Abe Lincoln in Illinois
ROBERT E. SHERWOOD 1938
Abe Lincoln In Illinois presents a vision that fits in with the legends of the sixteenth president that have been told to generations of American school children, but it gives these legends a human face. The play deals with Lincoln’s formative years. It focuses in particular on Lincoln’s growth from a shy, uneducated backwoodsman who was more willing to accept the enslavement of blacks than to accept war to the man who would lead half of the nation against the other half in the name of justice. When Sherwood’s play was brought to the stage in 1938, its parallels to the international political situation were obvious. Adolf Hitler had established himself as the dictator of Germany and had started his expansion across Europe, and the people of America, an ocean away, found themselves faced with questions about whether to fight for justice or maintain peace. As the play continued to run on Broadway, Hitler invaded more countries, raising more and more support for America’s entry into the war, giving audiences even more empathy for Lincoln’s dilemma. Today, it stands as a reminder of the responsibilities that come along with power and of the sort of person that Lincoln must have been. Among constitutional scholars, historians, and average citizens, he is still the country’s most respected president, and Robert Sherwood’s play offers a well-rounded view of Lincoln’s flaws as well as his greatness.
Robert E. Sherwood was a popular American playwright and novelist of the twentieth century. His works reflected the concerns of the generation that had lived through the First World War. They often explored the horrors of modern warfare and the moral choices that were required of those who participated in war. Sherwood was born on April 4, 1896, and attended Milton Academy, graduating from Harvard with a bachelor of arts degree in 1917. When he tried to enlist in the American army during World War I, he was rejected, and so he joined the Canadian infantry. During the war, he was wounded and was sprayed with toxic mustard gas. On his return from the war, he became a magazine movie reviewer, first for Vanity Fair and then for Life. He was, in fact, one of the country’s first serious film critics. By the mid-1920s, he was an editor for Life and was doing some screenwriting for Hollywood studios. In 1926 his first screenplay, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was produced. The following year had the opening of his first stage play, The Road to Rome. He wrote several movies and plays during the twenties and thirties. His works were not praised for their artistry, but they were considered well crafted and effective and generally pleased the public.
In 1934 Sherwood divorced his first wife and remarried. The following period found him at the peak of his artistic powers. The Petrified Forest, from 1935, was a commercial success and is considered his most successful artistic piece. The following year, his Idiot’s Delight won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. He won a second Pulitzer in 1938, when Abe Lincoln in Illinois was produced and a third in 1940 for There Shall Be No Night. It was through Abe Lincoln in Illinois that he began a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His friendship led to several government appointments during World War II, including Special Assistant to the Secretary of War in 1940, director of the oversees branch of the Office of War Information in 1942, and Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy in 1945. It also led to a book about the president called Roosevelt and Hopkins, which won Sherwood yet another Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Sherwood is most remembered today for his work in Hollywood where he wrote some of the finest screenplays of the thirties and forties. These screenplays include the adaptations of his own stage works and the script for The Best Years of Our Lives, which won numerous
Academy Awards in 1946. Sherwood died on November 14, 1955.
The first act of Abe Lincoln in Illinois is comprised of the play’s first three scenes. They take place in the vicinity of New Salem, Illinois, in the 1830s.
Scene 1 is set in the cabin of Mentor Graham, who is tutoring young Abraham Lincoln in the use of the English language. Lincoln, who would have been in his early twenties, discusses the financial troubles he has had and his desire to move out to the open territory out West to escape his failures. Mentor Graham tells him to “just bear in mind that there are always two professions open to people who fail at everything else: there’s school teaching, and there’s politics.”
A major theme of Abe Lincoln in Illinois is introduced when Lincoln tells Graham that he thinks often about death, describing his mother’s death and her burial. Among the examples that Graham has Lincoln read from are a speech by Daniel Webster, a leading politician and noted orator of the time, about keeping the states united, and a poem by John Keats entitled “On Death.”
Scene 2 takes place at the Rutledge Tavern, in New Salem. Lincoln is the local postmaster. This scene helps to establish his fine reputation among the uneducated country people. It begins with Judge Bowling Green and Joshua Speed, two friends of Lincoln’s, bringing the governor’s son, Ninian Edwards, to meet him. They buy drinks for an old veteran of the Revolutionary War, and they discuss the fact that Ann Rutledge, the daughter of the tavern owner, has become engaged to a man who ran off on her, much to her shame and horror. A gang of local toughs enters, and their leader, Jack Armstrong, threatens to fight with Edwards until Lincoln shows up. Armstrong knows that Lincoln is the only man in the territory who can beat him in a fight; Lincoln jokes with him so that Armstrong can back out of fighting with honor. Green, Speed, and Edwards explain to Lincoln their real reason for coming to see him. Knowing the prestige he has in the community, they want him to run for the state Page 3 | Top of Articleassembly. Lincoln, who owes fifteen hundred dollars because of a failed business venture, says that he will consider it. In the mail that he has brought to the tavern, there are two letters of significance. The first is from Seth Gale, with whom Lincoln had planned to move West, which says that Gale has to return home to the family farm. The second letter comes to Ann Rutledge, from her fiance, announcing that he will not return to her. Lincoln announces that he is in love with Ann, and, to improve himself and earn her love, he goes off to find Bowling Green to accept the political nomination.
In Scene 3, Lincoln has been elected and is back from the state assembly in Vandalia because Ann Rutledge is ill. The action in this scene takes place in the home of Bowling Green, where Lincoln is staying while visiting. Green, his wife Nancy, and Josh Speed discuss Lincoln, how much he loves Ann Rutledge, how he has failed in business, and how unimpressive he is in the legislature. When Lincoln enters, he is crushed because Ann has died. He wants to go out, but his friends convince him to go upstairs and go to bed.
The action of the play’s second act takes place in the 1840s, in and around Springfield, which became Illinois’ state capitol in 1837. Lincoln, at thirty-one, is a lawyer. Scene 4 takes place in his law office, on the second floor of the courthouse. He and his clerk, Billy Herndon, discuss the issue of slavery, with Lincoln taking the issue that free states should respect the sovereignty of the states that allowed slavery. Bowling Green and Josh Speed stop in to visit, and, in a general discussion of the South’s threat to quit the union and form their own nation, Lincoln explains that his position is one of pacifism: he could not support fighting over it. Ninian Edwards comes in and invites them all to a party at his house where he hopes that Lincoln and the town’s other eligible bachelors, including Stephen Douglas, will meet his unmarried sister-inlaw, Mary Todd.
In Scene 5, Elizabeth Edwards objects to her sister Mary’s choice of Abe Lincoln for a husband, though Ninian points out his promising career as a politician. When Mary enters, she explains that she sees Lincoln as a man with great potential, one who has not fenced himself in with the illusion of security. Lincoln enters and says that he is going to represent Duff, the son of Jack Armstrong, who tried to fight with Ninian in Scene 2. Duff is accused
of murder, and Lincoln thinks he is clearly guilty, but he will represent him for old time’s sake.
The action returns to Lincoln’s law office in Scene 6, a few weeks later. Lincoln has his friend Josh Speed read a letter that Lincoln intends to send to Mary, breaking off their engagement. He has been to Bowling Green’s funeral that morning, and it has made him philosophical about life. Ninian Edwards tells Lincoln to be careful of Mary’s ambition: “My wife tells me that even as a child she had delusions of grandeur—she predicted to one and all that the man she would marry would be President of the United States.” Josh throws Lincoln’s letter to Mary in the fireplace. Even Billy Herndon, who does not like Mary much, agrees that it would be wrong to call off the wedding; he is a staunch abolitionist and sees the move as Lincoln’s way of ducking his social responsibility.
Scene 7 is set outdoors, near New Salem. Lincoln has been traveling over the prairie for almost two years since breaking his engagement. Seth Gale, who was forced to move back to the family farm, is now free and traveling with his wife and son to the West, but his son has become ill. Jack Armstrong is with the family, and Lincoln has been looking for a doctor. When Lincoln arrives, there is some talk about whether the new states opening in Page 4 | Top of Articlethe West will have slavery. His friends convince Lincoln to say a prayer over the sick boy, and he does so, showing the oratory skills he is remembered for today.
Scene 8 is very brief. Lincoln returns to the Edwards’ house and explains to Mary what he has learned about life, responsibility, and destiny by encountering his friends moving into the new territory and the threat to the child’s life. He asks her to marry, giving his promise that he will not run from his responsibility again.
Act III takes place in Springfield. Scene 9 presents one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, with Stephen Douglas arguing that the North should tolerate slavery in the South and Lincoln arguing that the country cannot continue as it has been, half slave and half free, and that the South cannot be allowed to separate itself from the United States.
Lincoln and his family—Mary and his three sons, the oldest one a student at Harvard—are visiting the Edwards’ house in Scene 10. Lincoln tells the boys about the time, depicted in scene 7, when he went for a doctor for the sick boy on the prairie. When Mary finds out that a committee of politicians is coming to the house to discuss the possibility of running for president, she is in a fit of rage because the house is dirty. The members of the committee have different ideas of Lincoln as a candidate. Sturveson, a businessman, questions whether Lincoln would be good for business interests because he supports the common people. Barrick, a clergyman, is bothered because Lincoln is not affiliated with any church. But Crimmin, a political operative, is impressed with the way that Lincoln handles their hostility and feels that he could win the election.
Scene 11 takes place at Lincoln’s campaign headquarters on election night, 1860. In the tension of the vote count that shows Lincoln trailing but gaining, Mary becomes upset, and Lincoln angrily curses her. He apologizes almost immediately, but it is too late: “This is the night I dreamed about, as a child.... This is the night when I’m waiting to hear that my husband has become President of the United States. And even if he does—it’s ruined, for me. It’s too late.” As the election results continue, Lincoln wins. Almost immediately a security officer, Kavanagh, attaches himself to Lincoln, to protect him from Southerners who have sworn to kill him.
The security guards place themselves between Lincoln and the people who elected him.
In Scene 12, Lincoln boards the train that will take him to Washington. Kavanagh discusses the danger that Lincoln is in (foreshadowing the assassin’ s bullet that eventually killed him), and Lincoln, in a final speech to the people of Illinois, talks about the struggle to hold the Union together, even if war is the result. The crowd sings as his train pulls away.
Armstrong is the leader and the most aggressive of the Clary’s Grove Boys, a gang of bullies in New Salem. When the gang enters the Rutledge Tavern, Armstrong speaks roughly to Ann Rutledge and tries to pick a fight with Ninian Edwards. He stops when Lincoln enters, though. He respects Lincoln, in part because Lincoln is a man of the people and not a rich sophisticate like Edwards, but mostly he respects Lincoln because Lincoln is the only man in the territory who can beat him in a fight. Lincoln shows respect for Armstrong, too, preferring to joke with him rather than threaten him. Years later, Lincoln mentions that he is defending Armstrong’s son Duff on a murder charge, even though Duff seems to be hopelessly guilty. Armstrong is the one to bring Lincoln to the aid of Seth Gale when Jimmy Gale falls sick as the family is passing through New Salem.
See William Herndon
Stephen A. Douglas
Douglas was a politician who ran against Lincoln for the Senate. He was a skilled orator, only slightly less persuasive than Lincoln. The series of debates that the two men had in 1858, primarily over the issue of slavery, became national news, giving Lincoln the fame that he needed across the land to run for president. Scene 9 presents one of those debates.
Edwards is the son of the governor of Illinois. Although he comes from a wealthy background, he is not afraid to stand up for himself and fight Jack Armstrong, if necessary, although it is likely he would lose. He is the one to introduce Lincoln to his Page 5 | Top of Articlesister-in-law, Mary Todd. During the debate between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in Scene 9, Ninian Edwards is the narrator.
At the very start of the play, Seth Gale plans to move with Lincoln out to the open territory west of the Mississippi river, where land is cheap and political systems are not yet established. He has to drop out of the plan, though, when he receives a letter saying that his father is ill and that he has to return to run the family farm. Ten years later, when his parents are dead, Seth finally does move west. While passing through New Salem with his wife, child, and a free Negro servant, Gale’s son Jimmy becomes ill, and Lincoln and Jack Armstrong help out his family. Seth’s family is an inspiration to Lincoln, who sees how important it is to stop slavery before it spreads to the new territory, so that people like the Gales do not have to worry about what kind of morals with which their children will be raised.
A free Negro who works for Seth Gale’s family. His father had been a slave, but was freed by Seth’s father twenty years earlier. While they lived in Maryland, there was always the danger that kidnappers might abduct Gobey and take him to the South, where they would sell him as a slave.
Mentor Graham only appears in the first scene, tutoring Lincoln. The examples that he uses reflect the political attitudes that Lincoln shows later in the play, particularly the selection from Senator Daniel Webster about whether the South has a right to secede from the Union.
One of Lincoln’s oldest friends, Green is a judge whose influence guides Lincoln’s early political career. He brings Edwards, the son of the state’s governor, to see Lincoln and to consider him as a possible candidate for the state assembly. It is partially because of his grief when Bowling Green dies that Lincoln breaks off his engagement to Mary Todd and goes off for nearly two years to think.
A young clerk in Lincoln’s law office in Springfield, Herndon is driven by two strong compulsions. The first is alcohol; there is not a scene in which he
is not either drunk or on his way to get himself a drink. Lincoln notes in Act IV that when Herndon leaves to take some papers to the clerk’s office, which is downstairs in the same building, he takes his hat, which is a sign that he intends to go to the saloon. Herndon’s other driving passion is his staunch opposition to slavery. He functions as Lincoln’s conscience on the slavery issue. While Lincoln himself takes a tolerant attitude toward the laws of the South, Herndon is more radical, constantly pushing him to speak out against slavery, to refuse to associate with slaveholders or with supporters of slavery. Although Lincoln privately opposes slavery, he resists Herndon’s efforts to get him to speak out against it at political gatherings.
Kavanagh is a secret service agent who moves in to protect Lincoln immediately after he is elected president. His presence indicates the way that the office distances the man from the men who helped him get there. Immediately after the election returns are announced, Kavanagh moves in, coming between Lincoln and the people, walking before Lincoln through doorways to look for assassins. His concern is not just a matter of paranoia; as he points out, there were many threats on Lincoln’s life by Southerners who felt that he would endanger their right to own slaves. Audiences, of course, know Page 6 | Top of Articlethat Lincoln was killed by an assassin, so all of Kavanagh’s precautions have an element of prophecy to them.
This play is about the formative years of Abraham Lincoln, explaining how he grew in outlook and popularity from a simple country man to the president of the United States. As a result, every scene of the play either has Lincoln in it or has people talking about him. In the beginning, Lincoln is in his early twenties and being tutored in English grammar at night, using a variety of texts for examples. Even at such a young age, he is financially destitute, having invested in a business with a man who ran away with all of the funds and feeling responsible for paying back all creditors. He is already haunted by death, having helped his father make a coffin for his mother when she died out in the prairie wilderness. He is popular with the men of New Salem, where he delivers mail. He is in love with Ann Rutledge, but when her fiance drops her and Lincoln has a slight chance with her, she dies. After Lincoln begins practicing in Springfield, he becomes engaged to Mary Todd, whose ambitions for his political career are greater than his own. On the day of his wedding, though, he runs away from her, and stays away for two years, until a chance encounter with an old friend and his family makes him think about responsibility, both to his family and to the country. He returns and marries Mary.
In the late 1850s, while they both are running for the United States Senate, he and Stephen A. Douglas have a series of debates on the subject of slavery: these debates receive much attention and make Lincoln’s name a household word. A committee of civic leaders comes to him to ask if he is interested in running for president. The final chapter of the play presents his farewell speech to the people of Illinois. Lincoln is not entirely enthusiastic about being the president—he tells friends that he expects to die, and he feels cut off by security measures from the people he knows best, the common people. He and Mary Todd are both unhappy in their marriage, but both are driven toward the presidency.
Ann is the daughter of the owner of Rutledge Tavern, a meeting place in New Salem. She is forced to take orders from the tough local people who order her around when they want drinks. Lincoln has a crush on her, but he is not able to say so because she is engaged, and also because he is a homely man with financial debt and no social prestige. In Act II, a letter comes from Ann’s fiance, Mr. McNiel, and Lincoln recognizes the handwriting and the fact that it has come from New York State. Seeing that it has upset her, he asks and finds out that McNiel probably is not coming back. Because Ann is upset about what people will say about her when they find out that her fiance has dropped her, Lincoln declares his love for her, hoping that she could use an engagement with him to explain breaking up with McNiel. She tells him that she has never thought of him like that, and that she would have to consider his proposal. In the following scene, Lincoln’s political patrons, Green and Speed, discuss the fact that his romance with her might hinder Lincoln’s political career, but Lincoln arrives soon after with the startling news that she has died of a sickness that they all thought she would easily survive.
Described in Scene 2 as “quiet, mild, solid, thoughtful, well-dressed,” Speed is from Springfield, and is a member of the Whig party who knows the small local towns like New Salem well enough to think of Lincoln when asked who might be a good candidate for the state assembly. He is full of admiration for Lincoln, but has doubts about his ability for success: “he has plenty of strength and courage in his body,” Speed tells Bowling and Nancy Green, “but in his mind he’s a hopeless hypochondriac.” Speed is usually present in meetings for political planning, but he is not very instrumental, usually limiting his input to asking questions and giving encouraging advice. In a decisive moment, he destroys the letter that Lincoln has written to Mary to break off their engagement.
Mary is a willful woman, a bright, well-connected socialite, the daughter of the president of the Bank of Kentucky. She has many suitors, including Stephen Douglas, but to the surprise of her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, she chooses to marry Lincoln. Her choice is carefully thought out; she sees him, of all of the eligible bachelors around, to be the one with the greatest potential. She does not want social prestige or financial comfort and would live in poverty, “so long as there is forever before me the chance for high adventure—so long as I can know that I am always going forward, with my husband, along that road that leads to the horizon.” On the day of their wedding, Lincoln gets cold feet and Page 7 | Top of Articleruns away, but when he returns two years later Mary accepts him back and marries him. Mary becomes very status conscious when she is married to him, which causes strain in their marriage. She is horrified that he has invited several politicians over without telling her, because she feels that the house is not sufficiently clean. She refuses to let him smoke in the house, and so, when one of the politicians lights a cigar, Lincoln encourages him, telling him to bring it along as he comes to the dining room. On the night of his election to the presidency, they have a serious fight. Nervous about the changing results, Mary becomes hysterical and shouts, “You only want to be rid of me! That’s what you’ve wanted ever since the day we married—and before that. Anything to get me out of your sight, because you hate me!” Lincoln calmly asks the other people to leave the room before shouting back at her. Even though he immediately apologizes, Mary declares that he has ruined the most important day of her life.
Lincoln’s life, as it is presented in this play, was ruled by his feelings about the deaths that he witnessed. Lincoln’s issues with death begin early, in the first scene, when Lincoln tells Mentor Graham that he thinks about death often “because it has always seemed to be close to me—as far back as I can remember.” He then describes helping build a coffin for his mother, who died when he was young, relating it to the men he saw in New Orleans who “had murder in their hearts.” The theme of death is continued with his loss of Ann Rutledge, the woman that he loved, who was socially and physically out of his league. Her death causes him to retreat from his political rise. He explains to Bowling and Nancy Green, “I couldn’t give any devotion to one who has the power of death, and uses it”—a statement referring to prayer, but with implications to the responsibilities he will accept as president, sending troops off to war. Just as Ann’s death drives him away from political involvement, the death of his longtime friend Bowling Green makes him retreat from his planned marriage to Mary Todd. It is the near-death of young Jimmy Gale, though, that pulls him back into a sense of responsibility in both political and personal arenas. His prayer at the end of Scene 7 relates life to freedom and death to imprisonment and shows Lincoln shifting from despair to hope. Throughout the whole play, one element of death remains constant. His expectation of his own early death is present in the first scene, with his fear of the city, and is still present in the final scene, when, as Elizabeth points out, he always prefaces his plans with, “If I live...”
Doubt and Ambiguity
Abe Lincoln in Illinois offers audiences a new way to look at Lincoln. Popular conception, based on his decisive actions during the Civil War, remember him as a man with a vision, who could see the necessity of fighting to preserve the Union no matter what the cost, and historical studies almost unanimously praise him for making the right choices. What Sherwood presents in this play, however, is a view of Lincoln as an uncertain man who in no way felt that he knew the right thing to do and who did what he could to avoid the responsibility of making decisions about the lives of others. From the moment when it is first suggested that he might run for political office, in Scene 2, he comes up with various excuses why the people would not want to vote for him, and why he himself is unfit for the position. His run for the presidency is just as clouded by doubt. “I’m afraid I can’t go quite that far in selfesteem,” he tells the committee that comes to offer him the nomination. In addition, he is never confident in romance, humbly asking Ann Rutledge to consider him in spite of his faults, and later backing out on his marriage to Mary Todd on their wedding day because, as his letter puts it, their marriage “could only lead to endless pain and misery for them both.” In his notes, Sherwood points out that the real Lincoln did not seem so ambiguous, especially regarding his own political career; while the play presents him as someone who has to be dragged to action, he was actually a much more active participant in his own fate. For the sake of drama, this man, who is known all over the world as a fearless leader, is presented as growing into his fearlessness and confidence in his early, formative years.
War and Peace
Lincoln’s entire presidency was engulfed by the Civil War. Some Southern states split away from the country before he even took office. The war began when Southern troops fired on Fort Sumter, just over a month after he was inaugurated, and he was assassinated five days after the South surrendered. It is ironic that he is so closely associated with war, when Lincoln, as presented in this
play, is a man who supported peace at almost any cost. Throughout much of the play, Lincoln opposes slavery, but he does not oppose it strongly enough to support open hostility over it. In Scene 4, he speaks with disgust about seeing slaves shackled together, but when he is asked to participate in a rally against slavery he dismisses the opponents of slavery as “a pack of hell-roaring fanatics.” He equates opposition to slavery with violence, and so he cannot condone it. He feels that the abolitionists who are fighting to abolish slavery are agitators who should be put in jail for disturbing the peace. “I am opposed to slavery,” he tells his friends. “But I’m even more opposed to going to war.”
By the time of his debate against Stephen Douglas in Scene 9, he is more in favor of involvement. He opposes his own former policy, saying that the fundamental virtues of democracy are threatened by the institution of slavery: “I believe most seriously that the perpetuation of those virtues is now endangered, not only by the honest proponents of slavery, but even more by those who echo Judge Douglas in shouting, ‘Leave it alone!”’ On election night, Billy Herndon points out two facts that are evident to everybody: Lincoln will go to war against any states that try to secede, and that they will secede upon his election. Horrible as the prospect of war is, he has come, throughout the course of the play, to accept it as the only right thing to do.
Most full-length plays are divided into two or three acts, or, as in the case of most of Shakespeare’s works, into five. Each of these acts is further divided into scenes, usually two or three per act. Very few dramas reach the level of twelve scenes, as Abe Lincoln in Illinois does. In addition, very few are written for a cast as large as this, which Page 9 | Top of Articlehas more than thirty performers. This is a work of epic scope, fitting three decades of Lincoln’s life into a few hours onstage. It incorporates many familiar moments and expressions that are part of the Lincoln legend, as well as new ones that were fabricated by Sherwood to dramatize the aspects of Lincoln’s character that he thought were most important. There is no consistency in the lengths of the individual acts, nor is there any pattern used in the play’s structure to remind readers of things that came before. For instance, Scene 8 is the shortest scene, just a little more than four pages, which is a length not approached by any other scene. It is not part of any larger repeating pattern, either; there is no real relationship between Scene 8, which ends Act II, and either of the scenes that end the first or third acts. The structure of this play is not aimed at any measurable sense of style, it is aimed at making sure that all of the important parts of the Lincoln legend have been taken into account.
Because it is a biography, the most obvious structure, the one that Sherwood used, is chronological, following the order of time. Other plays use devices such as flashbacks, to tell what happened earlier in time, or tricks of lighting to show action that happens in two different places at once. Abe Lincoln in Illinois starts when Lincoln is twenty-one and progresses straight through to his election to the presidency. It would be a simple structure, if not for the many scene changes and characters involved.
The setting of this play is crucial to its message. It is a play about Lincoln’s formative years, how he came to be the president that he was. It does not focus solely on his formative years in the wilderness, but presents Lincoln within a period of transformation. In the early scenes around New Salem, in the first act, he is light-hearted, good-natured, well liked, but unsure. His attitude is changed by the death of Ann Rutledge, who succumbs to “the brain sickness.” Like Seth Gale’s son Jimmy, who is overcome in Scene 7 with “the swamp fever,” and Lincoln’s own mother, whom he describes as having died of “the milksick,” people out in the prairie were susceptible to disease and early death. When Lincoln moves to Springfield, the issues examined by the play take on a more political nature. His rise in politics coincides with scenes that are set in offices and homes. In these settings, political issues are discussed, especially the burning issue of the day: slavery. This follows naturally because Lincoln is a politician, but it also is more expected that people in town would be aware of national political issues than people in remote villages like New Salem, where the news is delivered once a week. A turning point in Lincoln’s life comes when he discusses the issue of slavery with the Gale family on the prairie, as they are passing from the sophisticated, crowded East Coast to the unsettled space in the West, and he realizes that slavery affects people in all areas of the country, no matter how remote.
The importance of this play’s prairie setting can be seen in the fact that it ends when Lincoln leaves Illinois. In part, this change is required by the play’s title—it only promises to tell audiences about his life in Illinois—but it also makes thematic and psychological sense to consider a chapter of his development complete and fulfilled.
The Abolitionist Movement
Slavery existed in the United States from the earliest colonial days, with settlers first using captured Native Americans to do the heavy labor of cultivating and then importing poor people from Europe to work as indentured servants, a position almost equal to slavery. In the 1680s, southern landowners began importing slaves from Africa. From colonial times, laws defined black slaves and their children as property, to be owned for life. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made it easier to process cotton and increased the demand for cotton. In the South, which had the soil and climate for cotton production, slavery became an institution and a necessary part of the economy.
The Abolitionist Movement, which fought to abolish slavery, is generally considered to have started in 1831, when the newspaper The Liberator began publication in Boston. A few years later, in 1833, which is the year of the first act of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, delegates from all over the country met in Philadelphia to form the American Anti-Slavery Society, which was to become the principle organization for fighting for slaves’ freedom. It was a time of vocal opposition to injustice, especially in the New England states. There were movements to encourage the government to adapt free schooling, workers rights, and voting rights for women, and groups that wanted the government to put an end to slavery, consumption of alcohol, and imprisonment for debt. Out of this rash of social movements, the Abolitionist Movement was to be
come one of the largest and most lasting. Its members, like Billy Herndon in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, were passionate in their opposition to slavery, and they kept pressure on the government to limit the spread of slave ownership as the country grew.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act
Throughout this play, Abraham Lincoln becomes increasingly conscious of how slavery affects his life, even though he lives in a free state and would rather ignore the issue altogether. One of the reasons that Americans were so aware of slavery in the 1830s to 1860s was that the country was still expanding westward, and when each new territory applied to become a state, there had to be a decision about whether it would be free or slave. The issue was settled for a long time by the Missouri Compromise, which was a series of legislative measures enacted in 1820. To get around Southern opposition to Maine entering the Union as a free state and Northern opposition to Missouri entering as a slave Page 11 | Top of Articlestate, Congress decreed that future slavery states would be limited to those south of a line near 36 degrees latitude. By the 1850s, though, activists on both sides of the issue were becoming angry about the gains that were being made on the other side. Congress passed a new law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which superseded the Missouri Compromise.
Some politicians, led by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas (who appears as a character in this play), fought for measures that would allow new territories to vote on whether they wanted to be free states or slave states as they entered the Union. When the Kansas Territory was opened for settlement in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, allowing the issue of slavery to be settled by popular vote. Thousands of settlers crossed the border from proslavery Missouri, and, to counter their votes, thousands of Abolitionists came from the Northeast. The violence that followed was extreme, earning the territory the nickname “Bloody Kansas.” Compromise measures to end the killing were suggested, voted upon, and rejected, until Kansas finally was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861. In the meantime, though, the country had seen that emotions on the slavery issue were so strong that they could not be ignored or be left to settle themselves in a spirit of cooperation. The face of politics had changed: the Whig party, which had existed since the country was formed, was so divided that it eventually dissolved, and in its place rose a new party: the Republicans. When the Democrats nominated Douglas as their presidential candidate in 1860, southern Democrats objected, putting forward their own candidate instead. The split in the Democratic party allowed Lincoln to win the election in 1860.
Theater in the 1930s
The Great Depression began in 1929, two years after the first commercially successful sound movie. During the 1930s, audiences shifted their attention to movies, which cost a fraction of what plays cost and were able to bring the biggest stars to small towns all across America, all at the same time. Theater became more of an isolated pursuit, written for and enjoyed by an educated class. At the same time, intellectual circles, disappointed by the failure of the American economy, began experimenting with other forms of government, such as communism and socialism. In some ways, this new social consciousness resembled the rise of the social movements like the abolitionists in New England in the 1830s. Some theater groups were formed on socialist principles, with equal rights granted to all players and decisions made by group consent. For instance, the members of the American Laboratory Theater not only worked together, but lived together, as well, and the members of the Mercury Theater staged The Cradle Will Rock without any sets or costumes after the government withdrew its support money, claiming that its pro-union stance was too controversial.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois was the first production of the Playwrights’ Company, a group that Sherwood and several other writers formed in response to the mishandling of their plays by members of the Dramatists’ Guild. They felt that the Guild was too wrapped up with making petty decisions about casting and rights for movie adaptations to present their works properly, so they decided to form their own group. Sherwood, Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson, Sidney Howard, and S. N. Behrman founded the Playwrights’ Company in 1938. At the time, Sherwood had almost completed Abe Lincoln in Illinois, so he presented it to the others in the group, and it was the first play that they staged, with great success.
Critics have considered Robert E. Sherwood’s drama Abe Lincoln in Illinois to be a labor of love, and an important part of the mythology that defines the American character, but the general consensus among serious critics is that it is not a very well-crafted piece. Even before this play was produced, Eleanor Flexner identified several repetitive aspects of Sherwood’s plots. “A man—wise, cynical, and charming—finds the answer to his quest for the meaning of life, in a woman; suddenly he falls in love, no less suddenly his life is wrenched from its old pattern, and in three cases out of four he goes gallantly to his death in consequence.” She went on to identify the background of war as a device that Sherwood used for sustaining tension, “a device forced upon him by his inability to construct a play in which the suspense will arise from the actions of the characters themselves.” Flexner found these plot elements overextended in 1938, and it is unlikely that she would have found much changed in Abe Lincoln In Illinois, from the title character’s doomed but ennobling Page 12 | Top of Articlelove for Ann Rutledge to his own impending fate.
When the play was produced, critical responses were mixed. It was immensely popular, running on Broadway for 472 performances, longer than any of Sherwood’s other works, and it was successfully adapted to a movie in 1940, for which Sherwood wrote the script. Many critics accepted it, as audiences did, as an entertaining dramatization of the old legends, and these critics endorsed the play enthusiastically, but with the slightly condescending sense that viewing it would be one’s civic duty. More thoughtful critics, however, held the play to a higher standard, and these writers seemed to find it their reluctant duty to point out its flaws. Even Carl Sandburg, whose three-volume biography of Lincoln was one of Sherwood’s main biographical sources, seemed to choose his words of praise very carefully. Instead of saying that Sherwood has done a fine job of translating Lincoln’s life to the stage, Sandburg tells readers that Sherwood was conscious of using good sources and also of the fact that he needed to change some facts for dramatic purpose. The introduction continued with further evasion, telling readers that Sherwood’s play “carries some shine of the American dream,” that it “delivers great themes of human wit, behavior and freedom.” What was lacking, in this discussion of Sherwood’s methods, was any statement that it is consistently good.
Sandburg implied that the play bends reality too much for the sake of popularity—his only criticism of a more accurate drama is that people might not go “to see or value it as a drama.” Other critics, in contrast, have found that Sherwood did not take enough dramatic license with his biographical material. Francis Fergusson, writing in the Southern Review, felt that the play offered a succession of elements of the Lincoln legend without ever coming together as a unified work of art. “We never get the immediate sense of actuality which good drama gives and which comes from the vitality and dramatic necessity of each character and the imaginative consistency of the whole,” he wrote. The facts of Lincoln’s life, Fergusson wrote, just were not enough to tell the story: “they may be history, they may be souvenirs, but they are not drama.” He noted that Sherwood’s supporting characters, such as Mary Todd and Joshua Speed, “owe their existence to the books, they have no life of their own.” They are “perfunctory, like the Martha Washington in the school pageant.”
After Sherwood’s death, a critical biography by R. Baird Shuman was able to look at the context of all of his works. “If Robert Sherwood were to be remembered for any one of his plays,” Shuman wrote, “it is likely that the play which would fix his name in the galaxy of the immortals is Abe Lincoln In Illinois. The Lincoln play is not his best drama, but more people have probably seen it and been affected by it than by any of his other productions.” Like most critics, Shuman was willing to admit that his own misgivings about the play’s artistry must give way to its immense popularity.
In 1970, Walter J. Meserve came close to defining that exotic mixture of talent and popular sensibility that made Sherwood’s work difficult for critics to either love or ignore. “It is easy enough to describe the part that Sherwood did not play,” he wrote. “He was not an experimenter nor an innovator, nor was he an influential dramatist in the developing American theatre. He was not a theorist; in fact, one of his friends and directors stated that he did not have a theory of drama.... He was, of course, a dramatist who naturally and frankly dealt with the emotions that America wanted to feel, who knew how to express them in good theatre.” With the benefit of looking back in time, Meserve was able to summarize Sherwood’s career and mixed accomplishments with respect but not flattery: “Never a great playwright, he spoke intensely and with wit and integrity during a period in history when such plays as his were needed.”
Kelly is an instructor of Creative Writing and Script Writing at two colleges in Illinois. In the following essay, he discusses the inherent limitations of writing biographical drama.
One of the most respected of all American historical biographies for the stage is Robert E. Sherwood’s play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. It is a difficult piece to judge objectively, since it concerns a president who, more than most, is key to how Americans see themselves. Lincoln was a man of the people, a pioneer who came to be president without a law degree or much formal schooling at all. He was a compassionate man, willing to face up to a force as powerful as the Confederacy to end slavery. There are folktales about Lincoln, and there are
many witticisms attributed to him, whether he said them or not.
Sherwood was right to realize the dramatic potential inherent in the story of Abraham Lincoln, right to realize that the story of Lincoln’s life before his presidency had enough dramatic potential to captivate audiences. One thing that he might not have been right about, though, is the labor and responsibility involved in constructing a biographical work for the stage. The version of Lincoln that Sherwood presents is reverent and accurate, but Sherwood does not imbue his character with the kind of fire and consistency needed to make him come to life. The problem does not seem to be in Sherwood’s writing, which is, at the least, craftsmanlike, but in the very nature of what he is trying to do.
Biographies have always been written, and they always will be. They represent one of the most basic functions of literature, the opportunity to look at other people’s lives and compare them to one’s own. Biographies are treated with a level of respect above that allowed to fiction because they are, in some ill-defined way, considered to be “real.” In
this modern age of made-for-television movies and rampant lawsuits, the nuances involved with representations of reality are commonplace. Almost everybody knows that “based on a true story” is different than “based on actual events,” which is different than “inspired by actual events.” The number of variations on the theme of reality is a testimony to the great value placed by our culture on real-life drama.
Western culture has come to some sort of understanding with biographical books, which are just naturally assumed without much thought to be mostly true, perhaps around ninety percent or more based on what actually happened. Biographies sit in their own sections of libraries and bookstores, comfortably nestled between the textbooks, which ought to be one hundred percent true, and the novels, which tell made-up stories. Recently, political biographies have played around with the form and have upset the assumption of truth. One writer has presented Edward Kennedy’s private thoughts, which the writer could of course only have guessed at, as if they were verifiable facts. Another said that he could find no way of writing his biography of president Ronald Reagan without including himself as a character—not just as someone passing by in the background, but as a boyhood friend who in fact never existed. The very fact that these experiments upset the traditional notion of biography is an indication that, in general, readers feel comfortable with their understanding of how much in biographical books is true.
The same cannot be said about movies and plays, where the biographical subject has to be portrayed by someone else. While it represents just a slight shift from the “textbook” frame of mind to Page 15 | Top of Articlea written biography, in terms of how much truth can be expected, there is a leap of abstraction when one person recreates what another person did.
Art is artifice. Theater is one of the most artificial forms of art, asking its audience to believe that people are in places, as strange as a boat or a log cabin, when they are in fact just steps away. If viewers stop suspending their disbelief for a moment, they become aware of the untruth of it all, of the actors in costumes who actually share the same reality as the ticket rippers, the lighting system, and all of the rest of the trappings.
It seems that playwrights should count themselves lucky enough when their audiences are willing to pretend that the people they are seeing are real people, in real situations. The playwright who wants viewers to believe that the people on stage are in fact reproducing actions and situations that have actually occurred before in the world is really stretching credibility thin. The Abe Lincoln in Carl Sandburg’s three-part biography is likely to resemble how Lincoln really was, his essence captured in the poet’s words. William Herndon’s biography of Lincoln has been praised for being less likely than the writings of the president’s other friends to hide his unsavory characteristics, achieving a level of truth greater than the sugar-coated version. Robert Sherwood’s Lincoln, however, will always be whoever is portraying him—Raymond Massey, in the case of the Broadway production and the subsequent film.
Drama lacks accuracy—it cannot record events, but only reproduce them. Biography is, though, at its core an accurate record. At its best, drama can give its audience some sense of the essence of a person, a truer philosophical feel for personality than simple, recorded historical fact. Audiences understand things that are not shown outright, like an optical illusion that arranges black dots on a white page to make the viewer see another dot that is not really there. With Abe Lincoln in Illinois, it is not enough to present a series of events from Lincoln’s life. The question that every reviewer has to ask when considering Sherwood’s script is whether it at least gives a complete portrait of who Lincoln might have been.
The straightforward chronological structure of Abe Lincoln in Illinois is the first clue that Sherwood may have allowed his play to be ruled by reality as readers know it, rather than his artistic reality. In common reality, childhood is followed by adolescence, which is followed by adulthood, then old age. There is no reason why a narrative has to
follow such a structure, though. It depends on what point the writer is trying to make. In the case at hand, Sherwood’s point might be to examine how the cumulative weight of events built, year after year, to make Lincoln into the man he was when he boarded the train out of Illinois, shown in the last act. The chronological structure, though, is reason enough for at least suspecting that Sherwood might lack imagination and/or an artistic vision.
This is not to say that Sherwood, or anyone involved in the original Broadway production, did not do the best job possible, only that the thing they were trying to do may have been self-defeating. By all accounts, Abe Lincoln in Illinois was not something that Robert E. Sherwood dashed off quickly. According to his biographer, John Mason Brown, Sherwood worked the structure repeatedly in his mind, cutting scenes, adding, struggling to turn his Lincoln into an American archetype. The supplemental notes that are usually printed with the play should be sufficient indication that this play is no sloppy piece of work. It is, however, stiff, the sort of presentation that has audiences leaving the theater feeling more like they have been taught a lesson than that they have been entertained.
This question of whether Sherwood might have given his audience too much historical record at the expense of offering up an actual play has been a point of contention since Abe Lincoln in Illinois was first produced. The play did win the Pulitzer when it debuted, and it basked in the glow of critical support, overall, although some critics found it too stifled by the greatness and familiarity of the subject to ever take on a personality of its own.
It is either ironic or a sign that Sherwood worked the issue to the finest balance that could be achieved to see that both sides, cheering and dismissing his achievement, have been supported by Page 16 | Top of Articleone writer—John Mason Brown, the aforementioned biographer. In his original review of the play, Brown was one of the few critics to stray from the consensus, which was that Sherwood had done the country a great service with his portrayal of Lincoln. His original review complained that the play wasn’t really Sherwood’s at all, or at least wasn’t solely Sherwood’s accomplishment: to be honest, he would, according to Brown, have to give half of the credit to Lincoln himself, or, more specifically, to the text of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, from which he had taken so much of his dialog. He also commented on how much the play relied, not on its own dramatic situation, but on the audience’s knowledge of events that were to happen in Lincoln’s life after the events presented on stage.
In future years, though, Brown came to reverse his judgment. In The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times, he looked back on his old review and wrote, “I was rotten, and wrong, though not entirely so. I had some points to make which were not without their validity, though they now seem to me academic, ungrateful, and carping.” Having had access to Sherwood’s diaries while working on his biography, Brown had come to realize how much effort Sherwood had put into controlling the incredible amounts of information he had compiled, how he struggled to keep the process from being “too much reading, too much homework, and too little playwriting by Sherwood himself.”
The background information may have helped Brown understand his subject and how his subject, Sherwood, understood his own subject, Lincoln. Still, it is almost impossible to take seriously a reviewer who takes back what he has said on the grounds of having been “ungrateful.” Reviewers owe authors nothing more than an honest appraisal. One gets the sense that Brown felt he had been an ungrateful citizen for not appreciating the service done for the American populace with this portrayal of a president. But this is not a standard for artistic criticism, any more than a work of art can be judged by how “nice” its main character is.
If this country’s citizens can get beyond national pride for Abraham Lincoln, who historians (Northern ones, at least) constantly rank among the two or three greatest American presidents, it does in fact seem that Sherwood’s play is too focused on Lincoln as a historical figure, turning Lincoln the human being into an emblem. It could use some firmer control. Lincoln needs to be more of a character in the play, less of a caricature. This is what Shakespeare did with his histories, and England’s national honor was in no way compromised by his decision to let go of some of “the truth” in order to better present the spirits of his subjects. Drama relies on the human thought processes and interactions that may not have been part of the public record, but are necessary for the playwright to really convey the nature of his subject. Abe Lincoln in Illinois retells old stories about the great man, and Sherwood certainly put his heart into arranging those old tales in a way that would make a larger point, but it makes for a clumsy play, so uncomfortable with itself that even readers and viewers who aren’t familiar with the legends can pick out the lines that come from Lincoln himself, because they are so unevenly worked into the story.
There is no way for a play to function as a documentary, because theater, of all visual media, works on an abstract level that does not allow the use of original material. Documentary films can show viewers actual participants, or play their voices, or at least show locations where events occurred. Books have been used for conveying information for so long that most readers have a sense of how much reality to expect from them. On stage, the subject of a biography cannot speak for him- or herself, which leaves the playwright with the awful responsibility of choosing just what parts of reality to include and how to organize the facts. No one has ever raised the charge that Robert E. Sherwood was anything less than diligent in his duties as an author, but still Abe Lincoln in Illinois suffers from not having its own individual identity as a work of art, even though it does provide a fine overview of the most interesting facts of Lincoln’s life.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
John Mason Brown
In the essay, “Bob Sherwood in Illinois” John Mason Brown describes Abraham Lincoln as Sherwood’s “hero,” which was the reason for the creation of the play.
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Source: John Mason Brown,“Bob Sherwood in Illinois,” in The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood, Harper & Row, 1965, pp. 367-71.
Edith J. R. Isaacs
Edith J. R. Isaacs reviews Sherwood’s style and language, linking it to the success of the play.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois says what all Sherwood’s other serious plays and serious prefaces have tried to say, and says it so well and so convincingly that audiences rise to their feet to applaud it. Much of Abe Lincoln is in Lincoln’s own words—his homely phrases, his anecdotes, his famous speeches; but the play is none the less Sherwood’s creation. He has so immersed himself in Lincoln’s style of simple, direct, rugged speech that you pass from Sherwood’s words to Lincoln’s with no sense of change. Every speech is in character as Sherwood has recreated Lincoln, and within that character a great man, a national hero with all of a nation’s legend behind him, lives and moves as a man among men. To create such a figure out of history may seem an easier task than to mold a character out of a dramatist’s own fresh clay. Indeed it is far harder, as the whole history of such endeavor shows. Great historic figures already live double lives, one of which is in the minds of their audience, and a dramatist who Page 20 | Top of Articletries to put his own portrait of the man into words stands constantly at the edge of a precipice. Raymond Massey, who plays the part of Lincoln with a devotion to the character he represents almost equal to Sherwood’s, and with a surprising personal likeness, deserves all the acclaim he has had for his performance. But you have only to read Sherwood’s script before seeing the play to know that it is the dramatist who has given this Lincoln the spark of life.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois carries through three periods of Lincoln’s life—in and about New Salem, Illinois, in the 1830’s; in and about Springfield, Illinois, in the 1840’s; the years 1858 to 1861 to the day when Lincoln, as President-Elect, parted with his neighbors at the railroad station to go on his honored and lonely way:
‘Let us live to prove that we can cultivate the natural world that is about us, and the intellectual and moral world that is within us, so that we may secure an individual, social and political prosperity, whose course shall be forward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.’
Which is a good speech for a dramatist to end on.
Source: Edith J. R. Isaacs, “Man of the Hour,” in Theatre Arts, Vol. 23, 1939, pp. 31-40.
Brown, John Mason, The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times, Harper & Row Publishers, 1962.
Fergusson, Francis, “Notes on the Theatre,” in The Southern Review, Winter 1940, p. 560.
Flexner, Eleanor, American Playwrights, 1918-1938, Simon and Schuster, 1938, pp. 272-82.
Meserve, Walter J., Robert E. Sherwood: Reluctant Moralist, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1970, pp. 221-222.
Sandburg, Carl, “Forward,” in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939, pp. xi-xii.
Shuman, R. Baird, Robert E. Sherwood, Twayne Publishers, 1964, p. 83.
Drennan, Robert E., The Algonquin Wits, Replica Books, 2000.
As a member of the famous Algonquin Round Table, a group of literary wits who met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York in the 1920s and 30s, Sherwood was engaged in intense intellectual competition.
Fehrenbacher, Don E., ed., Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858, Library of America, 1989.
The Library of America editions are painstakingly researched, checked for authenticity and thoroughness. This edition covers the same years as the play and gives Lincoln’s own words to compare to Sherwood’s portrayal.
Holzer, Harold, ed., The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text, HarperCollins, 1993.
Edited and introduced by Harold Holzer, one of the leading historians in the field of Lincoln studies, this text gives a sense of drama that is like that of the play.
Smith, Wendy, Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940, Grove Press, 1992.
The Playwrights Company, which had its debut with Abe Lincoln in Illinois, was patterned on the Group Theater.
Wilson, Douglas, Lincoln Before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years, University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Covering the same period of Lincoln’s life as Sherwood, this scholarly work is particularly concerned with the historical truth of William Herndon’s biography.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693600012