Abe Lincoln in Illinois (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Abe Lincoln, who, at the age of twenty-two in 1831, is an awkward, melancholy young backwoodsman with no particular ambition. By 1861, he is a man of dedicated political principles whose personality and career have been shaped by friendship, love, loss, marriage, his reactions to the Dred Scott decision, and the great debates with Stephen A. Douglas.
Ann Rutledge, Lincoln’s great love, who agrees to marry him after her engagement to another man has been broken. She dies of a sudden fever.
McNeil, Ann’s fiancé, who is unable to return from his home in New York State to marry Ann.
Mary Todd, an ambitious young woman who sees in Lincoln the means of fulfilling her own frustrated desires. After their marriage, she bears four children, but her jealousy and tantrums make his life so miserable that he is forced to shut her out of his election triumph.
Seth Gale, Lincoln’s friend. When the possible death of his son Jimmie threatens the Gales’ plans to move west, Lincoln, seeing in his friend’s predicament a symbol of what could happen to his countrymen’s hopes after the Dred Scott decision, finds his political convictions shaped and strengthened.
Mentor Graham, the New Salem schoolmaster...
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Critique (Masterplots, Definitive Revised Edition)
Robert Sherwood saw in the struggles of Abe Lincoln a symbol of democracy in action. The playwright was able to stick fairly close to the facts of Lincoln’s life in working out his allegory of the growth of the democratic spirit, but in several scenes he was forced to invent fictitious characters or incidents to make his point. Whether the play be viewed as history or allegory, it remains as authentically American as its leading character.
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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...
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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 has 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...
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Compare and Contrast
1837: Chicago is incorporated as a city.
1938: At a time when freight is moved by rail and barges, Chicago is the country’s second largest city, only losing that title to Los Angeles in the 1990s.
Today: Although they are still in the same state, Chicago has little in common with rural downstate towns like New Salem and Vandalia.
1830s–60s: Most black people in Southern states are slaves. Blacks living in states that bordered the Southern states are sometimes kidnapped and forced into slavery. The Supreme Court rules in 1857 that blacks can never become U. S. citizens.
1938: Although slavery is technically over when the Civil War ends in 1865, a series of laws passed in the South, known as Jim Crow Laws, keep blacks from enjoying their rights as citizens. Difficult IQ tests are given at polls to keep blacks from voting, and the charade of offering ‘‘separate but equal’’ accommodations leave blacks with inferior housing, food, and education.
Today: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 threatens serious federal punishment for anyone who discriminates on the basis of race.
1830s: The economic depression, which begins in 1837, is eventually overcome with new resources acquired by expanding the nation westward.
1938: The economic depression, begun in 1929, is eventually overcome by an increase in manufacturing when America enters...
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Topics for Further Study
Read the text of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and rate each speaker in terms of how well he argues his point.
Research the life of a rural postmaster in the 1830s and write out an agenda that would show what a typical day was like.
The tension between Lincoln and his wife, Mary, in Scene 9 is just a slight example of their tumultuous relationship. Write a scene that shows them arguing at home during the last year of his presidency, using historic facts to support your characterizations.
Write a brief report on the Underground Railroad, which helped blacks escape from slavery in the South into freedom.
Much is made in this play of how the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case changed the rights of slave owners and mobilized the opposition to slavery. Find testimony from people of the 1850s (besides Lincoln) stating what this decision meant to their lives.
Lincoln had less than a half year of formal schooling in his life. Find out what level of education has been attained by recent presidents, from the 1940s on.
The ‘‘milksick’’ that Lincoln’s mother died of was later diagnosed as a disease that came from drinking the milk of cows that had ingested white snakeroot. Find out the story behind how this was discovered and how this illness affects the body.
Write a paper that imagines what the United States would have been like if Lincoln had allowed the Confederate...
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Abe Lincoln in Illinois was adapted as a film in 1940, starring Raymond Massey in the title role, with Ruth Gordon and Gene Lockhart. Sherwood wrote the screenplay, which was adapted by Grover Jones; John Cromwell directed. Available from Turner Home Video’s RKO Collection.
There is a 41-minute audio cassette version of the play entitled Abe Lincoln in Illinois: Robert Sherwood’s Political Drama of a Lincoln Few People Knew. Released by the Center for Cassette Studies in 1971.
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What Do I Read Next?
Critics consider The Petrified Forest to be Sherwood’s most successful play. It is about an intellectual war veteran facing a dangerous gangster in a diner out in the desert. It is available from the Dramatist’s Play Service.
Much of Sherwood’s information about Lincoln comes from the poet Carl Sandburg’s thorough biography, Lincoln: The Prairie Years, which is often bound with the other volume of his biography, The War Years.
Lincoln was very secretive about his family life. The source that most historians begin with for biographical information is the writings of William Herndon (who appears in the play as Billy Herndon). His biography is available as Herndon’s Life of Lincoln: The History and Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln. A 1997 collection called Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln explores Herndon’s own sources of information.
One of the few book-length studies of Sherwood is John Mason Brown’s critical biography The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times, 1896–1939. Missing from this work is Sherwood’s career during World War II.
This play presents the formation of Lincoln’s sense of responsibility. The resultant sensibilities are examined in Mark E. Neely, Jr.’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning study The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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,...
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