By Ryan Prendergast, Arden Professional Apprentice
In the second act of The Whipping Man as Caleb and John prepare for their Passover seder, the elder slave Simon (Johnnie Hobbs, Jr.) announces that Abraham Lincoln is dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. He recalls the experience of meeting Lincoln only a few days before on the streets Richmond after the Union army occupied the city on April 4: “I walked out to him. And I stopped right in front of him. And he stopped. And we looked at each other… I bowed… Only thing I could think to do… [and] he bowed back… Only thing he could think to do I guess.”
Hearing these words in the play took me back to a sunny September morning when I stood on the sidewalk outside Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. It was the culmination of whole summer’s Lincoln pilgrimage. My mother is a huge fan of the Doris Kearns Goodwin bestseller Team of Rivals and that summer my family did it all: the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, the solemn Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Standing in the burial room with Lincoln’s body just below our feet was a surreal experience, only equaled by a visit to the colossus Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Ford’s Theatre was now the only stop left.
Ford’s Theatre is still an active venue, restored to its 19th century splendor. (The Lincoln box forever remains unoccupied out of respect.) The theatre was closed for rehearsals the day of my visit but the basement museum beckoned. Here the displays meticulously recreate Lincoln’s activities that day and offer an impressive array of artifacts, from the suit he wore to Ford’s Theater that fateful evening (his famous top hat rests a few blocks away at the Smithsonian) to the Derringer pistol used by John Wilkes Booth, and most ominously, a pillow stained with Lincoln’s blood.
Every single piece was important and significant, but something seemed to be missing. Here were the real things he wore and touched, but Lincoln still seemed a phantom of the past, close but somehow just beyond reach. Where was the conduit for this Lincoln of the past for us today? Hearing Johnnie Hobbs was the final spark. I saw Lincoln in his famous stovepipe hat bow to Simon on the charred streets of Richmond. He was real for me because he was real for Simon. None of the faded burial curtains or plaster masks seemed significant until that moment.
It’s really easy for a “history play” to become a “history lecture.” It’s a rarity when a figure from history steps out from the dusty pages and becomes something tangible, worthy of the apostrophe: “Father Abraham… there’s your Moses…”