nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 17, 2009
Norman Corwin's play The Rivalry premiered on Broadway in 1958, the year of the hundredth anniversary of its subject, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Irish Repertory Theatre is reviving it 50 years later, with results that I wasn't really expecting. The Rivalry turns out to be not much of a play, and not particularly instructive history—notwithstanding the importance and inherent drama of its topic.
The play consists mostly of excerpts from the debates, though not always in their proper historical sequence. Act One seems to be out to prove that Lincoln, opposed to the extension of slavery into new territories and also morally opposed to the institution of slavery itself, is "right." (Perhaps just four years after Brown v. Board of Education and six years before the U.S. passed its first significant civil rights legislation since the Civil War, such positioning was more necessary than it seems to be today.) And Act Two is all about the rehabilitation of Stephen Douglas—that in spite of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and other catastrophic legislation that he conceived and supported, he was an American patriot of the first order, undeserving of the disdain and relative obscurity that have become his legacy.
Trouble is, Corwin never really delves deeply into the characters of either Lincoln or Douglas to teach us anything new about them. His narrator is Adele Douglas, Stephen's wife, and because she's the only one in the play who ever reveals herself as a human being to the audience, she's the one we get to know and empathize with. Corwin has written a couple of scenes where Adele is alone with Lincoln, and they're charmers, the highlights of the play, with enigmatic Honest Abe humanized a bit for us. Scenes between Adele and Stephen, on the other hand, fall flat: Corwin resorts to cliches here, perhaps because he believes (correctly) that most of us don't know much about Douglas. The opportunity to teach us something is thus strangely and inadvertently squandered.
The speechifying in the many debate scenes rises and falls on the actors, and I'm afraid at the performance reviewed that Christian Kauffmann, who in many ways conjures Lincoln eerily well, didn't seem fully comfortable with his material yet. Peter Cormican's Douglas feels too contemporary, smiling and waving at the crowd in a manner that's more reminiscent of George W. Bush rather than a 19th century ethos.
Mary Linda Rapelye is appealing as Adele, though her role is quite naturally overshadowed by the two Great Men of the play. Doug Stender has a puzzling assignment, as a Republican Committeeman and a Reporter, in each guise just sort of popping onto the stage out of nowhere, without context, to deliver a brief monologue to rally the troops or pass on a bit of exposition. These speeches seem built solely to cover scene and costume changes; since Eugene D. Warner's generic campaign platform set and Rosi Zingales's period costumes remain intact from start to finish, Stender's role doesn't seem to have much of a purpose.
Current research suggests that Lincoln held racist beliefs in line with most Americans of his time, thinking blacks inherently inferior to whites; Corwin doesn't go there at all, which is kind of a shame.
In the end, The Rivalry is interesting mostly for what it reminds us about American politics and history of 150 years ago. Discourse, even among these remarkable orators, wasn't necessarily more fact-based or objective than we might like to believe, which is definitely worth noting. And the great issue of that day—whether, as Lincoln so memorably put it, the nation could continue to exist half-slave and half-free—remains vital as an underpinning to our contemporary situation.