New Play Plumbs the Personal and Political Civil War

New Play Plumbs the Personal and Political Civil War

Tom Klingenstein’s Our American Queen runs June 11–29.

In the summer of 1862, Katherine (Kate) Chase, 22, was the toast of Washington. “The Belle of the North,” she hosted parties that brought together the leading Republican politicians and the Union’s military brass. General Carl Schurz declared that there was “something imperial in the pose of the head, and all her movements possessed an exquisite natural charm. No wonder that she came to be admired as a great beauty and broke many hearts. After the usual commonplaces, the conversation at the breakfast table, in which Miss Kate took a lively and remarkably intelligent part, soon turned itself upon politics.”

More than a year had passed since the South had launched its attack on Fort Sumter, and in the summer of 1862, the war was not going well for Lincoln. The First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 taught the North that the war would not be a stroll to victory. The Peninsular Campaign in spring and summer 1862, in which the Grand Army of the Potomac led by General George McClellan attempted to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital, had collapsed into ignominious retreat. At the end of August, the Union lost another major battle at Second Bull Run. Lincoln realized that, short of a major battlefield victory, he had little chance of reelection in 1864. 

Kate was no idle spectator to this. She knew Lincoln and McClellan. Massachusetts’s Senator Charles Sumner admired her. She was the daughter of Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, who had vied with Lincoln for the Republican nomination in 1860 and was eager to run again. And she was a good friend of Lincoln’s private secretary, John Hay—at least in Tom Klingenstein’s startling new play, Our American Queen. Klingenstein’s drama centers on Kate’s sacrificial decision to marry the wealthy governor of Rhode Island, William Sprague, to acquire the resources to finance her father’s second run for the White House. In Klingenstein’s telling, Kate must turn away the man she really loves, John Hay.

I don’t know whether this is biographical detail or dramatic license. For the purpose of the play, however, it is a way of underscoring the personal costs of political ambition. Kate is not forced into an opportunistic marriage. She chooses it with eyes wide open as to the character of Sprague, who regards her as an ornament to display, much like the diamond- and pearl-studded tiara he gives her as an engagement present. Sprague is a boor, a philanderer, a heavy drinker, and someone who is indifferent to the literature and poetry that delight Kate. 

Why does she choose this path? She is not bought; she isn’t enamored of Sprague’s wealth. She isn’t sold; her father insists she should marry him only if she loves him. Klingenstein rightly leaves us to ponder. One clue to her character is Kate’s unanswered longing for her father’s affection. At age 9, after her mother’s death and Salmon’s remarriage, Kate was shipped off to a boarding school and left to languish there during the Christmas holidays and on her birthday. The play opens with the adult Kate brooding over a cake that stands for all those missed occasions. 

Salmon Chase is not a monster, but he is blinded by his vanity. He regards Lincoln as a rude and undeserving upstart. Think of Chase as the upright Never Trumper who can’t get over the success of a bumptious vulgarian. He is as incapable of recognizing Lincoln’s merits as he is of seeing his own lack of warmth and compassion. Kate desperately wants his fatherly love, but all that is available is his high-minded approval. 

Meanwhile, the already married General McClellan is attempting to entangle Kate in an affair, and the hesitant John Hay is sharing his intoxication with the poetry of Walt Whitman and his fascination with Dickens’s tale of unrequited love, Great Expectations.

This is more than enough to fill a five-character domestic drama, but Klingenstein is using the tale of thwarted romance to illuminate broader themes of ambition, political intrigue, patriotism, and statesmanship. Chase, an ardent abolitionist, sees Lincoln as an unprincipled compromiser. If Chase were president, he would instantly recruit black soldiers into the Union Army, but Lincoln holds back. Hay explains that Lincoln holds the higher principle of “prudence,” knowing that to admit black soldiers into the army while the army is losing will demoralize the North. But what is the difference between prudence and mere opportunism? In Hay’s view—which no doubt is Klingenstein’s as well—prudence is deeply rooted in principled moral, rather than merely practical, judgment.

We get a glimpse of a false version of prudence in General McClellan, who takes pride in his spit-and-polish army but shuns any battlefield tactics that would put his men at risk. Of course, war always entails risk, and McClellan’s risk-aversion is not prudence but timidity. He cares more about the safety of his troops than the purpose of the war.

In the play, the thrice-widowed Chase is courting the widow down the block, Mrs. Eastman. Again, I don’t know whether Mrs. Eastman is a historical figure or someone conjured by Klingenstein to give a foil to Kate. In any case, she comes to represent the peaceful life that Salmon could have if he put his political ambitions and ideology aside. She also advises Kate not to marry Sprague and to recognize Hay as her true mate—advice that costs Mrs. Eastman her own impending marriage. At one level these are the age-old complications of the human heart, but they are also battlefield adjacent. 

Late in the play comes the news of the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, which allows Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The tide of the Civil War has turned, and Chase also gets the news that Lincoln will now recruit black troops. Is he happy at the turn of events? Hardly. He recognizes that Lincoln will now run for a second term and that Chase’s own ambitions are permanently thwarted. Who, in the end, was principled and who was opportunistic?

Klingenstein’s play is necessarily limited to a few months in the lives of these characters, but members of the audience who have access to the crystal ball of actual history will feel even deeper pathos in the production. Kate, the “American Queen” of the title, ended up divorced from Sprague, who had gone on to become a U.S. senator. After the divorce in 1882, Kate had an affair with a former U.S. senator (and Lincoln supporter), Roscoe Conkling. Kate’s life spiraled down from there and she died at age 58, after living for some years selling vegetables door to door.

Lincoln elevated her father to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, where he served until the end of his life in 1873. John Hay went to a brilliant diplomatic career; married in 1874 the daughter of a railroad and banking mogul; and published among his many works a 10-volume biography of Lincoln (co-authored with John Nicolay).

Absent foreknowledge of these matters, the play stands as a moving portrait of an elegant and charming young woman about to be devoured by her aspiration to propel her father to high office. There is a whisper of Greek tragedy here. Salmon Chase is no Agamemnon, but this is the American version of the towering leader who sacrifices his daughter for victory and in the end gains nothing. Somewhere in the background, Walt Whitman is chanting, to America, “Ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing, grappling with direst fate and recoiling not.” 

We cannot recoil from Kate’s fate. She made a hard choice. That’s what happens in war, for better or worse.

Our American Queen is running June 11–29 at the Flea Theatre on 20 Thomas Street, New York City. Kate Chase is played by Brooke Camilleri Agius, who captures the buried sadness in the exquisite girl. Salmon Chase is played by Paul Niebanck, who epitomizes the flinty self-satisfaction of the would-be president. John Hay is played by Christopher Wareham, who has the tortured role of the lover who is more confident in reading poems than in speaking his heart. Carlotte Eastman is played by Roya Shanks, who captures a woman unafraid to speak plain truths to those not eager to hear them. And General McClellan is played by Dana Watkins, who has fun with the role of the dashing officer who is hollow from his mustachio to his silver spurs.

The playwright, Klingenstein, has had several plays produced in New York and Chicago. His work circles around the decades before and after the Civil War, and foregrounds racial conflict and reconciliation. The director, Christopher McElroen, is well known for his treatments of classic and contemporary works that focus on the American experience. He has directed several of Klingenstein’s plays and plainly has a feeling for these thematically challenging dramas. 

The Flea Theater is laid out in a manner that unfortunately puts the players from time to time with their backs to half the audience, which proves a handicap for the soft-spoken Agius. Our American Queen needs to raise her voice a bit. And Klingenstein sometimes has his characters repeat key phrases they have used before as if he fears we may have missed their significance. Better to trust his audience: such a play is aimed at those who have a good ear for well-crafted classic drama. And for that audience, Our American Queen is this season’s theatrical royalty.

The post New Play Plumbs the Personal and Political Civil War appeared first on The American Conservative.

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