This is a play in which two long-dead men argue, without resolution, about an issue which has been settled for years in the minds of civilized people. Why is it so damn good, then? Why is it that a hundred fifty years after the fact, the Lincoln-Douglas debates – the play is largely taken from verbatim transcripts – can still grip our hearts, and move us to tears?
Part of it is that our principled struggle to overcome the unspeakable practice of slavery has become part of the American concept of self. When we see a man like Lincoln (Robert Parsons) rise to face down a monstrous injustice not with a rifle (though that came later) but with the power of his persuasive eloquence, we are reminded that this nation was founded not on a battlefield but in a debating hall, and that our principles preceded our existence. And when we see a man like Douglas (Rick Foucheux) throwing away his chances for the presidency by campaigning against secession, we understand that there is no prize in America greater than America itself.
Part of it, too, is the strangely intimate relationship between the two men, which has no parallel between rival Presidential candidates in American history. Kennedy and Nixon were friends before their 1960 race – Joe Kennedy even contributed a thousand dollars to Nixon’s 1950 Senatorial campaign – but they were very different men, from different backgrounds. Lincoln and Douglas came up from poverty together to become state legislators in Springfield; they dated the same woman, Mary Todd; as lawyers they traveled the circuit together, trying the same cases and sometimes arguing against each other. Douglas’ first attempt at Congress – he lost – was against Lincoln’s law partner John Todd Stuart. By the time Lincoln suggested that they underscore their 1858 Senatorial contest with a series of debates, they were practically family to each other, and their conflict presaged a war in which brother would take arms against brother. Playwright Norman Corwin cleverly weaves this personal history in among the limbs of the larger history which holds this play together.
A third reason must be the astonishing performance of Parsons as Abe Lincoln, who remains one of the most enigmatic figures in American history. Lincoln was, at bottom, a surpassingly shrewd and ambitious politician, who, like Douglas and most American political leaders of the time, had as his principal goal the preservation of the Union. None of this was what made him great. Instead, it was the galvanic clarity of his understanding that no true democracy could permit the enslavement of any of its people and that such enslavement must end, even at the cost of disunion. Parsons’ Lincoln expresses this understanding almost against his will, as a sort Tourette’s Syndrome in reverse, in which the speaker is impelled to speak the truth, and to embrace moral righteousness.
Parsons, who bears a striking resemblance to the sixteenth President, successfully captures Lincoln’s many deficiencies as a public speaker – high, reedy voice, awkward gestures, odd facial expressions – while at the same time showing what a compelling figure he must have been. Lincoln was as eloquent spontaneously as he was in his written work, and Parsons shows us a man discovering words and arguments on the fly, and delighting in the discovery. He gets the human Lincoln – the one who suffered from melancholy, and the one who was lonely because, in the end, there was no one like him – down as well.
Foucheux’s portrait of Douglas is a little more generic – high-toned and smug, as if he could not believe anyone would take his lanky friend seriously. This approach makes Lincoln’s eventual triumph more dramatic, but it is not the way Douglas really was. The real Douglas was a tiny man – he weighed less than a hundred pounds – who was animated by a furious engine. On the podium, he punctuated his elegant arguments with angry gestures, and he had difficulty controlling his temper all of his life. (The play mentions, correctly, that Douglas bit the thumb of his Congressional opponent, Stuart). Foucheux’s calmer iteration of the Little Giant sacrifices historical accuracy in favor of narrative punch; it is probably the right choice.
Corwin uses Douglas’ wife Adele (Sarah Zimmerman) as a framing device, putting the debates in their historical context and guiding us through their aftermath, which includes Douglas’ victory in the Senate race, his defeat in the subsequent Presidential race against Lincoln, the old rivals’ reconciliation in the White House and their eventual deaths. Adele, who was the niece of Dolley Madison, was by all accounts a charmer, and Zimmerman gives us a full picture of a lively, intelligent, engaged woman of the mid-nineteenth century.
The Rivalry, by and large, serves history well. In particular, Helen Huang’s gorgeous costumes remind us of how good people used to look before the days of wash-and-wear.
Nonetheless, the play contains some historical bloopers. The only significant one is Corwin’s inexplicable failure to set forth the reason for Douglas’ 1860 defeat: the fact that his party split in three. Corwin has Douglas bemoan some lost Congressional seats as a harbinger of Lincoln’s coming presidential victory, but in fact he was not done for until the Southern delegation walked out of his nominating convention. The play also suggests that Douglas was a serious toper, sneaking drinks out of his flask at the debates. In fact, Douglas did drink heavily after the death of his first wife, but by the time the debates rolled around, he was, as they say, clean and sober. Finally, the play suggests that Douglas was beginning to suffer from his final illness when he met Lincoln prior to the inauguration, but this is not so: Douglas caught typhoid fever and died suddenly in June of 1861, three months afterward. But these are small matters, of interest primarily to historians and Googlephiles.
There is a fourth reason this play is so great, and it has less to do with the play than it does with us. Like any good change agent, Lincoln makes the narrowest argument possible: he is not against slavery, only against its importation into the territories. Douglas, taking a page from the conservative’s handbook (Death Panels, anyone?) tries to blow Lincoln’s vision up into something he is sure will horrify the voters: black people in the United States Senate. Black people sitting on the Supreme Court. Black people marrying white people. If Mr. Lincoln has his way, Douglas avers, surely this will be the result.
Then, on your way out, take a look at the picture which the National Park Service has hung in the lobby. It is of a black man, the son of a white mother. He occupies the position to which Mr. Douglas had so vigorously aspired. Pretty cool, eh?
By Norman Corwin
Produced by Ford’s Theatre
Directed by Mark Ramont
Reviewed by Tim Treanor