The idea of going to see politicians debate might not seem attractive these days. After all, more than two dozen Republican presidential primary debates have been held, and a half-dozen more are planned. Then come the general election debates.
But Friday night, Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts is presenting a dramatization of some of the most famous political debating in U.S. history. The presenters say the audience will see a stark contrast between the politics of today and those from before the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln squared off against Stephen A. Douglas in the 1858 U.S. Senate race in Illinois.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates earned a place in national, and debating, history for the style of the meeting and how the candidates discussed the tough issues of their day. (The National Forensic League, which runs high school and middle school debating in the United States, has a category of competition called Lincoln-Douglas Debate.)
"It's a fascinating glimpse back into that time when the concept of the debate was very different than it is now," says Robert Parsons, who plays Lincoln in this production, by L.A. Theatre Works. "People would come and hang out for the entire thing, and there was a lot of jeering and booing. People were very entertained by it."
There were seven debates around Illinois from Aug. 21 to Oct. 15, 1858. The format was always the same: The first speaker talked for an hour, the second had 90 minutes, and then the first speaker had a 30-minute rebuttal. Lincoln and Douglas alternated speaking first.
After losing the election, Lincoln published the debate transcripts. Nearly a century later, they were the basis of the The Rivalry, written by radio pioneer Norman Corwin, who died late in 2011 at age 101.
"I was having lunch with Norman — we were very good friends — and we were chatting about this and that, and he said, 'You know, so-and-so called me the other day and said, "It's time to revive The Rivalry,"'" says L.A. Theatre Works founder and producing director Susan Loewenberg. "I said, 'What's The Rivalry?' And he said, 'Oh, it's a play I wrote that was on Broadway ... about Lincoln and Douglas.'"
Loewenberg said she asked Corwin if she could see it, and he got her a copy.
The show is in the format of a memory play, with Douglas' wife, Adele, recalling the debates. Her recollections lead into portions of the transcript.
"It was fantastic, and I said, 'Norman, we are going to record this play. It is amazing,'" Loewenberg says.
L.A. Theatre Works presents stage productions, but one of its primary functions is as an audio theater, recording plays for digital and CD release and running a radio show that is carried on stations around the country. (It is not heard in Central Kentucky but is carried by WVXU-91.7 FM in Cincinnati. It may be heard online at LATW.org.)
The programs often feature marquee stage and film actors including Calista Flockhart, Neil Patrick Harris and Ed Asner. The initial production of The Rivalry cast Paul Giamatti as Douglas and David Strathairn as Lincoln.
The recordings are made in front of an audience in Los Angeles, but the primary aim of those performances is to get a strong recording. On tour, Loewenberg says, "We try to make it more elaborate as a theatrical experience. We have costumes, we have lighting, there's more movement, the actors have memorized the script. It's a fully rehearsed production, but it has that radio-theater aspect because we're using microphones and we have the sound-effects person onstage. So we try to make it a more theatrical experience while giving the idea of a radio play."
The play has toured the country and has visited Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.
"To do that play and play that man in that theater, there was definitely extra energy in the room," Parsons says of playing Lincoln at Ford's.
In Danville's Norton Center, the production will be on a stage where in a few months the 2012 vice presidential candidates will debate. It will be the second time that Centre College and the Norton Center have hosted a vice presidential debate; the first wasin 2000 between then-Democrat Joseph Lieberman and Republican Dick Cheney.
Parsons says audiences will notice a stark contrast between the politics of today and what they see in The Rivalry.
"It has a lot more to do with substance," Parsons says. "The passions of these men and the way they articulated their positions and the great writing is so different than today with sound bites and 'you did this' and 'you did that.'"
Loewenberg says, "Today, partisan politics is what seems to count, not the good of the country. What you see is how both of these people, as rivalrous as they were, were incredibly dedicated to the state of the union."