Whoa, you guys! Have you seen Abe Lincoln lately? He is looking really good for someone who’s been dead for almost 150 years, and man, is he everywhere. [Insert stupid Tupac joke here.] I mean, he’s fighting vampires, he’s dressing up as Daniel Day Lewis (that is what’s happening, right?), he’s even singing Christmas carols at New York Theater Workshop.
In Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas, you can see President Lincoln cracking jokes about his wife and gleefully doing jazz hands when Sherman announces he’s captured Savannah. You can also see John Wilkes Boothe and his co-conspirators acting like Boris and Natasha and Mary Todd Lincoln decorating a tree like a manic five year old. A few other stories get woven into the fabric of the play, like that of Lt. Decatur Bronson’s search for his wife and former slave Hannah and her daughter’s walk to the North. Nobody dies, and everybody learns a Christmas lesson. It’s sweet, sure, and it’s definitely in earnest. Each conflict, even seemingly intractable divisions between races and classes that still exist in modern society, is smoothed over by a simply application of Christmas love. Even John Wilkes Booth, the man who would go on to kill Lincoln a year later, gets defeated by the charming comedic relief. At the end of the play, all of the actors stand in a line across the stage and ask us to hear their Christmas wish for peace.
It’s just…nice. It’s a very nice play about very nice people and one bad one (Booth) who sweep all of the SERIOUS POLITICAL AND ETHICAL ISSUES they’re dealing with under a blanket of song and show us that goodness is in all our hearts. Because all that other stuff about the bedrock of racism and the ethics of war is just not fit for Christmas, okay? A play set during America’s bloodiest conflict should just ignore the forest for the trees, i.e., forget history and focus on historical people, or, wouldn’t it be cool to hear Abraham Lincoln complain about his wife and sing “O Christmas Tree?”
It’s just a pageant dressed up in period clothes. It’s nothing more and nothing less than The Christmas Carol. It might be condescending but it’s not offensive. It might be saccharine, but it means well. So why did I hate it so much?
I get that we’re not trying to make our art into textbooks. One of my favorite moments from A Civil War Christmas was the bright musical theatre dance performed by Sherman and Lincoln when Savannah was captured. It was a brilliant abstraction of that feeling of triumph in a style that was accessible, and yeah, funny. It worked because it was contemporary but also because it actually had something to do with the history itself.
My second favorite moment in the show was when one of the actors (specifically, Mr. Trick from Buffy) addressed the sixteenth president as “Mr. Clinton.” And wouldn’t that be great if Lincoln just pulled off his beard and was secretly Bill Clinton? Come see such a reveal in my new play, a one woman show starring Kirin McCrory, called “The Next Big Lincoln Thing!”
It’s easier to drop in a historic backdrop than to write a good story, apparently. History comes with a set of contradictions, ideas, and assumptions, so you don’t have to write those in, because people will already know them. You don’t have to investigate a character’s motivations or complexities, because it’s all there in the setting. Our great men are great men, and their motivations are unquestionable.
You know me. You know I love Hark! A Vagrant! and this video about George Washington. It’s not like I think history is the sacred and untouchable thing that must be respected at all costs. But suddenly, it’s cool to care about American history. Suddenly, it’s cool to set things in the nineteenth century. Well, fine. Pop culture loves history now, even though nobody wants to listen to me talk about James Garfield and Charles Guiteau. FINE.
But history is more than the making of idols. History is about real, fallible people, people who did very serious and wonderful things, as well as things hilarious and awful. We should be able to look at history to find connections to our lives today, but we should be able to do it without pretending that tossing another century into the mix makes our thoughts more profound or interesting.
You know what? Just go watch Louie CK’s Lincoln sketch. That’s the best argument I can make.