A Life Apart
Perhaps it is the noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer who reminds us the Lincoln marriage was one lived largely apart.
During the early years, Abraham Lincoln, a busy Springfield lawyer, rode the circuit, gone for weeks at a time, Â with judges and other counsel.
They would huddle around a campfire or sleep two or three to a bed and the following morning arise to argue cases in towns too small to have courts of their own.
Lincoln would be paid a buck or two if he won and nothing if he didn’t.
Mary soldiered on at home, raising a family, often alone, while being the wife of a busy and ambitious politician.
Todd was a southerner born and bred, a fact that would haunt her later.
She was also educated, refined and smart.
Some historians suggest that Mary Todd readily exhibited the symptoms and behavior of bipolar disorder.
She had a legendary and explosive temper, alienating many who came in contact with her.
It’s an understatement to say she is not a sympathetic character.
The play is set in an upstairs room at the White House in the aftermath of the assassination.
In place of furniture we see stacks and stacks of steamer trunks which move, even breathe, as they remind us of a life in transition.
Mrs. Lincoln relives the excruciating shooting, a doubly clever touch as we are seated at the scene itself, though at the penultimate moment we are transported to the wingsÂ at Ford’s.
Mary Todd is joined on stage by a variety of muses who help to tell the story both of the days and weeks after April 14th as well as her earlier White House life with the president.
One of those muses is the actress Laura Keene who was onstage that night and somehow managed to make her way, in a very crowded theater, to the dying president where she cradled his head in her lap, no small feat.
James Swanson in his book Manhunt conveys the decided impression that Laura saw her moment and was working it.
We are reminded that President Lincoln’s lifeless body was taken to the Prince of Wales room on the second floor, the same room where son Willie died.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that a bejeweled Queen Victoria should emerge from a large trunk to take tea and counsel the grieving former first lady on the finer points of the stiff upper lip and getting on with it.
Of course, Victoria never did get on with it, choosing to grieve for decades after the loss of her Albert.
Still, in the cameo, the queen is droll and provides a moment of much needed, though odd, comic relief.
The real problem with creating a sympathetic much less appealing portrait of Mary Todd is she will almost always suffer by comparison to her husband the slain martyr.
Noted White House historian William Seale shares his view of the burden she bore:
“[President] Lincoln made matters much worse by not supporting her in the role she longed to play, that of the great lady. Â By turning elsewhere for advice about procedures, he made it clear that be believed others knew better than she. Â This cut was the more bitter because she knew that she was being made fun of behind her back, and she wanted to show what she could do.”
I’d be mad, too.
At Ford’s Theater through February 22.