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backward glances
PRESIDENTIAL THEATRE
by Louis Botto

November being election time brings to mind a number of plays and musicals that have dealt with U.S. presidents.

In 1938, there were two plays about Abraham Lincoln. Prologue to Glory, by Professor E.P. Conkle of the University of Iowa, dealt with Lincoln at age 22. It was produced by the WPA Federal Theatre and was named one of the season's ten best plays by Burns Mantle. Abe Lincoln in Illinois, by Robert E. Sherwood, was the most successful of the Lincoln plays and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It presented a more mature Lincoln, brilliantly portrayed by Raymond Massey. This role became his signature interpretation. It was the first production of a new enterprise called the Playwright's Company, and it was an enormous success. Mr. Massey also played the role in the 1940 film version.

The two Roosevelts--Teddy and Franklin D.--have also been depicted successfully on Broadway. Those fortunate enough to have seen Arsenic and Old Lace in 1941 would have seen the hilarious performance of John Alexander as a loony who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt. Audiences were convulsed at his antics as he bolted up a stairway, thinking it was San Juan Hill, and yelled, "CHARGE!" Franklin D. had a more successful career on Broadway. In 1937 George M. Cohan scored a triumph as FDR in the musical I'd Rather Be Right by Kaufman and Hart and Rodgers and Hart. It was the first time that a living president was depicted on Broadway while he was still in the White House. The fantasy placed the President in Central Park, giving his famed fireside chats and dispensing advice to a depression-obsessed young couple in love.

Even more successful was Dore Schary's 1958 Sunrise at Campobello, with Ralph Bellamy giving a Tony Award-winning performance as the President in a wheelchair. The play also won a Tony as the best play of the season.

Our 29th president, Warren G. Harding, was the subject of two plays that never used his name. Both dealt with the scandals surrounding his administration. The first was Revelry, a 1927 play by Maurine Watkins (who wrote the 1926 Chicago, which inspired the current musical hit). With actor Berton Churchill made up to resemble Harding, there was no doubt who the play was about. Harding and his scandalous life were again depicted in The Gang's All Here (1959), by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, with Melvyn Douglas playing the president. The play received good reviews but was a financial failure.

Finally, President Herbert Hoover and his wife were hilariously lampooned in As Thousands Cheer, the brilliant topical revue by Moss Hart and Irving Berlin (1933). In a sketch called "Franklin D. Roosevelt Inaugurated Tomorrow," Mr. and Mrs. Hoover were depicted on their last day in the White House, stealing silverware, paintings and everything else in sight. Does this sound reminiscent of a recent president and his first lady?

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