Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634
Robert Emmet Sherwood chose to dramatize the pre-presidential career of Abraham Lincoln for three primary reasons: first, his lifelong fascination with, and admiration for, the great Civil War leader; second, his belief that Lincoln was the quintessential American, a man who embodied the basic genius of the American character, with all of its strengths, ambiguities, and contradictions; and, third, his conviction that the world in 1938 faced a crisis not unlike America’s Civil War and needed, therefore, the guidance and inspiration of Lincoln’s example.
Sherwood’s focus is on Lincoln’s humanity and the agonizing contradictions in his character: his love of life and preoccupation with death; his bearlike physicality and his gentleness; his love of people and his “misanthropy”; his need for female love and his fear of its consequences; his humor and his sadness; his sense of greatness and his feelings of mediocrity.
The play is structured as a loose chronicle covering the major crises in Lincoln’s career from his beginnings as a bankrupt shopkeeper in New Salem to an elected President setting off to assume office in Washington. Except for the dramatization of one Lincoln-Douglas debate and his farewell speech, however, all of the scenes are private; that is, all show Lincoln relating to friends or associates while the pressures and tensions, external and internal, swirl about him. Two concerns are foremost: Lincoln’s erratic, indecisive political career and his need for, and fears of, the love and support of a woman. And the two are intimately connected.
In Sherwood’s version, Lincoln’s actual decision to commit himself to a political career is a solitary one, the result of an encounter with an old friend on the Illinois prairie, but the first concrete evidence of that commitment is his return to Mary Todd. The author only suggests the complexity of their relationship in the play, but he does so brilliantly. The combination of pride and hostility that Lincoln feels toward his electoral career becomes focused on her: she glories in his success; she suffers under his resentment. The climax of their relationship fuses with the climax of his political endeavors in Lincoln’s election night outburst and her hysterical response.
But perhaps the picture that remains longest in the mind is that of Lincoln the peacemaker about to lead his country into Civil War. Lincoln’s resistance to his “destiny,” as Sherwood presents it, was not merely a matter of personal reticence or lack of self-confidence, but was the result of his acute perception. Lincoln knew that the leader of the country in the 1860’s would have the responsibility of war or peace and, given his deeply felt antagonism to violence, that was the decision he felt most unwilling and unable to make. Sherwood stated that the dramatic core of the play “was the story of a man of peace who had to face the issue of appeasement or war. He faced it.”
And this, of course, was the parallel that Sherwood saw with the world situation in 1938. Given the economic issue of the Great Depression in the United States and, even more important, the specter of Naziism rising in Europe, Sherwood saw America’s “neutrality” and “indecision” as potentially destroying what was left of Western civilization.
In the plays immediately preceding ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS—THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1935), ACROPOLIS (1936), and IDIOT’S DELIGHT (1936)—Sherwood had presented a totally bleak vision of the West; the “barbarians” were getting stronger and the “civilized” men seemed too weak and vacillating to do anything about it. ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS represented a turning point in Sherwood’s attitude from thorough pessimism to guarded optimism. He had come to believe that America could have the Western world by reasserting the values and strengths evident in the life and career of Abraham Lincoln.
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