This is the third in a series of examinations of legends related to plays and their playwrights and whether they are true or false. Today we find out if the theater is responsible for Daniel Boone’s coonskin cap, learn how A Long Day’s Journey Into Night came out over two decades before it should have and discover the playwright who got his start based on an English lesson!
This is one of the “Grab Bag” legends here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, legends that deal with a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four main subjects). Here is a list of the 25 “Grab Bag” categories (I might expand the list in the future, but for now, we’re sticking with these 25).
THEATER LEGEND: Daniel Boone’s coonskin cap came from an 1822 theater production about Boone.
STATUS: I’m Going With False
Actor Fess Parker portrayed both Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in popular television series (the latter was a mini-series), with both characters wearing coonskin caps.
Crockett came first and made coonskin caps big business in the United States and the United Kingdom, with it becoming practically a staple of young boys, but Boone continued the trend with the hit 1960s TV series.
Here is Parker as Boone…
(click on the image of Boone to enlarge)
The problem was that while Crockett definitely did, in fact, wear a coonskin cap (at least a times), Boone hated them. He wore felted beaver hats. He felt that coonskin caps for “uncivilized.”
And the weird thing is, we really don’t know exactly how we got from “Boone hated coonskin caps” to “Boone wore coonskin caps all the time,” which was part of the Daniel Boone myth well before Fess Parker started to play him on television.
In 1820, Boone sat for the artist Chester Harding. Harding made a series of portraits of Boone. Harding is the only artist who ever painted Boone while Boone was alive and therefore, his drawings are the basis for pretty much every other artist afterward. The thing is, the only full-length painting he did of Boone was destroyed over a century ago.
Luckily, we have an engraving from a couple of years later by James Otto Lewis of the famed 1820 Chester Harding full-length portrait of Boone.
Do note the hat. It is clearly a felted beaver hat.
The legend is that the coonskin cap misconception began when the famous actor Noah Ludlow portrayed Boone in a minstrel show in 1822 where Ludlow performed the soon-to-be-classic song “The Hunters of Kentucky.” As the story goes, unable to find a beaver hat, Ludlow substituted a coonskin cap, and a myth was born.
The problem is, Ludlow actually wrote an autobiography, and here’s how he described that show:
As soon as the comedy of the night was over, I dressed myself in a buckskin hunting-shirt and leggins, which I borrowed of a river man, and with moccasins on my feet and an old slouched hat on my head, and a rifle on my shoulder, I presented myself before the audience.
So I think it is fair to say that it is still a mystery as to how, exactly, Boone went from hating coonskin caps to being forever identified with them.
My guess is that he was just conflated/confused with Davy Crockett, who DID like coonskin caps. The Daniel Boone TV series was basically just a Davy Crockett riff, after all, as Boone and Crockett did not have a whole lot in common, as far as their respective approaches to the frontier went (Crockett was much more of a “rough and tumble” guy, while Boone liked to be considered a trailblazer for civilization). But I can’t say for sure.
Just that it wasn’t Noah Ludlow’s fault!
THEATER LEGEND: A Long Day’s Journey Into Night was released over twenty years earlier than Eugene O’Neill expressly stated that it should.
For a man who already had written a number of classic plays, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night is likely Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece.
The playwright finished the play in 1942, eleven years before his death.
For whatever reason, O’Neill decided that he did not want the play to be published until twenty-five years after he died. This might be because of the autobiographical parts of the play, but honestly I don’t know for certain what O’Neill’s motivations were. He had the manuscript of the play kept in the document vault of his publisher, Random House. O’Neill even had a contract written up that stated that the play not be published until twenty-five years after his death.
However, upon his death in 1953, his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, took control of the estate, and she gifted the play to Yale University.
They published the play in 1956, under the conditions that, “All royalties from the sale of the Yale editions of this book go to Yale University for the benefit of the Eugene O’Neill Collection, for the purchase of books in the field of drama, and for the establishment of Eugene O’Neill Scholarships in the Yale School of Drama.”
The play was a massive success, posthumously winning O’Neill the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
It was later turned into an acclaimed film, as well.
It is fascinating to think of how the play would have been received had it been released in 1978, as O’Neill intended it to be.
THEATER LEGEND: Eugene Ionesco was inspired to write his first play at the age of 40 while learning English.
Eugene Ionesco was one of the more acclaimed playwrights of the “Theatre of the Absurd” movement of the mid-20th Century (along with Samuel Beckett).
Ionesco did not begin his career as a playwright, though. Originally, his works were poetry and literary criticism. He did not write his first play until he was in his 40s. The origin of that first play is fascinating.
You see, when he turned 40, Ionesco (who was born in Romania and lived in Romania and France for his entire life) decided to learn English. He used the famed Assimil method to learn English. The Assimil method (formed by a company in France) involves learning full sentences in the language that you are trying to learn (while you have the sentence in your native language to let you know what it means). These phrases presumably eventually give you an understanding of the new language.
Over the years, many people have parodied the somewhat strange sentences given to students to learn (in particular, the first sentence in the original course to learn English was “”My taylor is rich but my english is poor,” a phrase that became parodied frequently).
While studying the sentences, Ionesco became fascinated by the strange sentences and ultimately was inspired to turn them into dialogue for a play (if not the exact sentences, sentences like them).
This play, originally written in Romanian and then translated by Ionesco into French, became what we now know as The Bald Soprano.
The play is marked by characters who practically talk over each other in non-sequiturs.
This began Ionesco on his acclaimed career as a playwright. Pretty crazy, eh?
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com
Tags: "The Hunters of Kentucky", "Theatre of the Absurd", A Long Day's Journey Into Night, Assimil Method, Carlotta Monterey, Chester Harding, coonskin cap, Daniel Boone, Eugene Ionesco, Eugene O'Neill, Fess Parker, James Otto Lewis, Pulitzer Prize, Random House, Samuel Beckett, The Bald Soprano, Yale University