Abraham Lincoln: A Play/Judith: A Play in Three Acts, Founded on the Apocryphal Book of Judith

THE ATLANTIC’S BOOKSHELF

By JOHN DRINKWATER, with an Introduction by Arnold Bennett. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1919. 12mo, xii+122 pp. $1.25.
By ARNOLD BENNETT. New York: George H. Doran Company. 1919. 12mo, 96 pp. $1.00.
A CURSORY reader, glancing at the titles of these plays and their authors, might be excused for thinking that the printer had ‘mixed these children up.’ Certainly the dramatization of Biblical Apocrypha is a new field for Arnold Bennett, and John Drinkwater’s lyrical genius is bent to unexpected uses in a realistic interpretation of Lincoln. Yet poet and novelist are still true to type. The studiously dry, colloquial prose of the Lincoln is illumined with an inner light of hero-worship, and the cynic spice of the five towns flavors the Hebraic cadences of the Judith. Both plays reflect, in their background of war, the war their authors know. Holofernes’s host stirs Bethulians to declare that this is the last war, ‘because plainly war cannot continue on such a scale.’ And a lady-pacifist in one of the less successful scenes of the Lincoln travesties the modern pacifist position. But neither was written to point a moral for Germany and the Allies. The Lincoln is the greater, the more moving. Those half-dozen scenes of curiously undramatic dialogue loosely strung together with lyric interludes, hold the reader from first to last; and Mr. Bennett in his preface to his friend’s play — no cynicism here, but a delighted admiration — tells us that audiences sit as if bespelled. night after night, in England.
Will an American audience feel this spell? Here is an interpretation by an English poet, who draws his material from yet another Englishman’s sympathetic but delicately balanced study of a great American. Is this our Lincoln? Have John Drinkwater and Lord Charnwood understood?
In all the deeper essentials, yes. Especially in the Cabinet scenes and the scenes with Seward, Grant, the soldier-boy Scott, do we recognize the beloved figure. This is the deeply wise, incurably selfless statesman and lover of men whom we know. But the play is lacking a little in the salt of Lincoln’s shrewd wit; it would not be the worse for a few of the inimitable anecdotes. The reading from Artemus Ward, at the cabinet meeting, does not supply this lack. Certain details, also, will break the spell, for Americans. The colored man would be a more convincing spokesman of his race if he did not speak a pidgin dialect never encountered on either side of Mason and Dixon’s line. Afternoon tea at the White House in the sixties is another English inspiration. Again, there will be those who will object to the telescoping of historic events, and especially to the wresting of the great phrases of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural from their true setting to provide a dramatic moment before the assassination. Writers of historic plays from Shakespeare down, have exercised this prerogative; but we are still too near Lincoln to endure willingly even the reverent and dramatically necessary displacement of his burning words.
Arnold Bennett’s romantic additions to the ancient Book of Judith awaken distaste of another kind. Why embroider the old tale with a ’love interest’? Why blast the reputation of the Governor of Bethulia and turn him into a low politician? Mr. Bennet t is not the only one to succumb to temptation to better a good story. Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s Judith had to fall in love with Holofernes before she slew him. The old storyteller, untouched by the cynical or the sentimental, struck a deeper note when he sent the austere widow back to her house to dwell alone, the symbol of national passion. This is not to deny that Mr. Bennett has written a readable and actable play, conventionally motived, with purple patches of dialogue. But it casts no spell.
F. C.