I’ve previously written about the long, drawn out legal battle between Laura Keene and John Sleeper Clarke over the popular play, “Our American Cousin”. Laura Keene, the one-time lover of Edwin Booth, had to bring John Sleeper Clarke, the husband of Asia Booth, to court over her rightful ownership of the play not once, but twice. The first suit was brought shortly after the play made its debut in Laura Keene’s New York theatre in 1858 when William Wheatley and John Sleeper Clarke began performing the play at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia. Everyone knew the play was a smash hit and, through some crafty means, Wheatley and Clarke managed to get themselves a copy of Tom Taylor’s original script and then poached Keene’s personal improvements. In the legal battles, both sides would claim that they held the true ownership of the play. Outside of the courtroom, both sides would also try to convince the American theatre goers that their version was the best.
In addition to their respective newspapers advertisements, Keene and Clarke came out swinging with battling “Our American Cousin” polkas. Keene struck first with her polka:
Not to be undone by Keene, John Sleeper Clarke had his own polka composed for his theatre:
For those of you who are musically inclined, you can download the sheet music for both polkas. Keene’s version is here and Clarke’s version is here. Oddly enough, here is a third ”Our American Cousin” Polka that seems to be trying to find a compromise as it is written merely, “To the Patrons & Friends of Asa Trenchard”.
I find these battling polkas to be the perfect example of the constant one-upmanship between these two theatre rivals. Though operating in separate cities, Keene and Clarke played out a very public dispute trying to gain control of the most popular comedy of the day.