At the height of last night's standing ovation in Ford's Theatre, Roy Dotrice turned slightly to his left and bowed to the empty, flag-draped presidential box -- a graceful tribute to the subject of the evening's presentation and also to the author of most of its material.
This gesture naturally increased the intensity of the ovation, which is likely to be repeated, between now and Feb. 10, as often as Dotrice performs the new one-man play. "Mr. Lincoln," by Herbert Mitgang. The representation of Abraham Lincoln at Ford's where his life was violently ended in 1865, is an idea so natural that Ford's executive director. Frankie Hewitt, has examined and turned down approximately three dozen scripts in the last 10 years, waiting for the right one.
The Dotrice show will probably not satisfy everyone -- it is understated, perhaps to the point of coldness in some sections. But, on the whole, it was worth the wait.
Abraham Lincoln is probably second only to Jesus Christ as the historic figure most difficult to portray in a dramatic presentation. In comparison, such people as Napoleon or Theodore Roosevelt are simple. There is something elusive in Lincoln's character -- the dark, brooding silences of the last years, the solemn religious tone and the recurring melancholy for which he went to a doctor, mingled with the ready wit, extroverted platform style and free flow of funny stories which made some of his contemporaries dismiss him as a clown.
On top of that, particularly for American audiences, there is an encrustation of myth and sentiment. Our Lincoln is a composite of elements from Carol Sandburg, Aaron Copland, Raymond Massey, pictures in elementary-school textbooks and (particularly for Washingtonians who live with it) one of the world's most powerfully simple monuments. To break through all this and present a real human being is a tough assignment Dotrice's Lincoln is certainly real -- but not a Lincoln that everyone will immediately recognize and accept.
It would not have been hard to sentimentalize the subject -- particularly in that theater -- and bring tears to the eyes of the audience. The man's words alone, delivered with feeling and felt in their context, are enough to do it. Dotrice tried for something more difficult -- an accurate portrayal of the man in all his complexity.
Most of the time, his delivery is relatively low-key, with the result that when he does turn on the emotion -- for example, just before the end, when Lincoln sits in a chair telling about his dream of his own death, the effect is stronger. His voice takes on exactly the right tone of tears held back when he reviews the list of casualties of the war, and there is a beautiful blend of sentiment and irony at the end of Act I when he goes off to Washington and tells his law partner to keep the name Lincoln on their sign: "If I live, I'm coming back one day and you and me. Billy, we'll go on practicing law as if nothing had happened." As he speaks these words, a harmonica and guitar can be heard softly in the background playing. "Just Before the Battle, Mother."
But all these moments and many others stop just short of sentimentality. Probably the most tear-jerking segment of the show is one that deals not with Lincoln himself but with the Kentucky farmer who lost two sons in the opposing armies, buried them side by side and put on their joint tombstone the words, "God knows which was right."
Dotrice's Lincoln differs significantly from the slightly stiff, larger-than-life figure of tradition -- and for that reason is probably more accurate, certainly more durable for the more than two hours when the audience is confronted with one man alone on a stage. He strikes and holds a precarious balance betwen casualness and solemnity, and he gives the audience an honest Abe.
The show is stages with a fine fluidity -- at stage left, a rocking chair, a table and some papers fill an area used for private reflections. At stage right, an office setting serves as his own office (with one file labeled "if nowwhere else, look for it here") and the doctor's office where he seeks a cure for his melancholy in the middle, two platforms are available for campaign speeches and the Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural addresses.
Most of the lines we are apt to remember are woven into the script, along with familiar anecdotes and quite a bit of material that will be new to those who are not Lincoln buffs. Unfortunately, in the material that is most familiar of all, the full text of the Gettysburg Address, Dotrice made a few insignificant errors on opening night. But this was a small blemish on a memorable performance.