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.)