Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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LINCOLN'S BIRTHDAY

When I was a kid back in the 1960s and 70s, my school district in the town of Great Neck on Long Island always allowed the day off for Lincoln's birthday. Whatever weekday February 12th fell on, we kids got to stay home and quietly contemplate our martyred President (or at least that was the general idea). Then ten days later, on February 22nd, we would get another day off, this one for Washington's birthday, a means in which to honor our nation's founding father. It was also during these formative teenage years of mine that the U.S. government first instituted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, an Act of Congress that amended the federal holiday to provide three-day weekends (mostly to federal employees). This was signed into law on June 28, 1968, and took effect on January 1, 1971.

Which is why most young Americans today have no idea when Lincoln or Washington's birthdays actually fall, especially as both holidays were later combined to create "President's Day," which seems to be more about selling mattresses and cars than anything else.

The last known photo ever taken of Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, February 5, 1865.

(Hand-colored by artist James Nance in 2006).

February 12th always puts me to mind of the Great Emancipator, so that when his birthday rolls around—heavily influenced as I am by a lifetime of theatregoing—I tend to see the faces of the many actors who portrayed Lincoln on stage. In the early years of my attending plays, some sort of historical zeitgeist was ripe with shows that dealt with our sixteenth President's life and legacy. Here are a few of them:

In October 1972, I attended a Saturday matinee preview performance of V. J. Longhi's The Lincoln Mask, a grim drama of Lincoln's last days, which starred Fred Gwynne (known primarily then to this young teenager as Herman Munster) and Eva Marie Saint. As stated in its Playbill, the playwright attempted an ambitious span, setting it in "various locations in Springfield, Illinois and Washington, DC; 1840 - 1865." In my review (which I wrote when I was fifteen), I opined: "Throughout the play there were scenes from Our American Cousin, the play Lincoln saw the night he died. It might have been a good touch, but the play Our American Cousin is so bad, that you don't exactly look forward to them."

Eva Marie Saint and Fred Gwynne in The Lincoln Mask (1972).

Of The Lincoln Mask, the New York Times critic Clive Barnes (a bit more mature than I was at the time) alluded in his review to Nixon, something that forty-three years later echoes still: "As a character Lincoln has almost all the virtues except credibility. Well, just possibly that is the stuff that Presidents are made of."

The Lincoln Mask ran all of one week, for a total of eight performances.

Two months later, in December 1972, Lincoln was back on Broadway, though he didn't appear on stage. However, his presence hovered throughout James Prideaux's The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, which dealt with Mary Todd Lincoln's tumultuous years after her husband's death, bringing the magnificent Julie Harris her fifth Best Actress Tony Award, in spite of the show only running sixty-three performances.

Dorothi Fox as Elizabeth Keckley and Julie Harris in the title role of

The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (1972).

Yet another Lincoln play (this one also concen