Friday, February 29, 2008

The Memoirs of Abraham Lincoln

Memoirs of Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln, 1864

I have been following the reviews of a one man play called The Memoirs of Abraham Lincoln. For the most part, they have been very positive throughout the play's month-long run at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, California.

If you are currently in the Burbank area, I encourage you to check out the play. Here is a link for ticket information, as well as a number of interesting photographs of the production.

However, I understand that the rest of us will not make it to California in time to see the final show, which will take place this Sunday. I thought I'd pass along a few highlights from the various reviews, as well as a few things to think about.

Playwright Peter King Beach wanted to give the nation's sixteenth president a chance to "tell his side of the story." It is 1865 and the audience has called on the president in the White House and finds him in a talkative, relfective mood at the end of a long and stressful day. He spins stories from his childhood in southern Indiana, as well as his travels on the law circuit and stump in Illinois. And then there is the war. His generals are frustrating and he does not hesitate to tell you about it.

The actor who plays Lincoln, Granville Van Dusen, has received good reviews. Portraying Lincoln is not an easy, nor is performing an entire play without the help of any other actors. Though this is a one-man show, reviewers praise Van Dusen for making it seem like he is working with a strong supporting cast.

The only knock I've seen on Van Dusen comes from a Los Angeles Theatre Review in which mention is made that he is "not a spot-on look-alike." I included a picture of Van Dusen in costume, alongside another photograph of Lincoln in 1864. You can judge for yourself, but I don't think he looks too bad.

But, of course, one can look the part and still fail in his task. For the audience to suspend their disbelief and step back into the nineteenth century, the actor must be able to temporarily resurrect the dead. Reviewers credit Van Dusen for having done just that. As one might expect, for example, he delivers a solemn rendition of "The Gettysburg Address," but reviewers note that it does not sound like a speech that was written nearly a century and a half ago, nor does it sound like the same speech you read as a child. By placing it into the context of the other stories he has to tell, Van Duesen breathes new life into this literary masterpiece.

Moreover, both Beach and Van Dusen have captured something of the living, breathing Lincoln that I think is too often overlooked. Remember, this is a one-man play, but the audience is not invisible. The audience is not listening to Lincoln's inner-dialogue. No, this is a conversation between the audience and the president.

But notice the audience's role. Though they are in the White House with Lincoln, they do not actively participate in the discussion. They listen, but they do not respond. I find that terribly intriguing. I have read dozens of accounts from people who met Lincoln and I am continually struck by how often the conversation turned into a monologue.

Office seekers, disgruntled politicians, and old friends often called on the president. Lincoln listened to what they had to say. He heard their request, but it often reminded him of a story. For instance, there was an old politician in Illinois named John Moore who enjoyed a stiff drink. Well, Moore went to Bloomington one day to get some supplies. After he made his purchases and loaded them into his cart, which was pulled by two red steers, he decided to have a few drinks. Before long, he was not feeling any pain. As he was heading home for the evening, he fell asleep at the wheel. His cart abruptly hit a tree stump, the steers broke loose and ran away, but old Moore didn't even wake up! The next morning, Moore opened his eyes and was amazed at the scene. "If my name is John Moore," he exclaimed, "I've lost a pair of red steers; if it is not John Moore, I've found a cart!"

The story disarmed Lincoln's visitor, changed the trajectory of the conversation, and usually served as a transition to another one. Never mind what the visitor came to talk about. What was it anyway? If his visitor was a member of Congress or a General, perhaps he had called on the president to discuss the best way to treat the Rebel leaders after the war. The president had been thinking about that for quite some time and, oddly enough, it reminded him of another fellow in Illinois who drank too much. His last run had ended so badly he had taken a temperance pledge in which he swore he would never drink again. Well, after a few days he wandered into a saloon and asked the bartender for a glass of lemonade. As the bartender reached for a glass, the old drunkard whispered to him, "Couldn't you put just a drop of whiskey in it unbeknownst to me?" Lincoln understood what the old drunkard meant. If Jefferson Davis and the other Rebel leaders would just flee the country "unbeknownst to him," it would save him a great deal of trouble.

The visitor might have laughed at the story, but he usually saw the president's larger point. Hanging fellow Americans would be unpleasant. It would get ugly. Ugly? Now, that reminded him of another story. He was once on a train when a stranger walked up to him and said, "Excuse me, sir, but I have an article in my possession which rightfully belongs to you." The stranger promptly handed him a jack-knife. Lincoln looked at the knife, he had never seen it before. "How is that?" Lincoln asked the stranger. "This knife was placed in my hands some years ago, with the injunction that I was to keep it until I found a man uglier than myself. Allow me now to say, sir, that I think you are fairly entitled to it."

You get the point. Conversations with Lincoln could be terribly one-sided. I don't know how many people who called on him actually walked away with what they wanted, but I suspect it wasn't as many as you might think. Meeting Lincoln could be a frustrating and confusing, yet hilarious experience.

I hope the one-man play, The Memoirs of Abraham Lincoln, conveys some of that experience.

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