When Nigel Playfair, in conjunction with myself as a sort of Chancellor of the Exchequer, started the Hammersmith Playhouse (for the presentation of the best plays that could be got) we at once began to inquire into the case of Abraham Lincoln. Nigel Playfair was absolutely determined to have the play and the Birmingham company to act it. I read the play and greatly admired it. We secured both the play and the company. The first Hammersmith performance was a tremendous success, both for the author of the play and for William J. Rea, the Irish actor who in the role of Lincoln was merely great. The audience cried.
I should have cried myself, but for my iron resolve not to stain a well-earned reputation for callousness. As I returned home that night from what are known as “the wilds of Hammersmith” (Hammersmith is a suburb of London) I said to myself: “This play is bound to succeed” The next moment I said to myself: “This play cannot possibly succeed. It has no love interest. It is a political play. Its theme is the threatened separation of the Southern States from the Northern States. Nobody ever heard of a play with such an absurd theme reaching permanent success. No author before John Drinkwater ever had the effrontery to impose such a theme on a London public.”
My instinct was right and my reason was wrong. The play did succeed. It is still succeeding, and it will continue to succeed. Nobody can dine out in London to-day and admit without a blush that he has not seen Abraham Lincoln. Monarchs and princes have seen it. Archbishops have seen it. Statesmen without number have seen it. An ex-Lord Chancellor told me that he had journeyed out into the said wilds and was informed at the theatre that there were no seats left. He could not believe that he would have to return from the wilds unsatisfied. But so it fell out. West End managers have tried to coax the play from Hammersmith to the West End. They could not do it. We have contrived to make all London come to Hammersmith to see a play without a love-interest or a bedroom scene, and the play will remain at Hammersmith. Americans will more clearly realize what John Drinkwater has achieved with the London public if they imagine somebody putting on a play about the Crimean War at some unknown derelict theatre round about Two Hundred and Fiftieth Street, and drawing all New York to Two Hundred and Fiftieth Street.
Abraham Lincoln has pleased everybody, and its triumph is the best justification of those few who held that the public was capable of liking much better plays than were offered to the public. Why has Abraham Lincoln succeeded? Here are a few answers to the question: Because the author had a deep, practical knowledge of the stage. Because he disdained all stage tricks. Because he had the wit to select for his hero one of the world’s greatest and finest characters. Because he had the audacity to select a gigantic theme and to handle it with simplicity. Because he had the courage of all his artistic and moral convictions. And of course because he has a genuine dramatic gift. Finally, because William J. Rea plays Lincoln with the utmost nobility of emotional power.