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tv   The Widow Lincoln Interview  CSPAN  February 16, 2015 10:31am-11:06am EST

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april 14th, 1865, abraham lincoln was mortally wounded as he sat in the presidential box with his wife marrow watching the popular comedy "our american cousin." he died the next morning. we sat down with playwright james still and actor mary bacon to talk about ford's production of "the widow lincoln." commissioned to mark the anniversary this april of president lincoln's assassination, 150 years ago. this is about 30 minutes. >> we're at ford's theater with playwright james still and actor mary bacon about the play "the widow lincoln kwrt. before we get started about the particulars of the play i wanted to ask both of you what it is like, and i want to start with you mary bacon because i think this is a new experience for you, james still's been here before, but what it's like to produce a lincoln centered play in ford's theater with that flag-draped box right in the room with you. what's that experience like? >> it is definitely, what is the word, very aware of it.
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i am very aware of it. i'm very aware of it. the first time i stepped into the theater i was like whoa. why is there a picture of president washington up there ? i don't know a lot of the specific history of the theater. i don't know just -- since my you know research to do the role. but also, i have to say for me, i have thought a lot about how we turn a place into a shrine because we know what happened there. there are a lot of places where we don't know what happened there, so it is a mixed thing. james has a line in the play, and a lot of lines from his play come to me. where he says, you know, god gives us our beloved ones. we make them our idols and then they are taken from us. and i think about that when i look at the box. i think about making him -- we made him an idol, and of course you know, it's a great idol.
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it's just that we have participated in that veneration. if that makes any sense. >> james you've had -- you've worked with the theater for awhile now. you're accustomed to it to some degree. does it ever really leave you, being near that box? >> no. i didn't know coming back this time if i would have the same kind of haunted feeling being in the theater. sitting there. but in this case, "the widow lincoln" actually incorporates ford's theater into the play. so there's a sort of a double experience going on. you are watching mary lincoln remembering that night in ford's theater and we are in the audience remembering that night with her in ford's theater. that is a very unique experience for me as a writer. i think sometimes at ford's theater, they, if i can speak for them they have to almost deny the box, in a way. if you're doing a play that has nothing to do with lincoln and
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yet you can't cover it up. you can't not light it. it's there. it's always present. so i would say in "the widow lincoln" what's wonderful and difficult in a certain way is that it is meant to be present. it is meant to be part of the play. i think sitting in the audience, realizing there was a night on april 14th in 1865 that a president and his wife sat in that box and were watching a play just like we're going to be watching a play. and this terrible thing happened. that stills moves me. i have to say. i'm still moved by that. >> this play was commissioned for the 150th anniversary. is there any additional poignancy because of the anniversary? >> well, sure. there is a little story behind that. i had written another play about abraham lincoln that was set in 1862, the year he worked on the emancipation proclamation.
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it was called the heavens are hung in black, premiered here at ford's theater. i had always thought there was a second part to that play, not a sequel but probably that it was -- i was not finished yet with the lincoln story, but i didn't really know what that was. when ford's came to me and suggested i write a play for the 150th anniversary, i balked a little bit because i felt like i had written my abraham lincoln play. and i also thought well we all know the ending. we all know what happened. there is no drama in that. we know the president was shot. we know that he died the next morning across the street. we know the country went into mourning. but in that earlier play, and in my research in that time, i had really become, i guess i will say, attached to mary lincoln and curious about her. and curious about the ways that
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she had been maligned for so many years. and that people are so passionately opinionated about her, even now, 150 years after that event. so i really proposed to ford's that i had a slightly different idea, which was to focus on mary. and that president lincoln himself would not really be a character. although of course he looms large in the play. his absence, i would say, looms large. but he -- it's really about mary. and that -- so the poignancy of that what was that experience for mary lincoln it is important 150th anniversary. >> would you explain the basic premise of the play? rather than having the playwright do it tell us what the play is all about. so people understand what we're talking about. >> what is the play about? the play is about the period of time that mary lincoln spent in the white house right after he was shot. because she holed herself up in
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a room that she had not spent barely any time in for close to six weeks, 40 days, and did not leave. even though johnson was waiting to move in with his family and start running the country from the white house. and that's how she dealt with it. how she dealt with her grief. and that's what it's about. and everything that's happening in the country while she's there, and it's -- i guess it's about a woman's insistence on mourning in her own way. >> did the ford's people immediately like the idea when you said there will be no lincoln in our anniversary play? >> you know, to the producer's credit i would say he took about one second and said yeah, we'll do that. and so i think you know, they know my work very well and they know how seriously i approach
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the subject. i think that paul and his colleagues were taken by the mystery of this. and it's really an untold story. there's very little written about it. i mean i discovered it was really a footnote in a book, an article, something and i thought, surely someone has written extensionvely about that time. and of course one of the reasons historians haven't is that we don't know what happened. there's very little. mary herself only wrote about it in one surviving letter. and it's really a paragraph in which she describes the agony of it. but she doesn't talk about it in detail. her dressmaker, elizabeth keckley who was her companion during that time talks about it a little bit in her book. but that's it. so you can imagine for me as a dramatist there was a lot to imagine. >> does the room in the white house she was holed up in still
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exist? >> that's a great question. it was on the second floor. i'm sure in some version it exists. it was a room when mary was brought back to the white house the next morning after the president died, she wouldn't go in to any of the rooms where she had any associated memories. so her own bedroom. any of the rooms. she found herself in this particular room, which was a small room. it was in the living quarters in the second floor that had been appointed to be sort of a writing room for lincoln for the summer. and she went in and wouldn't leave. >> before we get to that part of the story, isn't it true that while lincoln was dying across the street from where we were, i don't know if this was victorian mores or what but they would not let her be with her husband? they took her out of the room? >> she was in a room right next door. they didn't tell her he was dying. like, she knew it was grave. but they didn't tell her -- she
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talks about that. that -- that you know, that's in catherine clinton's book right after they announced his death to her. why didn't anyone tell me that he was dying? that he was at his last you know, his last breaths. which you can, you know, you can tell when someone is in that stage. so, yeah was it stanton who banished her from the room, in our play. in james' play banished her from the room. >> because she was weeping and wailing woman, right? >> because she was weeping and upset. >> she would come in periodically and you know, collapse in panic, anxiety, grief. and they would shovel her out. and you know it was this room right next door. i would say in the play that's quite an event in the play. the fact that she was kept out. because there was a southern tradition of being with that dying person for the wife you know, to be there with that in the last moments with your beloved. and the fact that she was denied that was just one more thing
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that i think mary lincoln felt in my play i'm talking about, felt, you know that other people were taking control over her. and so it's quite an event in the play. because i had found a report that one of the attending doctors to lincoln kept a little notebook of his pulse all through the night. and it just was these numbers. and so in the play, interspersed with mary's desire to be with her husband during those moments. >> you and i had a chance to talk before we started recording this about acknowledging all of the genuine lincoln scholars, and all of the lincoln wanna-be scholars there are in the country. so so many people know a great deal about lincoln's life. and yet, you chose a period where very little is known, giving you a lot of dramatic latitude. >> mm-hmm. >> did you do that intentionally
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so that there wouldn't be people saying, he got this wrong? he got that wrong? >> well, it is a bit intimidating because you have to -- the way i make this out there will always be people who know more about all of this than i do. on the other hand, that is not really my job. my job is as a storyteller and an empathetic writer to bring mary lincoln and that time in her life to vivid life for an audience. but i have to say after doing the first play "the heavens were hung in black" where there was so much available to me about lincoln. you can read for the rest of your life. but with mary, it was a different experience, and i -- i did appreciate having a little bit of room to do my own imagining about her. >> so what was your source of information? you found these small notations. but what was the historical research that went into your crafting of the story? >> sure. my style with a period piece
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like this is to start very specificly with things that were written in the time. rather than starting with things that are 21st century lens looking back. because in a certain way, those wonderful writers many of them scholars and historians are doing exactly what i'm doing, they're looking at sources, and creating a lens through which to tell that story. rather than cheat so obviously and take them at their word, what they made of mary lincoln, i went back -- some things, of course newspapers of the day. you can read all of those newspapers of the day. there are many books that were published right after lincoln's death. many people wanted to jump on that bandwagon and join the many who thought they had something original to say about lincoln. some of them, not very many but some wrote a tiny bit about mary. she was often not in any of those books.
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that was interesting. that was a big clue to me as well. is how often she is missing from the story of lincoln. one thing that i found very interesting is i went back and i found about maybe seven or eight plays that had been written right after the assassination about lincoln. just reading how they treated the story of the civil war, in some ways mary lincoln, abraham lincoln, some of the plays were wild. much wilder than anything i could write. so that kind of liberated me, as well, because i realized there were writers 150 years ago trying to make sense of this time in a theatrical language, as well. so that was freeing. then i started to read books that were written in the 20th century. carl sandberg wrote a beautiful, small, slim volume. and he was part of the new wave of writers who were starting to reconsider the image and
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representation of mary lincoln. maybe she had gotten a bad deal in terms of -- because for about 50 years after lincoln's death there was so much negative that was written about her. i started to find some of the things that, if not positive, at least were looking at, maybe there are two sides to this. there was enough source material that i felt like i could find interesting things. >> what was the time from, yes, i have this commissioned, to the opening debut? how much time is involved in all this? >> i would say it was about three years, maybe. that i had. so i really spent a solid year researching. i went back to springfield, illinois, to the presidential museum there. i went to lexington to the todd house. i also spent time with one of the largest private collectors of lincoln memorabilia in los angeles, louis taper and she was able to let me you know look
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firsthand at some of mary's -- mary lincoln's, you know, her comb her bible, her gloves -- the gloves that she wore at the inauguration. that was incredibly moving to me. >> how many players are in your play? >> there are eight actors who play a variety of characters. >> are all the characters historically accurate? or do you take some license with them? were all of them known to have gone in to that room during that time? >> oh, no, no. >> but they all existed? >> they are. queen victoria is in the play. she wrote a letter to mary lincoln that was very famous and she appears to mary in the form of that letter. but in three dimension. laura keen the actress in "our american cousin" -- >> whose play it was. >> whose play was at ford's, "our american cousin" that was being acted when the terrible thing -- terrible tragedy happened onstage. and the fact that laura keen and
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mary lincoln were linked forever by that event. i was very intrigued by those two women and what they might have to say to each other. >> side bar question. after the tragedy happened here was her play ever produced again? >> oh, yes. that play was the most produced play in the country and there were many versions of it. in fact, they were booked to do a performance two days later and she went to cincinnati to do it but she was brought back to washington because they were all suspects. but yeah, she continued. >> so mary bacon how did you get involved with this project? >> well i am -- i did a premiere -- well premiere of james' play of called "iron kisses." i can't remember how many years ago. but i knew -- i knew him. and then so when the audition came up, just knowing the writer and that it's a new play of his, that makes you interested immediately. if you liked him. and you believe in their voice and the strength of their plays.
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also, for me, my late mother-in-law, my husband's mother was a really wonderful woman. judy lindsay. i should say her name. she was in new york city. she went to the theater, she read everything. she read every -- and she was also trying her hand at playwrighting, after a career in journalism, working at columbia university, and cpj. and she was actually writing a play about mary lincoln. and i never got to talk to her about it because she died unexpected ly about four years ago. it was really creepy that when this came up, i felt obligated to explore. that was -- it did make me pause and think, well what was she so taken with? she herself experienced the death of her first husband, untimely death of her first husband, at the age of 36, and
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then the untimely death of her second husband at the age of -- when he was 62. she was married to her first husband one year longer than her second husband. i thought maybe it was the grief that she went through that was something she was interested in. although i do not know judy. i do not know. but she was very taken with mary todd lincoln. and then, you know, you do an audition and you get it up on its feet. because the way james is writing, it reads like poetry. and this is a very poetic play. i think, if i may say so, he's writing about -- he's writing -- he's writing people's feelings. mary is putting her feelings into words. which is poetic. and the way it's -- i've said this to him a million times, it was beautifully written. so i wanted to feel how it felt as a drama. you know as drama. up on my feet. and sometimes i don't know that until i'm up on my feet in an audition. wow, this really works. and that of course was
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intriguing. those are the two things i brought to it, my prior experience with james and then also -- >> is this your first historical character? >> oh, my gosh. i'm sure there's best known historical characters you've ever played. >> and again the people have opinions and they've read a lot. how did you, how did you prepare yourself to play this role? >> well i started then i found my mother-in-law's you know, we pulled out a box of her stuff and she had like four biographies, so i just started looking at them, then i found that biographers really have a hard time keeping their own opinion out of it. that was really clear when i would read about the same event from two different perspectives. then i researched biographies
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and tried to discern which ones i felt were going to be more even handed, i guess. which ones appealed to me me more and so, i did that, then i read what was basically, what you could look up on the internet and i rewatched lincoln because i think sally field did her a great service. i think it was very bright, who was emotional, but to me, what i loved about her portrayal is that she had a reason for behaving the way she did when she had a fit to get her husband to do something or to do something, to change something. it's not just being emotional. i liked that a lot. so, i just took from all these different places and then, but actually, playing the role, i will tell you, i haven't had to work that hard in terms of like i have freed myself completely and i guess i do as an actor, but completely of trying to be like mary lincoln. i've never been told to try to
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look like her. i don't look anything like her. we have brown hair but body type completely different. and that's not been the focus. i think what your previous play, when you're playing lincoln, you have to look like lincoln. you have to approximate some semblance because you know, but mary todd lincoln had a very distinlgts look and that's not been part of this. but what i want to say about james' play, what i feel like i have to do is really live in the text because it's all there for me. in terms of like creating a character, i'm not creating one and then putting it on top of the words i've been given to say. i think they just, it's evident if i just say those words and experience as truthfully as i can. she just emerges, her character, which i would -- >> how was she when the assassination happened? >> 47. >> and it's, this is a question
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for both of you in terms of ininterpreterin ination. it's almost unbelievable sitting and watching a play then your spouse would be shot dead. how do you even understand what kind of emotion people would go through, experiencing that and then how do you translate it both in what you wrote and what you're producing on the stage? >> well, i guess starting with me that was a very big clue to me. when you think you know you're holding your loved one's hand in the moment before he's killed. it's not hard to imagine how traumatic that would be. that is is a way in for me to at least have empathy for mary lincoln. i may not understand everything she did. i may not agree with it. the play doesn't try to make her out to be nicer than she really
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was. and i don't have an ax to grind. i didn't come into this with an agenda of i want to set the record straight about mary lincoln. i really wanted to tell the story about this incredibly smart, savvy political mother and wife. who witnessed her husband's death. and the, what she might have gone through to try to get on with her life. and part of the tragedy with mary lincoln of course is that my play is focused on these 40 days, but as most of us know yes, she left that white house, but you know, her life didn't get better in many ways, it became even more challenging. so, that also meant the play isn't about you know at the end, okay the sun comes out and you know, everything's fine. she leaves the room and that is something.
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that is a step in her life. but it's, it's not over. it's not an easy one. so, i think how to do that on stage, how to create that, it's terrifying. very terrifying to write. it was hard. to live with. because i felt like it was my obligation to take that on. as somebody who had to do what i knew, an actor and eventually mary would do, which would be to live that three dimensionally. we were talking earlier about that wonderful hand off that happen happens between a writer and an actor and we're in that process right now. really where i'm handing this off and she is mary linkcolnlincoln. it's not my mary lincoln now, it's hers. so i'll let you talk about taking the baton, how you do that.
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>> well, how do you do that? how do you create a traumatic experience on stage? well, it's specifically, this is one because i mean, to imagine living through that, how you capture that without ever experiencing something that horrific in your own life? >> well, as an actor i will say that any actor, a good actor can portray anything that can happen to a human being. >> so i'm asking for the secret to the actor's craft. >> i think everyone probably goes about it in a different way. when i was younger, it was about, oh, trying to recreate. i've been through more tragedy since then and more death and grief. i'm not as surprised by tragic events, you know. >> was it different when you put the costumes on? >> it was painful. yes. yes and no. there's a really hard time when you leave the rehearsal room.
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you've created everything with the rehearsal props you have a relationship to that skirt. and you've put a lot of emotional investment into it so it can be very jarring, actually. but now that we're here and we're in the actual clothes, it's been helpful because it's just how i'm starting to have dreams about being in this time period, you know. >> i feel very emotional watching them in costume because there's something about that silhouette that historical silhouette. especially in terms of what women wore then. it's not something i think about all the time but all of a sudden seeing it again, it's haunting. >> the restriction is the restriction is really, because i think one thing -- >> restriction of the cory set? >> of the clothes. it's the corset, but also the weight of those clothes. they were so heavy. and women, you couldn't move
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very much and then you're so weighed down and then how you can move is limiting. >> so very instructive about how women were confined physically and -- as a result. >> absolutely. >> in so many ways. >> that's one of the things the play is about, victoria, how, what that, how menacing that was for a woman like mary lincoln who was educated and smart. >> it makes me admire her all the more for working with what she had. how she did make herself look beautiful and knowing to put flowers in her hair. she just, she worked it. and i really have a great admiration for that now because i can see how what the challenges were. >> this play will be staged, is staged for a short period of time for the anniversary. what happens to it after this? it's a special project for a special ooempbt in time, but what might the future be?
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>> i wish i knew. i mean, as a writer, and a theatre, i always everything i write, i have to imagine how it will have a life beyond its first production and i have to say all of my plays have. i hope this one is no different. obviously, this is a very special production. of this play. but this play can be done and hopefully, will be done at other theatres who don't have this firsthand relationship with the event, but you know, it's a big country. and a lot of people have a lot of feeling about mary lincoln. i saw the heavens are turning black in springfield, illinois at the museum done by local actors. and i was so moved because i didn't know until i saw it in springfield how often the word, springfield, came up in that play and suddenly, i was sitting with all these townspeople in springfield watching a play that
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was really about springfield. when it was here, it was about washington, so i think that's just, it will find, hopefully, it's homes in different places to people. >> so ultimate lyly, for people who common experience the play, what do you want to leave them with? what is the ultimate message of this play for them? >> i'm, i will list sounding coy here but i've kind of given up on the idea that i can even wish that. what i do hope is that knowing that many many people have big opinions about mary lincoln that i hope the play will at least engage those opinions and if not change them for a couple of hours they might consider who mary lincoln was. might have been. and maybe look at her a little differently. >> and are there universal messages in the play? >> absolutely. >> what would those be?
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>> i think grief is a process. grief is both very private and very public. and there, no one can do it for you. that you have to go through that. and as mary said, mary lincoln did it on her own terms and that didn't please a lot of people. that she did it on her own terms and i think there's a message in this as well. that sometimes you have to do it. >> and a very big sense. she basically said country, i'm going to do this my own way. i don't care that the president needs to come into the white house. i guess really we'll close with the same question for you. you absorbed this character in learning how to portray her on stage. what do you want people to take away from your performance? >> i was going to say this earlier. what i think one thing about playing this role i have just imagined being a woman in this set of circumstances. and i think that in some ways i
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hope that people will see just i don't want to say an ordinary person, not that she was ordinary, but just like a person. going through these circumstances. that all women, you know, all women go through groef. women whose who lose their husbands, who's a main source of, was their world. how many women or men have to pick up and build their identity without someone who and i think for mary lincoln, her entire identity was based in lincoln. >> no pension after he died. >> right. and then you know that's victorian time like what was available to her to do? if she could have found something to do, i think she would have had a easier time, but women at, she talks a lot about being the widow, the quiet, charming widow and what your options are are. so, i'm hoping they'll take away
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a sense of the massageny of the time, which has a lot to do with how she was preperceived in that time. now, we don't, we have never questioned that a woman needs to grieve or how she's behaving. it makes complete sense and to me playing it it's always made complete sense. it's very rational to me how she behaves in this play and i'm hoping they'll take that away with them. >> there's a moment in the play where she says very sincerely, what's to become of me? that's a genuine question for mary lincoln in this moment and i think it's a universal question we all feel in those moments of intense loss and groef. what is to become of me? what am i going to do? where will i go? will i love? so, i feel like those are universal things. >> well, thanks to both of you. the play wright and the actor of mary lincoln portraying mary lincoln in the widow lincoln. thank you for your time. >> thank you, susan. you're watching american
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history tv. 48 hours of programming on american history every weekend on cspan 3. follow us on twitter at cspan history. for information on our schedule of upcoming programs and to keep up with the latest history news. this april marks the 150th anniversary of lincoln's assassination. up next, theatre historian thomas bogar revisits that night through official testimony of some of the actors and employees of the ford brothers. this event was hosted by the national archives and lasts about an hour. >> it's funny when you start out to work on a book about something so well known in american history, such a signal event, you have to really aim for who you think your readers are going to be. i started to find early that there's such a spectrum. on one end you have people who are real scholars of the lincoln
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assassination, who are familiar with the most arcane details. and then you have on the other end what was exemplified by my visit recently to a city that will remain nameless. when i was doing research on the book, i was having dinner in that city in a fine upscale restaurant. and the manager of the restaurant, a young woman in her 30s, came by and said -- asked me what brought me to the city. when i explained that i was doing research about the lincoln assassination she looked at me blankly for a minute and then said, "lincoln was assassinated?" so i have to aim somewhere in there. with the book, and today i'm going to try to aim more toward the former category than the latter. i found that as much as history is understood in a timeline or in specific people, it's really the context that explains the significance of it.


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