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Friday, November 5, 2010

Robert E. Sherwood’s controversial version of Abraham Lincoln’s Election Night

Saturday, November 6, marks the sesquicentennial of the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln. In one of the last scenes of his Pulitzer Prize–winning 1938 play Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Robert E. Sherwood dramatized Election Night in Lincoln’s campaign headquarters in Springfield. Mark S. Reinhart, among many others, has attacked the controversial scene as “inflammatory and untrue. . . . No such incident took place on Lincoln’s election night.”

Sherwood defended his inventions in notes he added to the published version of the play. He recognized that in this scene “one speech has been much criticized and deplored by good people who revere Lincoln’s memory and cannot believe that he ever cursed at his wife.” Acknowledging that by all accounts Lincoln “treated the obstreperous Mrs. Lincoln with unfailing courtesy and tender considerateness” during their White House years, he maintained that an honest portrayal of Lincoln’s marriage required him to show that
. . . on occasion, his monumental patience snapped. That it did, before the move from Springfield, there can be no doubt. Usually he met her tirades with stony silence, or abrupt departure, or with laughter . . . But [William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner] records that at least once, when she had run him out of the house and was chasing him down Eighth Street, and they approached some church-goers, he turned on her, picked her up, spanked her, and thrust her back into the house, saying, “There, now, stay in the house and don’t be a damned fool before the people.”
Herndon may not be the most reliable source here; he and Mary Todd Lincoln never got along and fought over her husband’s legacy. Although there is documentary support for occasional marital discord, Stephen Oates agrees with many historians that much of Herndon’s 1889 book, especially the sections about Mary, is “malicious gossip.”

Yet Sherwood accepted Herndon’s account as unfiltered truth and felt that the “most appropriate moment” to dramatize this was “Election Night . . . with the nerves of both so severely strained.” In the scene Mary has been growing increasingly agitated as the telegraphed results reported by Lincoln’s staff show his Democratic opponent Stephen Douglas leading. Lincoln sits at a table, calmly reading press clippings.
Mary: (her voice trembling) I can’t stand it any longer!
Abe: Yes, my dear—I think you’d better go home. I’ll be back before long.
Mary: (hysterical.) I won’t go home! You only want to get rid of me. That’s what you’ve wanted ever since the day we were married—and before that. Anything to get me out of your sight, because you hate me! And it’s the same with all of you—all of his friends—you hate me—you wish I’d never come into his life!
Lincoln then asks his staff to “step out a moment.” After they leave he “turns on Mary with strange savagery.”
Abe: Damn you! Damn you for taking every opportunity you can to make a public fool of me—and yourself! It’s bad enough, God knows, when you act like that in the privacy of our own home. But here—in front of people! You’re not to do that again. Do you hear me? You’re never to do that again!
(Mary is so aghast at this outburst that her hysterical temper vanishes, giving way to blank terror.)
Mary: (in a faint, strained voice) Abe! You cursed at me. Do you realize what you did? You cursed at me.
(Abe has the impulse to curse at her again, but with considerable effort, he controls it.)
Abe: (in a strained voice) I lost my temper, Mary. And I’m sorry for it. But I still think you should go home rather than endure the strain of this—this Death Watch.
(She stares at him, uncomprehendingly, and then turns and goes to the door.)
Mary: (at the door) This is the night I dreamed about, when I was a child, when I was an excited young girl, and all the gay young gentlemen of Springfield were courting me, and I fell in love with the least likely of them. This is the night when I’m waiting to hear that my husband has become President of the United States. And even if he does—it’s ruined, for me. It’s too late . . .
(She opens the door and goes out. Abe looks after her, anguished . . .)
Also of interest: A humorist imagines seeing Lincoln in his Springfield home after his election victory, in “Artemus Ward on His Visit to Abe Lincoln,” on the Story of the Week site.

Related LOA works: The Lincoln Bicentennial Collection (3-book boxed set, including The Lincoln Anthology, which excerpts the full Election Night scene from Abe Lincoln in Illinois)

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