by Everett Goldner · August 17, 2015
A quick look at Wikipedia tells me that more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other American in history. The total as of this year is a staggering 16,000 volumes dedicated to Lincoln’s life, presidency and legacy. Easily enough to fill the theater I saw Lincoln’s Blood in to past capacity, ‘till you’d find yourself trapped in among the books like a jammed-up subway car. (Next time you’re bored on the subway, imagine that everyone in the car is Abraham Lincoln. Compliment strangers on their profound disposition, their sterling humanitarian record or their fine taste in bow ties. Should revolutionize small talk in New York city.)
Of those 16,000, 125 books are devoted to the assassination alone. So it’s no understatement to say that this play had a wealth of background and research material to draw on. It shows; the dialogue is entirely period-specific and never feels put-on or forced. This being a memory play, interactions and scenes drift one into the next, sometimes between characters who in life never met (in particular, a dreamy sequence where Mrs. Lincoln’s lady-in-waiting tells John Wilkes Booth how each part of his grand plot will go wrong even as he plans it is unforgettable) and there is often a sense, probably intentional, of a slow ballroom dance between couples who occasionally switch partners, just to try out a new twirl or dip.
Of the three couples here, players in two of them are firmly entrenched in American mythos; first, of course, there is Booth, who in a flash of gunpowder secured the fame that his acting never could; he is accompanied by his landlady Mary Surratt, who after the assassination became the first woman in U.S. history to be hanged. Next there is Mary Todd Lincoln, who lived another 17 years after the events of April 14th, 1865 – in all that time never putting her mourning clothes away – and her assistant Elizabeth Keckley, who was born into slavery, rose to become the First Lady’s personal dresser and later wrote an autobiography called Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. It was one of the first “tell all” books and as implied in the play, had no small part in deepening Mary Todd’s insanity.
The third ballroom couple is less well-known – Major Henry Rathbone and his wife Clara, who were sitting in the box with the Lincolns at Ford’s theater. Rathbone’s own gradual descent into insanity in the years after the shooting shows a bizarre parallel with Mrs. Lincoln’s, leading to a tragic climax that the play naturally adopts for its own. Without spoiling, it’s enough to say that the “truth is stranger than fiction” maxim has few clearer adherents than the finale of the Rathbones.
Acting is solid across the board, but Maya Dwyer as Clara has to be singled out – she’s outstanding, with the kind of investment that has people muttering about it in the street after the show.
Be warned, the play itself requires some investment if you’re planning on seeing it; through the first act I continually watched people rubbing their foreheads, trying to pay attention to a world where people expressed themselves in complete sentences. The “novelistic” flavor is present throughout and could deter some, but it never overwhelms the pace, and it’s sprinkled with lighter beats; Booth will occasionally interrupt the plot to present some of his favorite Shakespearean monologues to the audience, like the “life’s a walking shadow” piece from MacBeth. Dreary, yes, but he can’t help letting us in on the real score: “I never played MacBeth” he notes with a wicked grin, as he draws his pistol and takes his place in legend.