Sunday, October 30, 2016


During World War One, when John Drinkwater (1882-1937) was already a recognized actor, poet and playwright in Great Britain, he wrote a drama about Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).  His play Abraham Lincoln, first performed in 1918 by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, eventually made Drinkwater an internationally famous playwright.
Drinkwater spent most of the war years working in a munitions factory. He had written his first play in 1911 and he continued to write plays throughout the war. It was during this period that Drinkwater wrote his first war play, a one-act titled X=O.  This play is set during the Trojan War.

Abraham Lincoln was Drinkwater’s next war play. This drama is dedicated to “The Lord Charnwood.”  Lord Charnwood, (1864-1945) christened Godfrey Rathbone Benson, wrote the acclaimed 1916 biography titled Abraham Lincoln. In his Preface to the biography, Lord Charnwood states: “When an English writer tells again the tale, which has been well told already and which there can remain no important new facts to disclose, he must endeavor to make clear to Englishmen the circumstances and conditions which are familiar to Americans.”

Basil Williams (1867-1950) wrote the General Editor’s Preface for Lord Charnwood’s book. His Preface appeared in the 1917 American edition published by Henry Holt and Company. He states: “It is fit that the first considered attempt by an Englishman to give a picture of Lincoln, the great hero of America’s struggle for the noblest cause, should come at a time when we in England are passing through as fiery a trial for a cause we feel to be as noble.”  

Drinkwater was inspired by Lord Charnwood’s book about Lincoln. It was his guide for the history and character of Lincoln.  Additionally Drinkwater understood Basil William’s position on Lincoln’s significance to the British people during the war and the time immediately following it.

Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln is divided into six scenes. Two characters named First Chronicler and Second Chronicler introduce the play as well as speak between scenes and they conclude the drama. They serve as poetic commentators about Lincoln, his situations and possible thoughts. They also denote the passage of time between the previous scene and the forth coming one. Their lines are written in verse, while the characters in the scenes speak in prose.

Scene One is set in the parlor of Abraham Lincoln’s house in Springfield, Illinois. The year is 1860. The action of the scene revolves around whether Lincoln will accept the Republican Party’s invitation to become its candidate for the office of President of the United States.

Scene Two is a year later and it is set in William Seward’s office. He is the Secretary of State appointed by President Lincoln. Two gentlemen are meeting with him as representatives of the Commissioners of the Confederate States.  Lincoln comes to see Seward and announces he wants a meeting with his cabinet members. It is at this session that Lincoln makes his declaration against allowing the South to secede from the Union.

Scene Three is set in a small room in the White House nearly two years later. The Chroniclers declare Lincoln has grown “Greater in resolution, more constant in compassion.” President Lincoln meets with Mrs. Goliath Blow and Mrs. Otherly, women who hold opposing opinions as to how the President should deal with the South in the event of its defeat. His second meeting during this scene is a moving one with Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) a former slave, social reformer and abolitionist. 

                                                                  London Production

Scene Four is at about the same date as the previous scene. It is a meeting of the President’s Cabinet in Washington. The Cabinet members learned that General McClellan had defeated Lee at Antietam. This was another step towards the Union defeating the Confederacy. Even though the war was not yet won, Lincoln issued his proclamation against slavery to become effective on the first day of the coming year.

Scene Five takes place during an April evening in 1865 at a farmhouse near Appomatox. It is General Grant’s current headquarters. Lincoln arrives to be present when word arrives regarding General Lee surrender. Since it is night, Lincoln decides to sleep. The playwright drops the curtain for a short interval as the First Chronicler tells that night passes. The curtain rises on the same scene, but the light of dawn fills the room. Lincoln leaves the farmhouse once he learns that Lee has surrendered and will soon arrive. Lincoln has instructed Grant to let all the Southern soldiers return to their homes.

Scene Six is the evening of April 14, 1865. President and Mrs. Lincoln are at the theatre and seated in one of the boxes.  President Lincoln is applauded by the audience in recognition of the victory and for saving the Union. Shortly after that moment, Lincoln is shot by John Wilkes Booth.

                                                             JOHN WILKES BOOTH

Each scene of the play is built upon major moments of decision for Lincoln. It is fiction based on some historical facts. The reviewer for the Birmingham Daily Post on October 14, 1918 stated he: “admired the noble and enduring simplicity of Lincoln, his faith and fortitude disseminate the action so impressively that in many ways Mr. Drinkwater’s play is amongst the most moving of modern times.” The noble sentiments expressed by Lincoln resonated with the audience.

Drinkwater’s play attracted the interest of Nigel Playfair (1874-1934) manager of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London. He went to see a performance in Birmingham and was so impressed with Drinkwater’s play that he and Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) contracted to bring it to London where it played for one year. It opened February 19, 1919 with the Irish actor, William J. Rea playing Lincoln. Its performances were sold out. The April 8,1919 evening performance was attended by King George V (1865-1936) and Queen Mary (1867-1953). 

The play spoke to the audiences who had just experienced a devastating war.  It is also believed that Lincoln’s noble attitudes and sentiments relating to one’s former enemies were beginning to flourish in the minds of audience members, who were striving to move beyond hate. 
My next post will discuss the rest of the production history for Drinkwater’s successful play Abraham Lincoln.

NOTE:  Production Photos from The Graphic, August 13, 1921, page 193.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! This has helped me a lot in understanding the Play:)