Feb. 16, 2012
One of the many advantages of working in Washington is to be literally around the corner from history. Fords Theater, where President Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865, has been refurbished and used to stage many an interesting play about the nations storied past. Its a short walk from my office to step into time.
Last night, I attended Necessary Sacrifices, a play about the sometimes stormy relationship between editor, orator, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Lincoln. Richard Hellesen has taken the two brief office meetings between the harried president and the acknowledged leader of Americas black community and turned them into compelling drama.
We have no detailed record of the face-to-face meetings except from the powerful memoirs of Frederick Douglass. So, the playwright uses well-known statements by both men to build on their dialogue. Its certainly acceptable dramatic license. If Douglass and Lincoln did not actually say all that they say to each other in this two-hour presentation, they certainly delivered their lines in one context or another.
Both men were ravenous readers. Lincoln consumed many newspapers each day and used his endless stream of visitors to pump them for information. Frederick Douglass had learned from childhood the power of reading to liberate. When Hugh Auld, his Baltimore master, learned that his sweet wife was teaching the boy Frederick to read, he raged at the dear woman. Reading will ruin the best n_____ in the world! Frederick quickly learned that literacy was his ticket to freedom.
The Douglass character is played by Craig Wallace. Initially, I thinkWallace is a bit too short and too stocky to accurately convey the impression of Frederick on stage. But he has a powerful basso profundo voice that shakes the farthest reaches of the theater. In that, he soon assumes the commanding platform presence that made Frederick Douglass one of the highest paid and eagerly sought after speakers in Americaas well as Canada, Scotland, and England. Elegantly attired in vest and suit, his Douglass is conscious of the honor he is being paid in visiting Mr. Lincoln.
Douglass starts off calling Lincoln Excellency, but Lincoln waves all that folderol away. Lincoln called his younger law partner, William Herndon, Billy, but most of his political associates he calls by their last names, as they call him Lincoln. He does pay Frederick the respect, however, of calling him Mr. Douglass.
David Selbys Abraham Lincoln is a marvel. He looks the part, but better than that, he knows his character thoroughly. President Lincoln certainly seems august as he comes on stage in his familiar stovepipe hat and three-piece black suit. But soon, Lincoln is slouched in his chair, running his fingers through his hair, throwing a bony leg over the arm of the threadbare chair.
You can readily see why so many Americans of refined manners thought Lincoln uncouth, even vulgar. Selbys voice pierces. Its not the Disneyland Lincoln you get, no somber baritone. Instead, its a tenor that at first is irritating but is soon compelling. The accent is Hoosier. Rustic. No, lets be honest with Honest Abe. Hes a hick. You can easily imagine this Lincoln calling out Mr. Cheerman, for Chairman. And saying skeered for scared.
But is he ever shrewd. The play is not so much a debate as a verbal wrestling match. Their first meeting was in August, 1863, eight months after the Emancipation Proclamation, so Douglass concentrates on enlistment of black troops, equal pay for Negro, or colored, soldiers, as they were called.
Douglass is incensed that his promises to young black men seem not to have been honored by the War Department. Lincoln has reasons for all the invidious discrimination. He reminds Douglass of the New York Draft Riotshundreds killed, Negroes lynched, a colored orphanage burned down. And this in the north?
Lincoln threatens rebels with reprisals if they continue to murder colored soldiers they capture. (My own great uncle, Jonas Lipps, was one of those prisoners of war so threatened.) But he drags his feet in carrying out that order.
Returning to my seat after intermission, I note the bizarre sign posted at the entrance to the theater: Firearms Prohibited. This is Fords Theater.
The second act shows Lincoln and Douglass meeting in August, 1864. Hes convinced he is going to be defeated in the November election. The Democratic nominee is Gen. George B. McClellan, whom Lincoln had fired two years earlier because he had the slows.
Lincoln makes Douglass the most amazing offer. I want you to be my agent in the South.
Once I am defeated, I can do nothing more about the Emancipation Proclamation. McClellan will probably revoke that executive order on the Inaugural Stand, as soon as he takes the oath. Lincoln appeals to Douglass to go into the unconquered South and lead millions of slaves out of bondage. Lincoln knows that only when they enter Union lines, will they be legally free. He will thus present McClellan with an insurmountable obstacle: Will the new president actually re-enslave millions?
Frederick Douglass never has a chance to play the role of Americas Black Moses. Thats because Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman wins a critical victory. Atlanta is ours, and fairly won. Atlantas fall, and Gen. Phil Sheridans campaign of destruction in the Shenandoah Valley, the breadbasket of the Confederacy, change everything. Lincoln is overwhelmingly re-elected. Long Abraham a little longer, reads the caption on one famous cartoon that November.
Re-elected, Lincoln will send the Thirteenth Amendment to the states for ratification. He signs the amendment. No president before or since has signed an amendment to the Constitution. As with his Proclamation, his whole heart and soul are in the measure.
In one of the plays many humorous moments, Lincoln invites Douglass to sit in his presidential chair. Its rather battered and worn, he says, but youd be amazed how many want to sit in it. They still do, Mr. President!
In the climactic finale, Douglass avoids being ejected from the Inaugural Reception at the White House on March 4, 1865. Lincoln spies his towering figure in the crowd of white faces. He summons him to the head of the line. Douglass, come here. He asks his friend, his antagonist, what he thinks of the Second Inaugural Address. Mr. Lincoln, it was a sacred effort.
Its the last time they will ever meet. Five weeks later, in this theater, Lincoln will be assassinated. That summer of 1865, Lincolns widow sends his walking stick to Frederick Douglass. In a silent, but poignant gesture, actor Craig Wallace takes up Lincolns walking stick and with it salutes the Presidential Box where Lincoln sat that moody tearful night.