The play’s an absolute roller-coaster ride–like riding squalls coming across the sea. If we get it right, it should make the audience’s hair stand on end.”
That’s actor Sam Waterston’s judgment about Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer-winning play of 1938. Waterston plays the eponymous role at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater through Jan. 2, sharing the stage with nearly 50 other actors in the second major remounting of the play.
The first marked its 25th anniversary and featured Hal Holbrook as Lincoln, a role also assayed over the years by Henry Fonda and Jason Robards Jr. The unfortunate Holbrook followed Raymond Massey, who originated the part and played the 16th president on Broadway for 472 performances, in the 1940 movie version and twice on television–on ABC’s Pulitzer Prize Playhouse telecast in 1950, and just a year later for the Video Theatre. To the public, Massey become the Great Emancipator. Today, however, few know the film, and only a handful of theatregoers might have seen Massey on stage, giving Waterston an opportunity to forge a different “definitive” Lincoln. As to whether Waterston himself is familiar with Massey’s portrayal, he cagily answers, “It’s better not to know.”Order now
Instead, Waterston focuses his attention on the play itself. “There are no wasted words, scenes, events; the whole thing is constructed like a Lincolnian argument,” he enthuses. “I love the play.”
The dangers of isolation
Waterston admits, however, that he didn’t recognize the play’s contemporary appeal at first reading, and even Robert Sherwood had doubts about the play’s structural integrity. Although his friends and fellow playwrights Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice, Sidney Howard and S.N. Behrman (Sherwood’s rounding partners in the Playwrights Company, which originally produced Abe Lincoln) believed the play would become one of the classics of the American stage, the author himself wasn’t so sure. Audiences seemed restless during Act 2, he noted, and he even admitted that critic John Mason Brown his future biographer was probably right in pointing to its shadowy, pageant-like quality.
However it is received today, history will record the play as a catalyst for ameliorating the isolationist attitude so prevalent in America of the 1930s. Although Hitler controlled most of Europe by 1938, a majority of Americans refused to recognize the peril that his continuing conquest posed to their own democracy. Sherwood wrote Abe Lincoln to dramatize that danger. The play clearly establishes a parallel between the nation’s don’t-get-involved-in-Europe mood with the owning-slaves-is-none-of-our-business stand prevalent prior to the Civil War. Dramatizing Abe Lincoln as a man of peace forced to face the hard issue of war, Sherwood sought to show that, as hateful as war is, there comes a time when people must fight for their way of life or risk losing it.
Eleanor Roosevelt understood Sherwood’s message and responded to it so enthusiastically that she devoted several of her syndicated “My Day” newspaper columns to its praises. When the movie was released in 1940, she invited Sherwood to the White House for a special showing. His Jan. 21 diary entry reads: “Dined at the White House. For dinner–scrambled eggs & sausages, cold meats, salad, lousy white wine (probably Californian). The Masseys, Ruth Gordon, Moss Hart present. Picture of Abe run after dinner on second floor. The President said he’d like to have the text of the debate speeches to read over the radio.”
The clock is ticking
This first meeting with FDR, so dryly described in Sherwood’s diary, led to his becoming one of three major presidential speechwriters nine months later and, in 1941, to FDR’s creating (at Sherwood’s urging) the Office of War Information and its Voice of America. Rarely has the voice of a playwright carried so far, so fast in practical matters. Eleanor Roosevelt attributed his smooth transition from observer of world events to central participant directly to the essential intelligence of Abe Lincoln in Illinois.
The same issues that compelled Sherwood to write the play in 1938 resonated when the play was revived in 1963, the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, and continue to do so in 1993. For Waterston, there are parallels between the tolerance of slavery in the 1860s, the rise of fascism in the 1930s and today’s America, a country grappling with its international role in the post-cold war era and unsolved social issues at home. “Plainly the clock is ticking for our multiracial society,” he argues. “How could Lincoln’s global vision not be applicable today?”