Herbert Mitgang has spent a quarter of a century studying Lincoln. He wanted to create in this one-man show a Lincoln who was historically accurate, but also one who was human: What had to be avoided was a feeling by the audience that it was watching a play with a lectern at dead-center for high-minded speeches.” At this he succeeds. Mitgang’s Lincoln moves easily from private citizen to public servant to orator speaking lines destined to live forever.
This is a two-act play with the first act taking place in Illinois, where Lincoln was mainly an advocate. The second act is set in Washington, where Lincoln assumed his historical position as liberator: The central theme that emerged,” Mitgang says, was his own evolving stand on slavery that led to the Emancipation Proclamation.” Lincoln promised that if he ever got the chance to hit the institution of slavery, he would hit it hard.
The set and props remain simple. Stage right is for legal and official business; stage left is for relaxing at home. Lincoln delivers his great public speeches from center stage. He comes downstage to address the audience directly. The play works. It has been produced successfully in Washington and New York, on foreign and domestic tours, and was the first Hallmark Hall of Fame production to run on PBS. The authenticity,” as Mitgang notes, derives from the language.”
Mitgang shows many sides of Lincoln: the president making an eloquent moral judgment”With all my heart, I believe that those perpetuating slavery are blowing out the moral lights around us”; the president overruling his cabinet to make a tough military and political decision; and the melancholy man making his load tolerable through humorAnd if I laugh at any mortal thing,” wrote Byron, ’tis that I may not weep.”
Wit and eloquence form the essence of Mister Lincoln. Ancient kings had their court jesters, men like Lear’s fool who broke the tension created by a weighty crown. But most of all, these jesters provided perspective. It was their job to puncture the balloon of pomposity before its light, hot air dragged the ruler from earth to Olympian heights. President Lincoln was his own court jester, as he shows in this sequence describing the opening shots of the Civil War: Washington became an armed camp. War knows no holidays but that is how the Civil War began. Some civilians actually carried picnic lunches from Washington to watch the first battle across the Potomac at a little creek called Bull Run. Our retreat was led by a scared, fast-running Congressman with his coattails flying.”