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Lincolns Life as Dramatic Art

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					      BLAIR WHITNEY


Lincoln's Life as Dramatic Art

      An assistant professor of English at Central Missouri State College,
      Warrensburg, Blair Whitney grew up in Springfield, Illinois. H e is
      a graduate of the University of Illinois, where he also received his
      Ph.D. degree in 1967. His dissertation, on twen tieth-century poetic
      drama, was written under Professor John T. Flanagan, in whose
      seminar Whitney prepared an earlier version of this article.




       FROM 186 I to the present, countless playwrights, both
amateur and professional, have tried to express what Lin-
coln means to America and the world, what lessons his life
offers, and what qualities he demonstrates. And in their
plays - from Confederate burlesques like The Royal Ape
to pageants like Out of the Wilderness to children's plays
like Mr. Lincoln's Whiskers to serious works of dramatic art
like Abe Lincoln in Illinois - they have tried to tell the Lin-
coln story in ways that appeal to an audience.
   No one can estimate exactly how many Lincoln plays have
been written, but there have been at least 470.1 Of these
perhaps one fourth have been performed by amateur groups,
but fewer than ten have had professional productions. Al-
    J. Samuel A. Greeley, A Description and List of a Collection of 121
Plays about Abraham Lincoln (Winnetka, Ill., 1967), lists the titles of the
plays in his collection. A search of the collections of the Illinois State His-
torical Library and the University of Illinois reveals another thirty-odd
titles. David J. Harkness, "Lincoln as a Subject for Drama," Lincoln
Herald, LV (Spring, 1953 ): 35-37, lists six titles not in these collections.
Add to this list the 176 plays which did not win the Southwestern Indiana
Civic Association Prize in 1939 (see the citation in n. 25) and the 133 sub-
mitted for the 1968 Illinois sesquicentennial competition sponsored jointly by
the Abraham Lincoln Association, the Illinois Arts Council, and Southern Illi-
nois University (Illinois State Journal-R egister [Springfield], May 26, 1968,
p. 2).
  It is impossible to estimate how many other hundreds of Lincoln plays
have been written for school and community pageants.
                                                                          333
LINCOLN AS DRAMA

though there are a few compilations of Lincoln plays, no
one has discussed the way the Lincoln legend has been de-
veloped in one hundred years of dramatic history.2 This
essay attempts to do so by discussing several Lincoln plays
of different types and eras: southern hate literature, early
idolatry plays, pageants, and - the smallest category -
works of enduring literary value_
   Although Lincoln may be an ideal dramatic subject be-
cause the pattern of his life is the ideal American pattern,
few first-rate dramatists have written Lincoln plays.3 Of
those who have, only Robert Sherwood, John Drinkwater,
and Mark Van Doren are well-known literary figures, and
of these three only Sherwood is ever mentioned prominently
in histories of modern drama_ Perhaps Lincoln's many-
sided personality is too difficult to capture in two or three
hours of stage action, or perhaps his story is too familar to
provide suspense. Whatever the reason, the Lincoln we
usually meet in the pages of a play is an idealized cleaned-
up Lincoln who is too weak to satisfy those who have read
the fuller portraits in the biographies of J. G. Randall, Carl
Sandburg, and Benjamin Thomas or who have examined
Lincoln's own work to find the whole man revealed in
writing. The best Lincoln plays are those which most
ly follow the historical record and use Lincoln's own
to tell his story. They are best because Lincoln's
 ranks with the country's best and his life is stronger,
nobler than that of most imaginary heroes.
   The first plays about Lincoln were vitriolic attacks
 ten by southerners. Like other anti-Lincoln literature
proclaimed that he was a traitor, an awkward
man, an illiterate, an ape, a Negro in disguise. The
  2.   Cf. Harkness, "Lincoln as a Subj ect for Drama," and Boyd A.
"Lincoln in Drama," Lincoln H erald, XLII (Oct., 1939 ) : 2-5. Roy
Basler, Th e Lincoln L egend: A Study in Changing Conceptions (Boston
New York, 1935 ), discusses the way the legend has developed in
poetry, and the novel, but he generally does not deal with drama;
see pp. 49-50, 22 1-22, 27 1-80.
   3. Wise, "Lincoln in Drama," 2 .
334
                                                 BLAIR WHITNEY

        who wrote these plays were interested in character
         tion, not character portrayal. In 1861 a Milledge-
     Georgia, resident named Stephen Franks Miller wrote
        closet drama in verse called Ahab Lincoln: A Trag-
    of the Potomac) in which Lincoln commits suicide after
          these lines:
       error I confess; and you beloved Premier,
        to absent friend my dying words,
        acquaint the public with their import -
         that having my country ruined,
    yielded up my life in honest retribution,
      . that my sins will be forgiven
     all men freely I forgive - Farewell!4
    Some of these plays were too vitriolic even for southern
           . One of them, The Royal Ape by William Russell
         was published in Richmond in 1863, but never per-
          The M agnolia Weekly of Richmond condemned it,
      a Confederate weekly in London expressed regret for
     complete lack of taste. It attacked Lincoln's domestic
      and personal morality, portraying him as a depraved
         One satiric play, however, was quite popular with
     audiences, although its artistic value is nil. That was
       Linkum the First) by John Hill Hewitt, produced at
     Augusta Concert Hall in February, 1863. Hewitt was a
             manager, composer of popular ' songs, music
_"~hl>r, poet, and author of several plays who knew what
     audience wanted to hear. The theme of King Linkum
   the southern myth that Negroes were inferior creatures
        off in slavery. In the play Lincoln is haunted by
        ghosts who explain to him why they were better off
   slaves. They blame him for destroying their idyllic lives
    the old plantation where they did not have to do any-
       for themselves and were cared for by their generous
      5



    Stephen Franks Miller, Ahab Lincoln: A Trag edy of the Potomac
       B. Harwell, ed., Chicago, I958 ), I6.
 5. John Hill Hewitt, King Linkum the First (Richard B. Harwell, ed.,
                                                                 335



                               1.   ¥~
                                    ....   .
                       ,   ;
                 To conclude with the Serio-Comic Opera, in two acts, of



              KING LINXUM
                                               The First!
  KING LINKUM THE FIRST- And the last of his die-nasty, a 10111'-
   drawn tyrant, uneasy in consicence, and addicted to rail~splitting ALFI:E I)
  G R~. FUSS AND FEATHERS -              A disearded "old soldier," the hero
       ot many battles, and the original planner of the great " on to Rich-
       mond" movement, addicted. to taking the oath                  Master J.-\ M ES
 STEWARD-The King's Prime Minister, often primed, who con-
  s iders "the pen mightier than the sword." afraid of ·the Demo-
  crats and addicted to nigger s                           Maste r OLIVEt!                                                                This playbill for John
 (;E N. ROTTLER -                           A bottle-.imp, good at apeeulation, and addicted to                                           Hill H ewitt's King
    hanKin g' rebcl ~                                                                     Master .JOHN
                                                                                                                                          Linkum the First was
 BORRY LINKUM - A Prince oC much promise, having never settled
  his tailor's bill, the spoiled pet of hi. mamma, and addicted to
                                                                                                                                          taken from and de-
       frolicking'                                                                          .       Mast:4!r A~DIn~\\'                    signed after th e one
 BLACK ORDERLY -                                 A military conscript, rathe r pugilistic, atld                                           used at the Augusta,
  addicted to swelling                                                               Mastel' eHA RL BS                                    G eorgia, Concert Hall
 BLACK GHOST - A messenger from the spirit-land, in kicking the
  bucket he turned a little l}(Iil, addicted to sing'inJ;t I.n ·aye
                                                                                                                                          p erformance of Feb-
  songs                                                             :Ma~h 'r GEORGE                                                       ruary 25, 1863. It was
GHOST OF CREDIT -In hot pursuit of spec:ie, having been turned                                                                            published by the Em-
 into a myth by being smothered in nreell·baekM, addicted to tortul'-                                                                     ory Uni versity Librar),
 ing the conscience of t he King                                                                                    FA ~N Y

TH E GIlA N D AIlMY OF THE UNION-Addicted to runnin."                                                                 S U PCS             ( 1947)·
QUgEN LINKUM -                                An indulgent mother and a fiery wife addi('ted
 tn lwlf-w i11                                                                                  '                    LA U RA

                                        IIUSIC INCIDENTAl. TO TilE PIECE.
:0; ( 11 .0   . " l ln,l.b · h " '11 a Kim!:' .. . .... . .. .. . . ... . ... . .. . .. .
                                                                                                                             ,
                                                                                                           • •••. • ... Btlhh. ·
."ONe .\N fl CHORUS·· " Aint thi" ,., WorlOUII N ... Uon .. . .                                      QU'''' n 'H ilI ('nm l l: Ul ~'
 IIUI N KIN(; SON e; AN!) CHORUS-"My ('.enerft)"" . .. . . .
                                                                                                    ". Kin ): lind (;'lu rti " r~
 :-;ON(~ AN II CHOI :U!'i ."Oh " When .... nd Oh. Wh ere" ..
                                                                                                       Kin ~ a n, \ Court i,·!'."
 f; Jl OS'ft.Y !'iO N G ·-· '· F i ,·, ~ j:< hurnlnJr fi erce and hot.. .... . .
                                                                                                                  Blu.. k   f:h o~t
~or .o s A I.T. nO UN Il "W, · ·V~ 1111 lw.t.on nut n P Ollchinl{"
                                                                                                                      ( ' "lnTl :!I' ''
I; J: ,\NH l-'I NA t.F.           " I' m lU.t d"IIf\"
                                                                                                                      ( " ' m l "'ll~




                     For some reason, no Union playwrights wrote in defense
                  of their President, perhaps because it is much easier to sati-
                  rize a living political figure than to praise him (witness
                  MacBird). A favorable Lincoln play did not appear until
                  1876, when Hiram D. Torrie published Th e Tragedy of
                  Abraham Lincoln,G an unsuccessful and never-performed
                  blank-verse play which uses almost everyone of the Lin-
                  coln cliches.
                     These cliches quickly became established after Lincoln's
                  death and caused the ruin of several Lincoln plays which
                   Atlanta, 1947 ); the newspaper comments on William Russell Smith's Royal
                   Ape are cited by Harwell in ibid., 7.
                     6. The 1876 edition, published by the Glasgow firm of James Brown &
                   Son is titled Th e T ragedy of Abraham Lincoln, in Five A cts, by "An Ameri-
                   can Artist" ; the author's name appears in the introductory pages only with
                   the copyright entry; see also Basler, Th e L incoln L egend, 49-50, 142-43.
                   33 6
                                                       BLAIR WHITNEY

 followed them to the letter. Just as John F. Kennedy's life
 has been simplified in the popular imagination during the
 five years since his death, Lincoln's life was quickly reduced
 to the simple Horatio Alger pattern of the poor boy who
 rises by pluck and luck. His biography became a simplistic
 moral guide, illuminated by such stories as his multi-
 mile walk to return a borrowed book, and this tradition per~
 s~ted into the twentieth century. In Test Dalton's 1922 play
 The Mantle of Lincoln, for instance, a young man, when-
 ever confronted by a moral choice, asks himself what Lin-
 coln would have done in a similar situation.7 One of the
worst offenders in establishing the Lincoln cliches was Wil-
liam H. Herndon, whose biography was largely responsible
for the dissemination of the Ann Rutledge legend in which
Abe and Ann became a pair of "star-crossed lovers."s
    The first Lincoln play to be more than a propaganda
piece was written by a southerner, James Webb Rogers,a
lawyer and poet who was born in North Carolina in 1822
and served in the Confederate army. His play Madame
Surratt, published in 1879, but never performed, bore this
message on the title page: "If my work should live, it will
stand as a beacon, over a bloody sea, to warn our children,
when we, who fought upon it, shall have passed away."9
Rogers's aim - to write a play which would help to end the
bitterness of division - was a worthy one, but his dramatic
ability was not equal to the job. His play is constructeg
like an Elizabethan tragedy, with John Wilkes Booth as a
combination Hamlet-Iago who skulks through the play de-
claiming soliloquies about the moral justice of the assassina-
tion while Lincoln sits in the White House telling frontier
  7. Test Dalton, Th e Mantl e at Lincoln : A Play tor th e Peo ple (New York,
 9
1 22 ) .
  8. William H . Herndon, H erndon's Lincoln: Th e Tru e Story ofaGreat
Life . . . (Springfield,IlI.,1889 ) , I: 128-40. On the Ann Rutledge legend,
see Basler, Th e Lincoln L egend, 147-63 , and J. G. Randall, Lincoln the
President: Springfield to G ettysburg (New York, 1945 ), II: 321-42. In
Torrie's 1876 play (before H erndon ) , Mary Todd provides the love interest.
  9. James Webb Rogers, Madam e Surratt (Washington, ' 1879 ), 3.

                                                                         337
LINCOLN AS DRAMA

stories. In an attempt to give his play historical relevance,
Rogers has a series of ghosts troop across the stage to com-
ment on the tragic events. The ghosts of Powhatan, Wash-
ington, John Brown, and Francis Scott Key all speak pages
of wooden blank verse in an attempt to elevate a sordid plot
to the level of great tragedy. To Rogers's credit, however,
the play does give some sense of the terrible suffering of a
nation divided against itself.
   The first Lincoln play to be a work of geniune dramatic
art was written, ironically, by an Englishman - John Drink-
water, poet, playwright, and biographer. Drinkwater had
been inspired by Lord Charnwood's biography of Lincoln,
and the play he wrote was to be the biggest hit of the 1919-
1920 theatrical season. The play opened in the London
suburb of Hammersmith at a small theater managed by
Arnold Bennett, the noted novelist. Bennett was amazed by
the success of the piay - a political drama with no love in-
terest, about an unfamiliar subject - and wrote that
"Americans will more clearly understand what John Drink-
water has achieved with the London public if they imagine
somebody putting on a play about the Crimean War at
some unknown derelict theater round about Two Hundred
and Fiftieth Street, and drawing all New York to Two
Hundred and Fiftieth Street.m o The play was an even great-
er success in New York; most reviewers there called it a
great play which symbolized the tragic waste of civil war
and celebrated the best qualities of English and American
civilization. l1
  10 .  John Drinkwater, Abraham L incoln (London, 191 9), x-xi.
  I I.  See K enneth Durant, "Lincoln and Brown," Th e Nation, CIX (Aug.
30, 191 9) : 292-93; F. H ., " After the Play," The N ew R epublic, XXI (Dec.
31, 19 19) : 148; Ludwig Lewisohn, "A Chronicle Play," Th e Nation, ex
(Jan. 3, 19 20 ) : 858-59; Montrose J. Moses, " Drinkwater's Lincoln," The
Bookman, L (Feb., 1920 ) : 551-55; Kate Douglas Wiggin, "Kate Douglas
Wiggin Sees 'Abraham Lincoln' in London," Th e Outlook, CXXIII (Dec.
24, 19 19) : 537-3 8 .
   A less favorable review is " Lincoln Mounts the Anglo-American Stage,"
signed "H .T.P." [H enry Taylor Parker?] in Th e Magazin e of History, with
Not es and Queries, XXV (Extra No. 98, 1923 ): 103-12.
                                                       BLAIR WHITNEY

    Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln begins in Springfield in
 1860 and ends on April 14, 1865. It is a chronicle play in
 six scenes, each one a culminating moment in Lincoln's
 life. Two characters called chroniclers speak a verse pro-
 logue to each scene, the only verse which Drinkwater, a poet,
 saw fit to include. The rest of the play is written in con-
 ventional English prose with no attempt to reproduce Lin-
 coln's dialect. The first of the six scenes takes place in Lin-
 coln's home in Springfield when a committee comes to tell
 him of his nomination as the Republican candidate for
 President. Lincoln gives an eloquent speech about his hatred
 of slavery, which, he says, stemmed from his youthful trip to
 New Orleans, where he saw the slave market. This scene is
 dramatically effective, though the event is now generally
 agreed to be apocryphal. ' 2
    The second and fourth scenes both deal with debates with-
in the Cabinet. In the second scene Lincoln's confrontation
with Seward is particularly compelling as it shows how Lin-
coln's determination was strengthened by opposition. In the
fourth scene, however, Drinkwater departs from history and
invents the character of Hook to represent all the hostile
forces in the Cabinet. Seward or Chase would have served
just as well as a dramatic antagonist, and Hook's arguments
are not strong enough to create effective dramatic tension.'3
When a dramatist uses such familiar historical material,
any departure from fact calls attention to itself and, as in
this case, tends to destroy the believability of the play.
    The third and fifth scenes are quietly effective demon-
strations of Lincoln's sympathy for the sufferers on both
sides. He comforts a woman whose son has been killed in
battle, tells a Negro preacher that forgiveness is essential,
   12. Basler, Th e Lincoln L egend, 135-41.
   13. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Y ears and the War
Years (New York, 1954), 215 ff. , discusses the basis for these 1861 disputes
in Ihe fact that Lincoln wanted a composite Cabinet whose members rep-
resented all shades of political opinion. On the Cabinet crisis of D ecember,
1862, see Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (New York,
195 2 ),35 1 -55.
                                                                        339
                                          Front cover of the 4Ih. -bY-7-inch pa-
                                          perback edition of Madame Surratt is-
                                          sued in 1879. This copy, which is now
                                          in the Illinois State Historical Librar)~
                                          is inscribed to "Sen. Roscoe Conkling"
                                          of N ew York with the "compliments 91
                                          the author,>' James Webb Rogers.




Front cover of the first edition of The
Tragedy of Abraham Lincoln by Hiram
D. Torrie. This 4%-bY-7Y4-inch paper-
back volume was published in Glasgow,
Scotland, in 1876.




              and learns that a soldier he had pardoned earlier has been
              killed on the last day of fighting. These scenes are fictional,
              but they are true to character and demonstrate the futility
              and waste of civil war.
                 The final scene of Abraham Lincoln is both historically
             '3:4°
                                                     BLAIR 'WHITNEY

ludicrous and dramatically weak. Lincoln goes to Ford's
Theatre, delivers his "Second Inaugural Address" from his
box during intermission, and is shot and pronounced dead,
all in the space of fifteen minutes. As soon as Lincoln falls,
Stanton pops up out of nowhere and pronounces, "Now he
belongs to the ages."
   The historical inaccuracies that mar Abraham Lincoln
are not present in another Lincoln play that appeared in
1920. Thomas Dixon's A Man of the People is in some ways
a better play, although it was not successful. In fact, Drink-
water's success probably accounted in part for Dixon's fail-
ure. Unlike Drinkwater, Dixon was relatively unknown, and
his play had no advance publicity; it ran only long enough
to be accounted an interesting failure by the reviewers. 14 A
Man of the People deals with Lincoln's smashing a Copper-
head plot in August and September of 1864. The events
themselves are fictional, but the play is an excellent por-
trayalof the darkest months of Lincoln's Presidency - those
during which he was under fire from North and South alike.
Dixon's Lincoln is not the lonely, tragic figure of Drink-
w ater's play but a master politician with a great love for his
people, less of a hero but more of a man.
  After a somewhat maudlin prelude depicting Nancy
Hanks's death and her dream of greatness for her son, the
play begins with a sharp argument between Lincoln and
Stanton that is more effective than the Cabinet disputes in
Drinkwater's play. Dixon's Stanton is a fully realized char-
acter who is a worthy opponent for the President. The rest
of the first act is a series of similar encounters between Lin-
coln and restive members of his own party. These scenes
demonstrate both Lincoln's political skill and his strength of
purpose. His reply to a Republican committee which wants
him to remove Grant is a ringing defense of Grant's tenacity
and courage. 15
   4.
  1 Burns Mantle, ed ., Th e Best Plays of   1920-21 . . .   (Boston, 192 I ),
{·5·
   5.
  1 Cf. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, 373.
                                                                         34 1
LINCOLN AS DRAMA

   In Act II Lincoln thwarts the political ambitions of Gen-
eral George B. McClellan' 6 and has an interview with a
wounded soldier seeking an open trial for his father, who was
being held without bail on a charge of seditious activities.
This interview is the most successful scene in the playas Lin-
coln explains why he must use unconstitutional powers. He
says that the means are unimportant compared to the end-
the abolition of slavery. In this act Dixon presents a Lin-
coln who is both historically valid and dramatically success-
ful, on the surface a skillful politician, at heart a suffering
man struggling to restore the Union.
   Unfortunately Dixon was unable to sustain this high level
of thought, language, and action. In the third act the focus
shifts from Lincoln to the Copperhead plot against him.
How it is foiled makes effective suspense, but the serious
themes of the play suffer from neglect. Dixon's Jefferson
Davis, who is also active in the skulduggery, is historically
questionable and hardly a fit adversary for his Lincoln. The
play does come to a fitting close, however, with Lincoln's
reelection and the magnificent language of the Second In-
augural Address, this time properly delivered in the proper
setting.
   Abraham Lincoln and A Man of the People appeared
just after World War I when England and America were
trying to repair the damage done by that disaster and to re-
establish some kind of order, just as Lincoln had tried to re-
store order to a war-torn country. In the late 1930's, when
the United States was again in trouble - worn out by the
depression and facing the prospect of an even more hor-
rible war - American dramatists again turned to Linc~ln as
the man who best exemplified the principles that needed re-
affirming. Lincoln was a man of the people whose origins
 appealed to the proletarian sympathies of many contempo-
rary playwrights. 17 His hatred of war appealed to their
  16. Cf. Sandburg, Th e Prairie Y ears and th e War Y ears, 55 1 ft.
  17. For a good discussion of the work of the Group Theatre, the Labor
Stage, the Federal Theatre, and the various Communist theater leagues,
34 2
                                                      BLAIR WHITNEY

  pacifist leanings, and as a friend of the Negro, Lincoln
  could be a focus for a small but growing civil rights move-
  ment (the American volunteer force in the Spanish Civil
  War was called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade). An added
  stimulus for playwrights of that period was provided by the
  publication, beginning in 1926 and continuing throughout
  the thirties, of Carl Sandburg's great biographies of Lin-
  coln, particularly the volumes of The Prairie Years.
    The first significant Lincoln play of the 1930'S was Ells-
  worth P. Conkle's Prologue to GlorYJ which was produced
 professionally by the Federal Theatre in New York in March
 of 1938 and ran for 169 performances. Its two acts are set in
 New Salem around the year 1831. Conkle makes no at-
 tempt to be true to all historical details and, in fact, treats
 history rather too romantically - the play's most serious
 fault. In Act I Abe is splitting rails, studying grammar and
 elocution, telling stories, keeping store, and making sheep's-
 eyes at Ann Rutledge. Conkle tries, rather unsatisfactorily,
 to portray the rough-and-tumble spirit of the frontier. His
 New Salem is a kind of country idyll, and his attempt to
render dialect literally becomes little more than bad gram-
mar. In the second act Abe proposes to Ann and then is
crushed by her death. Conkle's play shares the defects of
several other Lincoln plays and pageants which also try to
tum Lincoln into a romantic figure, a kind of frontier Ro-
meo who longed to join his Juliet in the grave. In spite of
its defects, however, Prologue to Glory was generally well
received by critics and audiences. 1s
see Morgan Y. Himelstein, Drama Was a Weapon: The Left-Wing Theatre
in New York, 1929-1941 (New Brunswick, N.]., 1963 ) . Such playwrights
as Maxwell Anderson, Clifford Odets, John Howard Lawson, George
Sklar, Paul Green, Irwin Shaw, and Robert Sherwood himself (in Idiot's
Delight, an antiwar play with Marxian overtones) wrote plays sympathetic
toward the left.
   18. Burns Mantle, ed., The Best Plays of 1938-39 ... (New York, 1939),
4,30, 482, 509; extracts from the play appear in The Best Plays of 1937-38
(New York, 1938) , 233-67. The complete play, copyrighted in 1936, is one
of three reproduced in Federal Theatre Plays, with an introduction by Hallie
Flanagan, director of the Federal Theatre (New York, 1938 ), 1-81.

                                                                       343
LINCOLN AS DRAMA

   A far better play about Lincoln's early life opened later
in 1938; it was Robert E. Sherwood's Abe Lincoln in Illinois,
the first production of the famous Playwrights' Company
 (Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice, S. N. Behr-
man, Sidney Howard, and John F. Wharton) . 10 With Ray-
mond Massey as Lincoln, the play ran for 472 performances
and won Sherwood his second Pulitzer Prize. It is still per-
formed every summer in Kelso Hollow Theatre, New Salem
State Park, by an amateur Springfield group known as Abe
Lincoln Players, Inc. 20 . Sherwood thought that Lincoln, on
the brink of war in 1860, had much to say to a later genera-
tion on the brink of war in 1938. Before beginning his play,
Sherwood did extensive research, including a particularly
careful reading of The Prairie Years. To get the language
right, he reread Huckleberry Finn for the rhythms of com-
mon speech, and studied an English grammar, published in
 1816, of the type Lincoln might have used. 21
   Abe Lincoln in Illinois is a chronicle play in three acts
with twelve scenes, which cover Lincoln's life from 1830 to
 1860. The New Salem scenes are like those in Prologue to
Glory, but Sherwood does not romanticize frontier life as
 Conkle does, and he catches some of the rhythm of frontier
speech without resorting to the kind of tortured grammar
 Conkle uses. This speech by Abe to Bowling Green is a
 good example of Sherwood's attempt to show Lincoln's
 language, at· once both simple and profound. Abe is ex-
 plaining why he wants to run for the Electoral College and
 not for Congress:
Suppose I ran for Congress, and got elected. I'd be right \n the
thick of that ugly situation you were speaking of. One day I tnight
   19. George Jean Nathan, "The Playwrights' Company Presents," News·
'week, XII (Oct. 31, 1938): 29.
   20. A not-for-profit corporation that presents the play during the last
 weekend of August and the first weekend of September. The production
 in 1968 was the twenty-third (programs in the Illinois State Historical
 Library).
   21. John Mason Brown, The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to
 His Times, 1896-1939 (New York, 1965 ) , 368-71.

344
                                                     BLAIR WHITNEY

have to cast my vote on the terrible issue of war or peace. It might
be war with Mexico over Texas; or war with England over Ore-
gon; or even war with our own people across the Ohio River.
What attitude would I take in deciding which way to vote? "The
Liberal Attitude," of course. And what is the Liberal attitude?
To go to war, for a tract of land, or a moral principle? Or to
avoid war at all costs? No, sir: The place for me is in the Elec~
toral College, where all I have to do is vote for the President whom
everyone else elected four months previous.22
   Sherwood includes the Ann Rutledge story,23 but his Lin-
coln is more eloquent in his grief than the less articulate
Lincoln of Conkle's play.
   In Act II Sherwood succeeds in doing what many Lincoln
playwrights fail to do: he shows evidence of Lincoln's future
greatness without stating the obvious, and he successfully
dramatizes Lincoln's development from country lawyer to
wise political thinker with a true knowledge of America's
promise. The scenes in which Lincoln discusses political
problems with Josh Speed and Billy Herndon are particu-
larlyeffective in showing his gradual development. This act
~ marred, however, by the scenes with Mary Todd, who is
not a well-realized character. Ann Rutledge seems to be
the only love Abe Lincoln can have on stage~
   Act III opens with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, an:d
from this scene on, Sherwood lets his Lincoln's words come
from the historical record. This Lincoln is both eloquent
and humane, and has an almost tragic sense of his mis-
sion. The last two scenes, of Lincoln on election night and
at the train station where he gives his farewell to Spring-
field, are very effective drama.
   Lincoln's life has been dramatized in other ways besides
full-length Broadway plays, and no study of Lincoln drama
should neglect the many folk dramas and pageants produced
   22. Robert Emmet Sherwood, Abe Lin coln in Illinois: A Play in Tw elve
Scenes (New York, 1939), 76-77-
   23 - As did Sandburg,.in Abraham Lincoln: Th e Prairie Years (New York,
1926 ), I: 181 -89; in 1927 Paul Angle concluded that the story was "en-
tirely traditional" (as quoted in Randall, Lincoln the President, II: 323 ),
but the legend persists.
                                                                       345
LINCOLN AS DRAMA

by local groups in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and else-
where. Two of the best of these are Francesca Falk Miller's
Marked Comers, a play about young Abe Lincoln in In-
diana, and Out of the Wildemess, a pageant written by the
Work Projects Administration Writers' Program in Illinois
and produced at New Salem in 1940. 24 Mrs. Miller's play
was the winner of a $ 1 ,000 prize offered by the Southwestern
Indiana Civic Association for the best play about Lincoln's
boyhood in Indiana from 1816 to 1830.25 Although not ex-
actly a pageant, Marked Comers resembles one sufficiently
to be placed in that category. It celebrates a particular
area, uses a very large cast, and can be performed outdoors.
I t makes use of folk music, dancing, and pantomime and,
like most pageants, has many scenes (with no particular
unity), a prologue, and an epilogue. This play's greatest
virtue is that it does give a good impression, even if some-
what romanticized, of frontier life in southern Indiana. It
contains a husking bee, a barn dance, and a gypsy fortune
teller who, of course, foretells Abe's greatness. Its several
attempts at folk humor are not particularly successful, how-
ever. The best scene in Marked C omen is set in the slave
market in New Orleans and demonstrates young Abe's hor-
ror at his first sight of slavery.
   A better example of the pageant form is Out of the Wil-
demess, which in its speed of action, its sweep and color, and
its excellent use of folk materials provides all that can be
expected of a play of its type. Designed to be performed out-
doors at New Salem, it derives full benefit from the associa-
tions of its setting. The inevitable Ann Rutledge story is
handled with dignity, avoiding the excesses of many other
  24. The title page reads "A Folk Festival: Out of the Wilderness - The
New Salem Years of Abraham Lincoln; Compiled by Workers of the Writers'
Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Illinois ...
Presented at New Salem State Park, September 26, 27, 28, 1940" [mimeo-
graphed, Chicago, 1941 ].
  25. Francesca Falk Miller, Marked Corners: A Three Act Play about
Abraham Lincoln in Indiana, 1816-1830 (Chicago, 1954 ); on the contest,
see the introduction by Ralph G. Newman, ix-x.
                                                 BLAIR WHITNEY

Lincoln dramas, and the rough frontier humor seems authen-
tic.
    Two recent plays demonstrate Lincoln's continuing popu-
 larityas a dramatic subject. Mark Van Doren's Th e Last
 Days of Lincoln) published in 1959 but never professionally
 performed, deserves attention as a serious dramatic work by
 a skillful author. The play began in Van Doren's mind as a
 long poem, but later evolved into a play written mostly in
 blank verse, although Lincoln always speaks in prose. Ex-
 cept for keeping Josh Speed in Washington to act as a con-
 fidant to Lincoln, Van Doren does not deviate from fact.
 According to the author himself, "The entire reference of
 the play was to the time after the war, the time Lincoln did
 not live to see. The irony and the pity were in that."26 In
 spite of the sincerity and knowledge of its author, however,
 The Last Days of Lincoln must be accounted as unsuccessful
 and has never been performed. Some of Van Doren's verse
 ~ excellent and provides a flexible instrument for expression,
 but much of the time it seems artificial and pretentious. His
 main failure in the play is the absence of any really vital
character besides Lincoln, and even his Lincoln is colorless
compared to the Lincolns of Sherwood and Dixon. The
best scene in the play is the meeting of Lincoln and Grant
at City Point, Virginia, where Lincoln had gone to discuss
                                                        7
the terms of peace that would be offered the South. 2 Here
Van Doren is in full control of his material, and the scene
reveals the fundamental qualities of both men. Grant's
speech on the horrors of war shows him as more than just a
brutal "bulldog" fighter, and Lincoln's reply shows his pro-
found awareness of the suffering on both sides.
   The most recent Lincoln play on Broadway was Norman
Corwin's The Rivalry) which opened there on February 7,
1959. Corwin said he chose his subject - the Lincoln-Doug-
las debates - because both the debates and their two stars
  26. Mark Van Doren, Th e Last Days of Lincoln: A Play in Six Scenes
(New York, 1959 ), x.
  27. Cf. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, 506-9.
                                                                 347
LINCOLN AS DRAMA
                                8
were exciting and theatrica1. 2 Corwin wanted to make the
actual debates the center of the play so that the issues they
presented would seem more important than the personalities
of Lincoln and Douglas. To do so, he deliberately made the
play simple in structure. The two actors, Richard Boone as
Lincoln and Martin Gabel as Douglas, stood on a platform,
the play's only set, and reenacted the debates, simply reciting
the actual text of the speeches. Mrs. Adele Douglas, played
by Nancy Kelly, provided some variety and commented on
the action like a kind of chorus. The reviewers were not sure
that The Rivalry was really a play at all, but most of them
felt that its appeal was an impressive demonstration of the
continuing relevance of the debates' principal subject -
freedom versus slavery . . One reviewer wrote that the play
revealed the "startling" fact that "now, one hundred years
later, our country has progressed a pitifully small way toward
providing the equality of opportunity that Lincoln regarded
as vital to our way of life."20
   For one hundred years men have written plays about
Abraham Lincoln because he represents so many funda-
mental aspects of the American character and because his
life provides so much drama. A few of these plays have illus-
trated some part of Lincoln's greatness and in the process
have enriched our drama. No dramatist, however, has yet
been able to realize in prose or verse the depth of Lincoln's
sympathy, humanity, and understanding and the tragedy of
his death. Perhaps the dramatic portrayal of his compassion
and wisdom are beyond the talent of writers we have pro-
duced since his death, or perhaps his life is too enmeshed
in his times to be restored as great art. Whatever the reason,
no one has written a play that gives artistic satisfaction as
great as that provided by Whitman's elegy "When Lilacs
   28. Norman Corwin, " Abe Lincoln vs. Douglas in Rivalry," N ew York
H erald-Tribune, Feb. I, 1959, sec. 4, p. I; see also th e acting edition of The
Rivalry [N ew York, 1960, p. 4].
   29. Henry Hewes, "Conscience Makes Valiants of Us All ," Saturday
R eview, XLIII (Feb. 2 r , 1959 ) : 34·

348
                                           BLAIR WHITNEY

Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," in which the rich symbolic
meaning of Lincoln's life and death is realized. Whitman's
Lincoln is a symbol for a nation torn apart, a sufferer for
the dead of both sides, and a representative of the finest
qualities of American civilization. The perfect Lincoln
drama will create a dramatic metaphor which unites the
historical Lincoln with the symbolic, mythical Lincoln and
will show how the pattern of his life is one of the most im-
portant patterns of our civilization.




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