If I could somehow meet Abraham Lincoln face-to-face, I wouldn't have the nerve to ask him if he was gay.
For one thing, the Great Emancipator would misunderstand the contemporary connotation of the word "gay." He'd probably respond that presiding over the United States during the devastating Civil War was a major bummer, but sure, he enjoyed moments of merriment.
I'd have to be more specific, and mention how such scholars as C.A. Tripp speculate that young Lincoln was a roommate, bedmate, and possibly more than friends with Joshua Speed and other contemporaries. Even if he was candid about it — and I'd expect no less from Honest Abe — I can't imagine looking at that craggy, Uncle Sam face and quizzing America's greatest president about his sex life. I'd probably stammer out a question about whether he was enjoying Our American Cousin before John Wilkes Booth cut the show short.
In the absence of such awkward posthumous interviews, the impulse to know more about history's major figures endures. The disciplines of history, biography, and much of narrative drama seek to reveal what makes great people tick. Historically informed art and entertainment give present-day people the chance to raise personal questions and consider possible answers. Would Angels in America author Tony Kushner, who scripted Steven Spielberg's new Lincoln film, explore his private life as a kind of Brokeback Abraham?
At best, biopics and historical dramas can seize the popular imagination and improve the odds for winning acting awards, with Oscar honorees ranging from Charles Laughton's Henry VIII to Ben Kingsley's Gandhi to Meryl Streep's Margaret Thatcher. Bad historical re-creations can explode in the artist's face, however. There's nothing more predictable than a one-man theatrical show that follows a famous person from cradle to grave, and nothing less convincing than bad make-up or accents in an ill-conceived biopic. Last year's J. Edgar offers a recent warning.
This week, True Colors Theatre Company's Martin Luther King Jr. play The Mountaintop opens in Atlanta simultaneously with the nationwide release of Spielberg's Lincoln. The film and play illustrate the challenges faced by artistic attempts to compress the life of a single person, particularly a shaper of history, into a couple of hours.
Should a dramatist attempt a greatest-hits kind of career-spanning story, or focus more narrowly on an incident or period that illuminates a personality? Accounts of historical role models like the Founding Fathers or human rights martyrs raise the stakes even further. Can you celebrate mighty deeds without creating a plaster saint, or acknowledge personal foibles without resorting to gossip and guesswork? The Mountaintop and Lincoln suggest that larger-than-life portrayals may not be as effective as the ones that are actual size.
Since August of 2011, a 30-foot likeness of Martin Luther King Jr. has towered over passers-by on the Washington, D.C., National Mall. As an indomitable force and resounding voice in the Civil Rights Movement, King unquestionably deserves such a monument, even though it seems like an incomplete portrait. Rendered in white granite, King maintains a stern expression and folded arms, as if the embodiment of the song lyric "We shall not be moved." The statue almost resembles one of the colossal effigies of Egyptian pharaohs, which seems ironic given King's command of Old Testament scripture and moral authority.
The King memorial also provides an example of the pitfalls of editing history. The "Stone of Hope" that provides the statue's base quotes King as saying, "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." In fact, that's a much-criticized paraphrase from King's sermon "The Drum Major Instinct," delivered in Atlanta in 1968: "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter." The paraphrase sounds more like something King would declare at a job interview.
In September of 2011, one month after the opening of the memorial, Katori Hall's play The Mountaintop made its Broadway premiere, and provided a conveniently timed counterbalance. Instead of a granite giant, The Mountaintop portrays King as a weary, flesh-and-blood human with his defenses down. Hall draws on the viewers' knowledge of history to offer an audience with King on the eve of his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Over about 90 minutes of real time in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, King talks to — and flirts with — a young African-American maid named Camae shortly after delivering a speech that seemed to presage his own death: "I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."