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Monday, October 08, 2012

The Rivalry

WHEN NORMAN CORWIN'S play “The Rivalry” opened on Broadway in 1959, Dwight Eisenhower was in the final months of a long presidency that had seen him twice trounce the liberal Adlai Stevenson but nevertheless pursue an aggressive agenda of civil rights legislation, beginning with desegregation of the armed forces.

Kurt Rhoads, Stephen Paul Johnson,
and Susannah Jones
The 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. The Board of Education mandated school desegregation, prompting hotheaded Arkansas governor Orval Faubus to call in the National Guard in 1957 to keep integration out of the Little Rock schools. Although Eisenhower eventually pulled a clever end-run around Faubus, putting the National Guard under Federal control, he waited long enough to incur the public wrath of the normally quiet Louis Armstrong.

Such was the climate a century after Abraham Lincoln publicly debated Stephen A. Douglas in a bid to unseat Douglas from his Senate seat, a debate carried by the national press and followed and analyzed as no similar match-up ever had been before.

At its core was the issue of slavery in the country’s new territories, an issue exacerbated by the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, when the U.S. Supreme Court nullified the “once free, always free” precedent that had been in effect for nearly 30 years. From the debate platform, Lincoln expressed his antipathy towards the decision, prompting the following exchange (in Corwin’s edited version):
DOUGLAS: When the Declaration of Independence was put forth, every one of the thirteen colonies was slave-holding, and every man who signed the instrument, represented a slave-holding constituency! Not one of them freed his slaves, much less put them on an equality with himself, after he signed the Declaration. Now, Mr. Lincoln instructs us that the Declaration means the Negro to be the equal of the white man. Are you willing to have it said that every man who signed that instrument believing the Negro to be his equal, was a hypocrite? Are you charging the signers of our Declaration with hypocrisy?
LINCOLN: You’ve got it all wrong, Judge. I would remind you of Thomas Jefferson's words on the subject of slavery. He said, "I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just." I will offer the highest premium in my power to Judge Douglas if he will show that in all his life he ever uttered a sentiment at all akin to that.
DOUGLAS: If God ever intended the Negro to be the equal of the white man, He has been a long time in demonstrating that fact.
What the more enlightened among us see as unmitigated racism is justified by Douglas on the grounds of precedent. Furthermore, he argues, it’s not the job of the Federal government to change it. Change should be a matter of state-based initiatives.

Lincoln, meanwhile, argues the moral issue of enslaving another human being. His attitude also is touched with racism – he can’t quite bring himself to regard the Negro (such is the term to which Corwin necessarily changed what was uttered in the original debates) as an equal, but, says he, “We can leave one another alone and do one another much good thereby.”

Although the opponents treated one another with respect off the platform, the debates often grew heated. Corwin’s version – written during the centenary of the events thus portrayed – accentuates this contrast, using the character of Douglas’s wife, Adele, to further explore the characters of the two men through her interactions with them.

A half-century later, the play has lost little of its relevance. Although it would have seemed fantastic to both of the rivals to see a black man in our country’s highest office, we nevertheless live in a political climate in which the current Presidential campaign (as was the last) includes language from Obama’s opponents designed to incite deep-seated white-cracker fears. Differently colored, possibly foreign-born, possibly secretly Muslim, and black, black, black – that’s the line to which the talk-show bloviators hew.

The Romney campaign exploits it with more subtlety, of course, although the Republican candidate’s recent suggestion that Obama should “take (his) campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago” is typical of the skillful use of long-standing stereotyping.

All of which combines to make this play as topical as it’s ever been, aided as well by the witless spectacle that now passes for debate. I had the challenge and pleasure of working as sound designer on the production of “The Rivalry” now running at Stageworks/Hudson, and each of the many times I watched it develop, I gleaned something new from the tight, efficient script.

It’s a talky play, to be sure, but it doesn’t hold a peach to what people sat through a century and a half ago. The arguments are persuasive, although they resonate (as Corwin no doubt knew they would) with the perspective of passed time. We can enjoy the character of Douglas, played with many shades by Stephen Paul Johnson, but we can’t help but abjure his reasoning.

But even that is softened by the way in which his wife is deployed, as an after-the-fact narrator whose wistful melancholy reminds us of the havoc history wreaks with one’s perspective. Although Susannah Jones plays her as a woman of the 19th century with as strong a will as was possible back then, she also conveys a sense of reaching into our time, as a long-lived relative might.

To portray someone as iconic as Lincoln is sets up a formidable expectation. The title role of Robert Sherwood’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” was played on stage and screen by Raymond Massey, whose close identification with the role caused George S. Kaufman to grumble that Massey “won’t be happy until someone assassinates him.”

Offstage, actor Kurt Rhoads displays no Massey-like affectation, which may be the secret to his compelling performance as the President-to-be. Lincoln’s courage and moral drive are leavened by such likeability that, by the end of the play, I was convinced that if Lincoln himself didn’t come across this way, then Abe should ask Kurt for some pointers.

It’s a piece that builds slowly, sports little in the way of high emotion, and packs a wallop as it eases into its inevitable end. I provided band music, crowd noises (there are a dozen of my different voices murmuring in there), cannon fire, and some other-worldy tunes to underscore Adele’s timeless world. But even though I knew what was coming on opening night, I still got all misty.

And “The Rivalry”has only served to ramp up my annoyance with the political side-show that surrounds us now. I may well write in “Lincoln” come November.

Performances continue through Oct. 21. See the Stageworks website for more information.

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