The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 704 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 541 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.