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Theater: Lincoln And Douglas Debate In 'The Rivalry'

Theater: Lincoln And Douglas Debate In 'The Rivalry'
In 1858, two extraordinary men shared a podium to debate issues like slavery, states rights, the Mexican War and banking. Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln debated for the senate seat and those lively conversations are dramatized in the play "The Rivarly," opening at Lambs Players

"The Rivalry" opens April 6th at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado and runs through May 23rd.

TOM FUDGE (Host): I’m Tom Fudge, and you’re listening to These Days in San Diego. Many historians believe the greatest political debates of American history took place at a time when there was no radio or TV to broadcast or record them. I'm talking about the debates between two U.S. Senate candidates in the middle 19th century: Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln-Douglas debates have become legendary for their fire, their wit and their logic. More than that, these debates focused on human slavery, a subject that was key to the American future and to the country's very soul. Playwright Norman Corwin wrote a play about the Lincoln-Douglas debates called "The Rivalry." It was first performed on Broadway in 1959. Now it's being revived in San Diego with a staging at Lamb's Players in Coronado. And joining me to talk about the play are the two lead actors in it. David Cochran Heath plays Abraham Lincoln in "The Rivalry." He's been a member of Lamb's resident ensemble, acting ensemble, for 29 years. And, David, good to see you.

DAVID COCHRAN HEATH (Actor): Good morning.

FUDGE: And Robert Smyth is playing Stephen Douglas in "The Rivalry." Robert, thank you very much for coming in.

ROBERT SMYTH (Actor): Good to be here, Tom.

FUDGE: Robert, you think that the issues Lincoln and Douglas discussed are very relevant today. Why don’t you talk about that a little bit.

SMYTH: Well, you know, this is 150 years ago so it’s fascinating to me to see how different things are from back then but how a lot of the issues that they were dealing with, issues of personal freedom and the right of communities to decide their own fate and the laws that they would have as opposed to federal power are still things that forment (sic) under the surface with our conversation today.

FUDGE: David, let’s look at these debates as debates. How were they different from, say, a modern political debate?

HEATH: Well, I don’t know. I think some of the modern political debates are certainly less erudite in their language styles. It’s an older style of speaking and takes a little bit of getting used to to listen to, although it’s just as harsh, shall we say? They really went at it tooth and nail.

FUDGE: Well, what were the main issues they discussed during these debates? You touched on that a little bit, Robert, when you talked about freedom versus the power of the federal government but go into that a little bit more. What did these debates really concern?

SMYTH: Well, Doug – A little background on that. Douglas was probably the most well recognized political figure in America at the time. People hardly knew Abe Lincoln, so this is what brought him to the stage. But Douglas had fought in the Senate for a long time to try and hold the country together. From – Since the time of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the whole issue of slavery was boiling under the surface. The Compromise of 1850 tried to resolve that, and Douglas’s Compromise of 1854, the Nebraska – Kansas-Nebraska Act tried to hold it together. But it was really coming apart. Douglas’s whole position was we need to compromise. We need to listen to both sides and we need to find a way to hold the Union together through compromise. And a moral issue, let’s not make slavery a moral issue.

FUDGE: Was it a moral issue to Abraham Lincoln?

HEATH: I believe it was.

FUDGE: And I ask this question because I know a little bit about the history of Abraham Lincoln and I know that his views on the subject of slavery evolved. But in these debates, what kind of argument was he making?

HEATH: Well, I think Abraham Lincoln started off, his upbringing, his home life, it all was from an anti-slavery position, and the kind of arguments that he was making were – He was in – He was of the same mind as Douglas in regards to holding the country together, and they just went about it different ways. Lincoln, I think, felt that this was an issue that couldn’t be kind of compromised. He thought that you cannot have a country together and have it divided, half slave and half free. Something’s got to change, and it’s got to go one way or the other.

FUDGE: To what extent did they talk about the issue of whether slavery would be extended to the new territories and the new states? Did that come up?

SMYTH: Yeah, that was a huge part of it because of the expansion. I mean, these guys are in Illinois, and Illinois, at this period of time, was the frontier. And Douglas was a strong believer in expansionism, Polk’s whole idea of manifest destiny, the idea that the United States would eventually extend all the way to the Pacific coast and fill all the property in between. And so the south was basically going if we aren’t allowed to take Texas and if we aren’t allowed to spread slavery, the north is just going to totally control us. So that’s what these compromises were, trying to set limits on how do you do that without leading to war.

FUDGE: Let’s catch listeners up on the history of these debates a little bit. Lincoln and Douglas were running for U.S. Senate from Illinois, right?


SMYTH: Correct.

FUDGE: That was the contest. And one of you mentioned the fact that Abraham Lincoln was virtually unknown, at least in a national context. What was he? Just a member of the state legislature in Illinois? What…

SMYTH: He had been but no longer was.

FUDGE: So he was just a lawyer…

SMYTH: Yeah.

FUDGE: …running for office.

SMYTH: Right. Correct.

FUDGE: Okay.

SMYTH: Who’d become early a part of the new Republican Party. The Republican Party was brand new. The Whig Party had kind of been the primary second to the Democrats, and then the Republican Party came alive out of the abolitionist movement and Lincoln was their top guy.

FUDGE: It’s ironic that back in that time, Douglas was the one that everybody knew about and nobody knew about Lincoln. Of course, today it’s exactly the opposite.

SMYTH: Exactly the opposite.

FUDGE: If you’re into history, maybe you know who Stephen Douglas was but otherwise you probably don’t. And how does that affect your acting? David, what’s it like to portray an iconic figure?

HEATH: With a lot of fear and trembling, obviously. And even though we don’t have recordings of his voice because it was prior to recordings, there are verbal descriptions of his voice and it really is not the same voice that I have, and I don’t look like him, so there’s a lot of ways where I’m going to have to work around that and use the audience’s imagination. But to play him…

SMYTH: Well, you look like him kind of. You’re tall and dark and, you know…

FUDGE: You’re taller than Robert.

HEATH: Yeah.

FUDGE: And, Robert, was that a consideration in casting? I mean, did you…

SMYTH: I think so, yeah.

FUDGE: You need to have somebody tall to play Lincoln…

SMYTH: Absolutely.

FUDGE: …right?

SMYTH: Absolutely. And David’s quite a bit taller than me, not as – They were a foot apart in height. But – And we’re not quite that but it – we wanted to be able to convey that.

FUDGE: You were talking about the fact, David, that your voice is different from Lincoln’s. He had a rather high-pitched voice, didn’t he?

HEATH: Yes. Yeah.

FUDGE: This is what we hear from historians.

HEATH: And from the public speaking standpoint, he was not in the same league as Douglas. Douglas was the kind of voice that everyone loved to sit and listen to, and Lincoln apparently was irritating enough in how he came across that even as president, he was not respected very much for his public speaking, kind of evidenced by what happened at Gettysburg. When he came to give the Gettysburg Address, the main speaker was somebody else who spoke for two hours and Lincoln was said, you know, keep it short. You’re just here to present.

FUDGE: Well, Robert, what about you playing Douglas. How much do we really know about Douglas and his speaking style and…

SMYTH: Well, we know a lot about Douglas…

FUDGE: Okay.

SMYTH: …as – In general, we don’t – The general populace doesn’t know Stephen Douglas, as you said, so for me that’s great. I don’t have to try and portray an icon so I have a little more freedom. But we know he was very energetic. He was called ‘the little giant’ because of his size and politics, but he was also called the ‘steam engine in britches.’ He was just a driven guy, constantly at work. And he was very animated when he spoke, very passionate when he spoke. So people came out in droves to hear him whenever he went to speak. And he was married to two really smart people. And the second wife—and this is an important thing—because Norman Corwin brilliantly puts Adele Douglas, his wife, in the play, so there are three of us. And Colleen Kollar Smith, who plays Adele is remarkable. But that also gives a woman’s perspective on this and softens the play. There’s a number of scenes between she and Lincoln and me and Lincoln – I mean, she and I.

FUDGE: I’m Tom Fudge, filling in for Maureen Cavanaugh. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m talking with the two lead actors in “The Rivalry,” a play which opens April 6th at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado. David Cochran Heath plays Abraham Lincoln in “The Rivalry,” and Robert Smyth plays his debating nemesis, Stephen Douglas in the play “The Rivalry.” Robert, draw us a little picture of what these debates looked like. What was the atmosphere? Were there a lot of people who came out to hear them?

SMYTH: Yeah, it was remarkable, beyond what any of their expectation was. They had debated each other before and they wanted to go around – the original idea was to go to the nine regional areas of Illinois. And since they had debated each other in Chicago and in Springfield, they decided to limit it to seven. So they went all across the state to seven seats. And they had, usually, fifteen to twenty thousand people come out to see them, which at the time was remarkable. I mean, in some of these cities, they had 5,000 people who lived there but people would come in from out in the countryside and come in on trains and it became a huge, festive thing.

FUDGE: And these debates, David, we were talking about the difference between debates back then and debates today, debates back then were long.


FUDGE: They went on for a long time, right?

HEATH: Yeah.

FUDGE: And maybe the people who came to see them expected that because if you, you know, go to all the trouble of coming from many miles away in a carriage, you want some entertainment.

HEATH: Yeah, well, it was a combination of the political fire and entertainment.

FUDGE: And… Sorry. I’ve kind of lost my train of thought.

SMYTH: One of the things that I love in the debate, though, in how long it is, is that whole idea that today we need things in short little bites and that – so everything gets reduced. The thing back then is people would speak for three hours and really elaborate on the real issues so they – everybody knew exactly what these guys were – stood for. There was no waffling or couching it.

FUDGE: Well, I just remembered what I was going to ask you, Robert. Talk a little bit about the structure of the play. I have never seen “The Rivalry,” and if I imagine a play about these long debates between Lincoln and Douglas, I would imagine there being a long monologue by one and then another long…

SMYTH: Right, yeah.

FUDGE: …monologue by another. But how did the playwright structure this?

SMYTH: Yeah, he – it’s really very electrifying. It sounds like it could be very boring; it isn’t, at all. What he does is, he goes through all the debates and trims out the really salient points and positions it in such a way that there are shorter monologues but they’re not long, rambling things. They’re – that give the position a part and then really butts them up on where the drama is. So they would interrupt each other, too, and come at each other. And suddenly question each other or try and trap each other with ideas and thoughts. And it’s really riveting to watch. And then you add the other element of the wife in there, and there’s a lot of different dynamic.

FUDGE: Are there scenes where we see private conversations between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas?

HEATH: Not too much. I think the private conversations are more between Douglas and his wife and between Lincoln, when he bumps into Mrs. Douglas, which shed a lot of light on the relationship between Douglas and Lincoln through the wife.

FUDGE: Anything to add to that, Robert?

SMYTH: Well, they do have a scene at the end when Lincoln has become president. Because two years after the debates, for the Senate, Lincoln and Douglas were opposing each other for the presidency, and really the only reason – everybody, up until that time, thought Stephen Douglas would someday become the President of the United States and because of the slavery issue, the Democratic Party split in two and so you had Breckenridge running from the south and Douglas from the north, and Lincoln won the election.

FUDGE: Did Lincoln and Douglas eventually become friends?


SMYTH: Yeah.

FUDGE: Abraham Lincoln was an amazing man in many ways and I know that he had the ability to embrace his rivals. In fact, Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote the wonderful book that may even have that name, I think, “A Cabinet of Rivals” (sic). And so they became friends?


SMYTH: He – I think they – They knew each other almost longer than they knew anybody else in their lives because they both popped into Illinois right around the same period of time, in the 1830s, and they were rivals with each other all through that until Lincoln became president. And I think just – they had learned to really respect each other as men. And because they both cared about the Union, after Lincoln becomes president, he asks Douglas to go back to Illinois and save Illinois from secession. People – That seems almost ridiculous to think of but there was a huge secessionist movement in Illinois.

FUDGE: Let’s take a call. We have Laura calling in from Carmel Valley. Laura, go ahead.

LAURA (Caller, Carmel Valley): Hi. I was wondering if you could discuss how appropriate this play might be for middle school and high school age students who might be studying American history and how engaging the material might be for that age group.

HEATH: I think it’s terrific. It’s amazing how quickly we forget our history. It’s theatrically engaging and it really gives you a picture of what was going on in American history at this time. But it’s also real engaging. So I think younger kids if they’ve been prepped on some of what this is going to be about, it’s fabulous for them.

FUDGE: Robert, we know what happened to Abraham Lincoln. What happened to Stephen Douglas? Was he eventually elected to Senate? Did he have a political career?

SMYTH: Well, he actually was the incumbent during the debates.

FUDGE: Ah, I see.

SMYTH: He was in the Senate.

FUDGE: I see. He was, wasn’t he?

SMYTH: And he won – he won the election after the debates. He got reelected to the Senate. Lincoln didn’t win. Lincoln thought it was over for him. He went back and then became the presidential candidate in ’60. But Douglas, talking about friendship again, Douglas, at the inauguration, Douglas held Lincoln’s hat in his first inauguration.

FUDGE: He held his hat.

SMYTH: And then he went back and tried to keep Illinois in the Union and he so depleted himself he wound up with typhoid fever and he died just one month after Lincoln was inaugurated.

FUDGE: The playwright, Norman Corwin, does he render some kind of an opinion through this play about who won the debates? Who was the victor?

HEATH: Oh, I think he crafts it in such a way that the audience will obviously resonate more with Lincoln and gives the impression that Lincoln trounced Douglas but I don’t think that that’s necessarily the way it was taken back then.

SMYTH: Yeah, I think, you know, Lincoln is such an iconic hero for us, and you really do – Corwin finds that kind of moral clarity and that amazing language that Lincoln understood, and at the same time, you know, what – what Douglas was trying to do with compromise also sounds to us racist today.

FUDGE: Can you imagine, Robert, any modern political debates that should be made into plays?

SMYTH: Oh, I don’t know. Maybe the Tea Party thing someday will make a play.

FUDGE: Maybe Kennedy – Kennedy-Nixon.

SMYTH: Kennedy-Nixon, and that’s true because Kennedy, remember when he debated Nixon, wasn’t as well known by a long shot, and that debate really, as a lot of people believe, pushed him over the top. Well, Lincoln was suddenly a national figure after these debates.

FUDGE: Well, the play called “The Rivalry,” which is written by Norman Corwin, will go onstage at Lamb’s Players in Coronado on April 6th, and you’ve just heard from the people who are playing the main characters in that play, Abraham Lincoln – the characters are Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. David Cochran Heath plays Abraham Lincoln in “The Rivalry.” David, thank you very much.

HEATH: Thank you.

FUDGE: And Robert Smyth is playing Stephen Douglas in “The Rivalry.” And, Robert, thank you very much for coming in.

SMYTH: Thank you, Tom. Good to be here.

FUDGE: And I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to These Days. Coming up next on These Days we’ll hear from poet Rae Armentrout, then it’s the Weekend Preview. So stay with us, we’ll be right back.