The Play

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A ruined white-haired man lies asleep on a sleigh bed. Nearby are a straight chair for visitors and a table containing a Bible, a pitcher, a glass, and a mantle lamp. Awakening, former president James Buchanan tells his housekeeper about a strange and distressing dream: that he is still his country’s chief executive, surrounded by hordes of predatory politicians. He imagines that he can fly above them like an eagle soaring west. A black servant fetches the dying man some springwater, prompting him to defend his antebellum position that slavery was a matter of property rights. With the arrival of his niece, former first lady Harriet Lane, the old bachelor fantasizes that she is in need of advice on how to receive and rebuff suitors. Suddenly he imagines himself back in Washington, D.C., serving as secretary of state to James K. Polk and negotiating a compromise settlement to the Oregon boundary dispute.

Other incidents are recalled from his private life and political career. Spectral characters taunt Buchanan for past failures of nerve and for abandoning friends, relatives, and allies to follow a path of self-interest. Especially excruciating are accusations of unprincipled conduct which led to the breaking off of his engagement to Anne Coleman and her subsequent suicide. Did money matter more than love to him? Was he too fastidious to accept her independent ideas? A woman accuses him of causing her husband’s death at Gettysburg and rejects his rationale that extremists caused the Civil War. Hallucinating back and forth in time, “Old Buck” imagines himself a rebellious college student facing a wrathful father, a young attorney drinking with cronies, a cautious suitor warding off his fiancé’s sexual advances, and an overbearing uncle haggling over family finances. One moment he is dancing and flirting with the tsarina at the court of St. Petersburg; the next moment he is playing in a forest with a bell around his neck so that his doting mother will know where he is. Over his bed hangs a portrait of Anne Coleman, who in death provided for him a useful excuse never to marry.

The locale of act 2 shifts from Buchanan’s Wheatland estate to the White House. A portrait of George Washington is now on the wall, replacing Anne Coleman’s; otherwise, the set has not changed. No longer inert, Buchanan is wearing his inaugural coat lined with satin and containing representations of all thirty-one states in orbit around his native “Keystone” state of Pennsylvania. Ill with dysentery, “Old Doughface,” as he was known to opponents, receives admonishments from departed presidents Jackson and Polk (“Old Hickory” and “Young Hickory”) as well as Democratic rival Stephen Douglas. The latter’s Kansas-Nebraska Bill has stirred up a conflagration out West, which Buchanan vainly hopes will be settled judicially by the Dred Scott case.

While Harriet Lane chatters about redecorating and banquet plans, a procession of advisers discuss Abraham Lincoln’s election victory and the probability of disunion. Buchanan’s passive policies placate neither Southerners nor Northerners. With Fort Sumter under siege, Edwin Stanton declares Buchanan unfit for leadership. The curtain closes with the outgoing president telling his Lancaster neighbors of his parting words to Lincoln: “If you are as happy, my dear sir, on entering this house as I am in leaving it and returning home, you are the happiest man in this country.”

Back on his deathbed as act 3 opens, Buchanan groans as his niece recites from a scrapbook disasters that occurred during his presidency. Anxious to settle his accounts, he must endure more deprecations from his father, another weeping war widow (this time a Southerner), and a host of ungrateful former associates. Concerned about his wavering faith and convinced of the sinfulness of the flesh, he imagines Harriet to be a harlot and Anne to be involved with his own father. He tries unsuccessfully to urinate into a bedpan but finds solace from springwater and a remembered theological discussion with his pastor. His final visitor is the executor of his will, to whom he confides: “Once death has equalized all men, worth flies from their deeds as utility flies from their artifacts.” His final dying words are “All that is heavy is fallen away.”

Dramatic Devices

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An extended afterword that is more gracefully written than the play itself, if read first, makes the drama (with its fifty-five characters and convoluted chronology) much more understandable. In it John Updike admits that his ungainly work was meant more to be read than performed; in fact, his original purpose was to write a novel. Buchanan Dying was to be the final book in a tetralogy dealing with, in reverse chronological order, the future (The Poorhouse Fair, 1959), the present (Rabbit, Run, 1960), the remembered past (The Centaur, 1963), and the historical past. Updike had even intended to divide his historical novel into four parts: love, law, duty, and death. He found it hard to breathe life into his protagonist, however, and as he playfully remarked, he found so much fiction in the existing historical literature that he settled on a closet drama, a “mosaic with more tesserae than matrix.”

Five quotations introduce Updike’s written text, including contemporary characterizations of Buchanan as, variously, a sneaking scrivener, an old maid, a pious crybaby, and a conscientious functionary. The only quotation not explicitly about Buchanan, by Søren Kierkegaard, describes a man “who had a pair of spectacles with one lens that reduced as powerfully as oxy-gas-microscope and the other that magnified equally powerfully; in his interpretation everything was very relative.” The historic Buchanan quite literally had one farsighted and one nearsighted eye; to focus clearly, he tilted his head at an odd angle that made him look baleful and querulous.

Despite expectations that his play would not be performed, Updike wrote elaborate instructions as to lighting, stage settings, and the pairing of characters when actors were assigned multiple roles. The dialogue is stilted and at times ahistorical, as some speeches are paraphrasings of contemporary letters, newspaper accounts, and the like while others are the products of Updike’s imagination and ironic perspective. There are colloquies in French, abstruse religious discourses, discussions of obscure political minutiae, and occasional puns and sexual innuendoes. With women, Updike’s Buchanan can at times be almost lecherous and voyeuristic, in contrast to his insipid public persona. In ribald fashion he warns his niece Harriet of the syphilitic Prince of Wales and advises her to remove her portrait from his bedroom, “lest it drive his left hand to frenzy.” Taking office with “backside aflame,” he is most intimate in the company of male cronies. Updike’s Buchanan is not homosexual, however, only impotent.

One dramatic device used by Updike is a recurring ringing of bells, to emphasize the incident when young “Jamie” was in the woods with a bell around his neck. The device of going back and forth from the personal tragedy of Anne Coleman’s death to the political tragedy of the Civil War is meant to suggest parallel causes and effects but is quite confusing and strained. Ultimately, the question whether Buchanan can be held responsible for either tragedy is left slightly unclear, with Updike seeming to conclude in the negative. Buchanan’s tragedy is not so much his moral obtuseness or the harm he caused to others as the emotional cocoon he built around himself that prevented him from, in his own words, soaring like an eagle. Accused of being Judas Iscariot, he more resembles Hamlet.


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Sources for Further Study

DeBellis, Jack, comp. The John Updike Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Detweiler, Robert. John Updike. Rev. ed. Indianapolis: Macmillan, 1984.

Ehrenpreis, Irvin. “Buchanan Redux.” New York Review of Books 21 (August 8, 1974): 6.

Greiner, Donald J. The Other John Updike: Poems, Short Stories, Prose, Play. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981.

Newman, Jodie. John Updike. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Plath, James, ed. Conversations with John Updike. Jackson: Mississippi University Press, 1994.

Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. “The Historical Mind and the Literary Imagination.” Atlantic Monthly 233 (June, 1974): 54-59.

Weintraub, Stanley. “Closet Drama.” The New Republic 170 (June 22, 1974): 26.


Critical Essays