It seems worth noting that "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, was written at the height of the Great Depression.
Given the mood of disillusionment and despair, Robert Sherwood might have written a sentimental appeal to patriotism. The play is not stinting in its admiration for Lincoln, nor does it render its subject simplistically. The Lincoln of Sherwood's play is both the American folk hero and the complex political figure of actuality.
Audiences back then must have been uncomfortable with Sherwood's presentation of Lincoln's reluctance to side with the abolitionists, at Lincoln's remark that he was more opposed to war than he was to slavery. But then contemporary audiences may be disconcerted to hear him say "There's no course of action that is not justified in the cause of freedom," an echo of Barry Goldwater's defense of "extremism in the pursuit of liberty."
The point is Lincoln was a figure of great complexity and what makes the play remarkable is how much of his political oneriness Sherwood conveys.
Nor is this merely a portrait of a man of words. Lincoln's private life was also knotty. In one fascinating scene, Sherwood manages to tie Lincoln's reluctance to wed the politically ambitious Mary Todd with his conflicted views on the slavery issue. Being decisive about both matters is what galvanizes his career.
Of course the play is buttressed by all the feelings about Lincoln we bring with us. But its strength is the multifaceted view of its subject and Sherwood's own eloquence, which blends comfortably with actual quotations from Lincoln.
Gerald Guiterrez's production beautifully captures the epic quality of the play. Only initial scenes seem pageant-like. The final tableau, partly because it employs Lincoln's own words, but partly because of its theatricality, is deeply moving.
In the title role, Sam Waterston gives a genuinely heroic performance, always making clear how Lincoln's wisdom reflects his gritty experience. There are superb performances by Lizbeth Mackay as the brittle Mary; David Huddleston, Robert Westenberg, Peter Maloney and J.R. Horne as politicians, and David Aaron Baker as Lincoln's secretary. But this is a true ensemble effort, a visually magnificent, joyous revival.
Lost plays for sale! Well, here's one lost play, at least, Robert E. Sherwood's "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," which reappeared in a snazzy new production by the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont last night.
Andre Bishop, the theater's artistic director, has been wondering recently about American plays of the '20s and '30s, so many of which seem to have sunk virtually without trace.
If anyone wonders why, the answer can be provided in one word: movies. If you prefer three words: movies and television. Most of these so-called "lost plays" were obsolescent in technique and style even while they were being written. And Sherwood's "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," a great success in 1938, is typical of its time and genre.
Shoddily written, its aspirations become mired in what amounts to an animated textbook on the life of the 16th President from backwoods cabin up to the train bearing him to Washington for his inauguration. And it does offer a sterling opportunity to any actor able and willing to impersonate Lincoln for more than three hours and 20 minutes, with time out for intermissions.
The highlights all appear to be snatched from Lincoln himself, the celebrated Lincoln/Douglas debates, including the "House Divided" speech, that memorable letter to his friend, Joshua Speed, about the sight of "shackled slaves," or the farewell address at Springfield railroad station.
What Sherwood misses is any real portrait of Lincoln - his deepest doubts, morbid fears, at times contradictory thoughts on slavery - while exploiting such anecdotes as his dubious romance with Ann Rutledge. Moreover there is none of the considered and telling detail that a good TV documentary might supply, or a great feature movie might shape.
Sherwood's story is amorphous, his characters puppets and his writing - except in quotation - largely nondescript. It wanders from scene to scene, leaving Lincoln's character development largely in the hands of his tailor.
However not all is lost at the Vivian Beaumont Theater - but only by a very short chalk. The physical production is beautiful. The director Gerald Gutierrez seems finally to have made the forever controversial Vivian Beaumont stage work like a dream.
His crowd scenes - and wonderfully (and very properly) the company uses nearly 40 actors - have the vitality of life to them, and some of the scenic effects, including that final train, all helped and effected by the designers, John Lee Beatty (sets), Jane Greenwood (costumes) and Beverly Emmons (lighting), are intricately conceived works of art.
Although I question whether "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" was worth doing, unquestionably the way it has been done showers enormous credit upon Lincoln Center Theater. Here is a work with claims (justifiable or not) to be a modern classic mounted with classic authority.
Many good actors contribute to the total picture, but it is Sam Waterston's Lincoln who is, as he must be, the play's cornerstone, lynch-pin and reason.
Hardly the gaunt and haggard figure cut by Raymond Massey in the play's old movie version, Waterston suggests humor, orneriness and sublime individualism in a compellingly seductive portrait of Lincoln altogether worthy of a subtler play and a fuller canvas.
If you're not too tuckered out by that point, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" has a climax as spectacular as any now on a Broadway stage.
Lincoln, in the person of Sam Waterston, has just been elected President and is preparing to leave Springfield, Ill., for the nation's capital and the herculean task of holding together a Union deeply split over the issue of slavery. Family at his side, he is standing on the back platform of a railroad car, gazing out at us and the crowd that has gathered to wish him well.
Up ahead, the locomotive shoots billows of steam into the night air. A cheer rises from the townsfolk, who break into a spirited rendition of "John Brown's Body." With a sudden lurch, the train slowly starts to pull away. Lincoln reaches down to shake a few hands, but he is being carried upstage and the crowd is melting into the shadows. The spotlight on his hard-set face shows a man resolved to preserve the Republic, but sad, too, as if he knows in advance the terrible costs. Then, before long, the train itself disappears and all we see is that determined face, growing smaller, until it is a speck in the enveloping darkness, a faint flickering hope for a country on the brink of dissolution.
No other moment in Robert E. Sherwood's earnest but plodding play, the winner of the 1939 Pulitzer Prize, comes close to matching the ending, although it has been given every chance in the huge production directed by Gerald Gutierrez, which opened last night in at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center. Even in what is shaping up as a season for stage epics, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" is an endeavor of daunting dimensions.
Like Robert Schenkkan's "Kentucky Cycle," it bites off a large chunk of American history, the years from the early 1830's to 1861, which Lincoln spent in Illinois overcoming adversity and forging a national reputation for decency and probity. The saga is told in 12 scenes, requiring nearly as many sets. There are 49 actors in the cast, and the running time, counting intermissions, is nearly three and a half hours.
Like "Angels in America," Tony Kushner's epic view of the 1980's, it wants to rally the spirit of a confused and discouraged nation. Sherwood wrote "Abe Lincoln" on the eve of World War II, and it is as much a statement of democratic principles, flung in the face of Nazism, as it is a consideration of America's troubled past. Called upon to pray over a friend's child ill with swamp fever, Lincoln asks the Almighty to "spare him and give him his father's strength." Then, with an upward glance, he adds, "Give us all strength, O God, to do the work that is before us." Granted, Sherwood's eye was on the gathering cataclysm in Europe. But how far are we from Mr. Kushner's exhortation in "Angels" to "let the great work begin"?
Yet for all its loftiness of purpose and the generosity of Lincoln's own words, some of which are incorporated into the script, Sherwood's dramaturgy seems dismayingly earthbound today. When the dialogue is not clumsy (Judge Bowling Green, an early mentor, to Lincoln: "I thought you were opposed to slavery, Abe. Have you changed your mind?"), it smacks of simple-mindedness (political crony to his cohorts: "I tell you, gentlemen, he is a vote-getter if ever I saw one. His very name is right: Abraham Lincoln!"). And how not to wince when a reprobate in a New Salem tavern bellows drunkenly: "You're an honest man, Abe Lincoln. You're a good-for-nothin', debt-ridden loafer, but you're an honest man."
The play charts Lincoln's evolution from a small-town failure, who figures that the free and slave states would get along fine if they minded their own business, to the cleareyed visionary who understands that freedom extended to some, not all, is a hollow concept. The man's greatness, however, is assumed from the start. History can't be overturned, of course. But within Sherwood's drama, the surprises are few. Lincoln's moodiness, the hypochondria, the racking self-doubts are passing blemishes on a glorious soul preparing to blaze forth. We may be too quick to commit the opposite sin these days: debunking our heroes and exposing their clay feet. Nonetheless, "Abe Lincoln" can often seem like an extended exercise in hindsight.
Given these weaknesses, Mr. Gutierrez and his designers, John Lee Beatty (sets), Jane Greenwood (costumes) and Beverly Emmons (lights), have shown a certain bravery by letting the play unfold as written. They have made no attempt to undercut Sherwood's solemn convictions or to inject a tone of latter-day irony into encounters that strike us now as didactic or melodramatic. The one note of modernity is the cinematic fluidity with which Mr. Gutierrez stages these old-fashioned scenes, episodes in a grandiose pageant really. The sets glide in and out of the darkness like swans on still waters. Or they rise silently out of the floor, while clutches of townsfolk or ballgoers thread their way in and about them. Pools of golden candlelight expand and contract. Skies lower menacingly, then lift. The technical craft on display is majestic, even if the play isn't.
Nor is Mr. Waterston about to rein in his full-throttle performance merely because we have diminished notions of heroes in the 1990's. With his flapping hands, his sagging shoulders and a wardrobe that appears to have been permanently creased by Ms. Greenwood, he often looks like the town scarecrow. His voice has a built-in croak. Emotions build up in him until he has no choice but to blurt them out awkwardly. Colorful as the idiosyncrasies are, they also serve a canny purpose. When Lincoln finds his life's purpose and steels himself for the ordeals to come, Mr. Waterston is able to suggest great stature simply by standing tall and motionless.
The boldly etched performance is the only one that can claim more than two dimensions. Blame Mr. Sherwood for that, too. His characters run to types -- rowdy rustics, plotting politicians and social snobs -- all readily identifiable on sight. Lizbeth Mackay, flirtatious and driven as Mary Todd, marries Lincoln and becomes shrewish and driven. Although Brian Reddy, as Stephen A. Douglas, gets to participate in an abbreviated version of the pivotal Lincoln-Douglas debates, he proves little more than an ambitious fop.
If Robert Westenberg (as the power broker Ninian Edwards), David Huddleston (as the avuncular Judge Green) and Marissa Chibas (as Lincoln's first love, Ann Rutledge) are noteworthy presences in the throng, it's mostly the throng itself that stands out by dint of sheer numbers. Broadway megamusicals have casts smaller than this. Only a nonprofit institution such as Lincoln Center Theater could think of mounting "Abe Lincoln" today. But even as you're watching the production -- and realizing that you probably won't see its like any time soon -- you can't help wishing that Mr. Sherwood had shouldered more of the evening's considerable labors.
The last time Lincoln Center Theater decided to second-look a "lost" show from the '30s, the "neglected" writer was Cole Porter, the attraction was a revival of "Anything Goes," and the payoff was a smash hit, a long run and three Tony Awards. With its lavish and faithful mounting of Robert E. Sherwood's 1938 "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," the company takes a somewhat greater risk, and the payoff is considerably more limited. This is a fine production and a first-rate vehicle not only for Sam Waterston in the title role but for a huge roster of character actors.
But while the play's 12 scenes unfold with cinematic finesse, nothing else director Gerald Gutierrez and his design team have in their bag of tricks can make the play -- which won Sherwood the second of his three Pulitzers and launched the Playwrights Company of which he was a founding member -- seem any less dated. The writing, particularly in the early scenes depicting Lincoln's youth in New Salem, Ill., is wooden and declamatory; lines like "This is the Rutledge Tavern..." place the action, to be sure, but they focus a listener's attention on the creaky dramaturgy.
To attribute these problems to the style of a different era doesn't work; polished, unself-conscious writing was as valued then as it is now. But it's also true that Sherwood had an agenda in drawing parallels between Lincoln and Roosevelt, in bolstering the notion of America as the bright hope of the world as Hitler was devouring Europe, and in that, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" has more in common with the baldly patriotic movies coming out of Hollywood at the time than with Broadway.
Nevertheless, Sherwood's hero is no stick figure. The writer didn't shy away from Lincoln's moodiness, indecision and the fear of failure; these all offer shading to the portrait of a moral giant. Early on, Lincoln sees 12 slaves chained together on a boat en route to Vicksburg, Miss., where they were to be sold; the encounter haunts him more than any abstract debate could.
As a nonprofit company, part of Lincoln Center Theater's public trust is to present productions like this -- a mainstay of resident theaters outside New York -- and that it has put so much force of talent behind "Abe Lincoln" is commendable.
Rough and charming, a raspy croak in his voice, Waterston works hard at the image of Lincoln as awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin -- traits Lincoln shrewdly turned to his advantage as the non-politician's politician, and which Waterston makes appealing. There are fine performances from Lizbeth Mackay as Mary Todd (though Ann McDonough nearly steals the show as her pouty sister, Elizabeth Edwards); David Huddleston as Lincoln's mentor, Judge Bowling Green; Robert Westenberg and Robert Joy as the pros who groomed Lincoln; David Aaron Baker as his law partner; and Brian Reddy as a somewhat foppish Stephen A. Douglas.
John Lee Beatty's designs for nearly as many settings as there are scenes are models of simplicity, and Beverly Emmons lights them with her usual broad and reliably tasteful palette. Jane Greenwood's costumes seem admirably lived-in by the characters wearing them.
If none of this makes a convincing case for "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" as a classic, it does remind us that theater can have purposes beyond brainless entertainment, and even at that, it's never boring.