(For KRT – miss ya’ll!!)
John Drinkwater: The Heroic in Lincoln
Barry Honold, Dramaturg
British playwright John Drinkwater (1882-1937) spent his early adulthood working in an insurance office. In his spare time, he was a devout student of literature who became a published poet with Poems of Men & Hours. In the introduction to Abraham Lincoln (1918), he admitted to compressing and manipulating history to maintain the inherent drama of Lincoln’s life. Composite characters, like Burnett Hook, were made up to embody “certain forces that were antagonistic to the President.” Lacking firsthand experience with American life, he wrote the play without attempting to nail down the various dialects and “local colour;” he feared not doing justice to such a task.
In a 1921 essay entitled “The Heroic in Art,” he upbraided the relentless cynicism that he felt pervaded the world of poetry. He lamented that his contemporaries did not “praise great men and their fathers who were before them,” and remarked sarcastically on the sophistication of the post-WWI poets: “They have seen through the heroic, and they are not going to be caught in any ridiculous postures of benediction.” He believed that art should exalt great men and appeal to the better angels of our nature – that cynicism and smugness was the easy way out. And he upheld Lincoln as a great man worthy of such remembrance and praise.
Abraham Lincoln was first produced by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the London suburb of Hammersmith in 1918. The play was wildly successful. Many London managers smelled money and begged to have the play move to the more fashionable West End – a move reminiscent of going from Off-Off-Broadway to Broadway. The managers in Hammersmith, however, were intent on drawing all of London to them “to see a play without a love-interest or a bedroom scene.” Their gamble worked, and the play ran for 300 nights. In 1919, it was brought to New York to be performed at the Hudson Theatre with Lee Keedick Bureau directing. A New York Times article from that year noted that Drinkwater was on hand to supervise its production. Not only did he come for the American premiere of Abraham Lincoln, he would also be touring the country to “deliver lectures on poetry and the dramatic art, with readings from his own works.”
In the spirit of Drinkwater, Kentucky has elected to praise the great man, to honor the rail-splitter who kept a nation together. Kentucky Repertory Theatre is proud to join in the celebration surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial. For more information on Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the personalities surrounding the play, visit Kentucky Rep’s website at kentuckyrep.org and our MySpace page.