last line of the play being performed was really in this story took me by surprise in a good way. I liked how you introduced the character of Booth as almost not being central to the story. The interactions between all the characters were believable. Great job.    WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {2133}  Minor tweak: While seeing “John standing at the back of the auditorium. Not smiling, not laughing, not even looking” is good foreshadowing, I think the line “Eyes only for the President sitting up in his box” could be omitted. “Harry had no time to dwell on it” still works without the preceding line.   {2206}  Why would John prefer the praise of a slave over that of President Lincoln?

“Then the laughter stopped with the firing of a Deringer pistol.” Consider firing the pistol first and then the laughter stops. Cause and effect. Perhaps, the sound of the pistol cuts through the laughter turning it to shock or screams, etc.

The last line is true. I felt something needed to follow it, though. A revelation, Harry’s feelings about it, or even the ramifications to the theatre. Even one or two lines to linger in the reader’s mind.

  {1751}  So I wanted to point this out: what social lives do actors actually have to uphold? I ask only because this suggests this is expected of actors to network and develop their reputations, but I wasn’t sure if this was what it meant. I think if you did develop this point, or even hint at it, it could in a way comment on the supposedly all important role of the theater in the post Civil War Nation. After all, if actors have to work this hard to uphold their social status, doesn’t this also  mean that they’re still regarded as unimportant? Or perhaps I’m reading this wrong entirely and this only warrants clarification. I wonder if you could address this, but that’s only a suggestion.

By Michael