By John Rice
Abe Lincoln is hot! Brave souls packed Centuries & Sleuths bookstore during an ice storm to attend the debut of Kevin Bry's one-man show about Lincoln and his favorite author, William Shakespeare.
Bry told the rapt audience that Lincoln developed his love for Shakespeare while growing up in New Salem. Abe used to pace up and down, memorizing speeches from Hamlet and Julius Caesar. Lincoln's life was also the stuff of Shakespearian tragedy.
"He rose to power from humble beginnings and died a violent death at his time of triumph," Bry observed.
It's more than ironic that a Shakespearean actor murdered Lincoln in a theater. The Booth acting dynasty was founded by Junius Brutus Booth, the leading man of his day. His sons Edwin and John went on to acclaimed careers. Junius settled the family in Maryland, a state fiercely divided over the issue of slavery.
John Wilkes Booth, who was profiled in a book, titled American Brutus, was "insane" on the subject of secession. Like the Roman who organized the conspiracy to kill Caesar, Booth feared Lincoln would become king. Both assassinations had unintended consequences. Italy descended into civil war while, absent Lincoln's compassion, the South was ravaged by Reconstruction.
Lincoln, who loved the theater, had admired JWB on stage. The president's favorite plays were MacBeth, Hamlet and Richard III. He read them over and over again and could regale friends and family with speeches. Some told Lincoln he had missed his calling as an actor.
Abe, though, was painfully aware that he lacked leading-man looks. He often made fun of his ugliness, not unlike Richard III commenting on his hunchback. If acting wasn't in the cards, Bry believes Lincoln could have been a celebrated poet. He recited a poignant poem Lincoln penned called "My Childhood Home."
Lincoln's poetry, though, paled next to his prose. Bry noted that Lincoln's "image-laden" speeches were revolutionary and a great asset to the English language. Several of his stirring addresses echoed speeches from Shakespeare. Tragedy struck a deep chord in Lincoln, who had suffered so many losses.
His mother and sister died when he was young and he became estranged from his father. His first love perished, causing concern that Lincoln would take his own life. Suicide was a theme thoroughly explored by Shakespeare. Bry interspersed his account of Lincoln's life with speeches: Hamlet's soliloquy and Marc Antony's lament over the fallen Caesar.
He ended the show by remarking, "The muses are glad we gathered to hear the words of two great men."
Bry's seamless performance brought us "sustenance during our winter of discontent." He revealed a new dimension of a man who has already inspired some 14,000 books. Bry is performing his show, "A Confluence of Muses," in Springfield this weekend as part of a Chicago Bar Association show commemorating you-know-who's birthday.