Theatre yesterday and today



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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 concentrating on Mary), was Jerome Kilty's two-hander Look Away, which opened one month after The Last of Mrs. Lincoln. It starred Geraldine Page as Mrs. Lincoln, and as Elizabeth Keckley, her maid and confidante—Maya Angelou. Already well-known for her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published three years prior, Look Away marked Angelou's Broadway debut at age forty-four. Angelou had already built a reputation through a number of disciplines in the arts (singer, dancer, poet), as well as being a civil right activist that had marched with Martin Luther King. Look Away ran just one night (which is why I missed it), yet Angelou managed a Tony nomination for Featured Actress in a Play. Though she continued to act, Angelou's writing career slowly dominated her life's work up to her death in 2014. The following year, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor, surely making her the only Tony nominee for a one-performance flop with that distinction.

That made for three Lincoln plays in four months. And interest in the Great Man continued unbated throughout the next decade with not one, but two one-man Lincoln plays: in 1976 with Fritz Weaver in Saul Levitt's Lincoln (which I saw Off-Broadway at the now demolished Theatre Four on West 55th Street), and Roy Dotrice (who only just passed away in October of last year at age ninety-four) in Herman Mitgang's Mister Lincoln, which ran briefly at the Morosco (also now demolished) in 1980. Whew.

Fritz Weaver and Roy Dotrice in their respective one-man shows on Lincoln (1976 and 1980).

Of course, Lincoln had already been depicted in plays dating back to the late 1800s, in silent films (he appears in 1915's Birth of a Nation, considered the first full-length motion picture), and on Broadway, most successfully in 1938's Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Robert E. Sherwood's dramatization that dealt with Lincoln's rise in Illinois politics, prior to the Senatorial election that took him to Washington. Raymond Massey's portrayal, repeated in the 1940 film version, made him the go-to Lincoln for the rest of his career. He would play him in a total of four different dramatic productions, all by different authors.

Raymond Massey in the Broadway production of Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1938).

Sam Waterston in the Lincoln Center revival of Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1993).

I couldn't begin to compile a list (or feature photos) of all the actors who have played Lincoln, though the most recognizable names would number Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook, Gregory Peck, Walter Huston and Henry Fonda. But it was in Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln (2012), written by Tony Kushner, that Daniel Day-Lewis's uncanny work rivaled all others and won him an unprecedented third Best Actor Academy Award.

Daniel Day-Lewis in a pensive pose as Lincoln (2012).

But I suppose I couldn't end this column without mention of one last actor who has given us a rather non-traditional Lincoln: Benjamin Walker in Tim Burton's 2012 film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, that died a quick death at the box office.

May it rest in pieces.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at