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Written by James Still Directed by Stephen Rayne February 3 to March 8, 2009

Welcome to Ford’s Theatre Society’s Companion Guide for The Heavens Are Hung In Black! This is a year of big change at Ford’s, as we prepare to celebrate President Lincoln’s 200th birthday with an updated theatre space, newly redesigned museum, and a whole host of new educational programming.


An Interview with the Playwright ................................. 3 A Civil War Timeline.................................................... 5 Who’s Who in the Play ................................................. 6 Lincoln’s Boys .............................................................. 8 Emancipation................................................................. 9 Having “the slows” ....................................................... 10 Presidential Security...................................................... 10 This Guide is designed to support and enrich the Lincoln and Shakespeare............................................... 11 experience of seeing The Heavens Are Hung In Activities and Additional Resources ............................. 12 Black. On many pages, questions for discussion or journaling are highlighted in black. Throughout the Guide, we explore historical context, theatrical techniques and contemporary connections. A short bibliography at the end of the Guide provides resources for further inquiry. Please feel free to print out as many copies of this Guide as you would like. A Companion Guide will be produced for our final show this season: The Civil War. We hope you will join us for these shows in our newly reopened theatre!
For group sales information, please call (202) 6382367. For more information on our educational programming, please call (202) 638-2941 ext. 567 or email

We hope you enjoy the show!

American Airlines is the official airline of Ford’s Theatre. Production made possible by BAE Systems, Verizon, BP America, Visa Inc., National Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities Ford’s Theatre Stages Built by The Home Depot Chevron, a 2008-2009 Season Sponsor Amtrak is the official rail sponsor of Ford’s Theatre. Ford’s Theatre is grateful to the following for their generous support of educational programming: American Express Company, Bank of America Foundation, Mars Foundation, Motorola Foundation, National Education Association, The William Randolph Hearst Foundation, and U.S. Department of the Interior.

An Interview with James Still, Playwright of The Heavens Are Hung In Black

1. What appealed to you about this commission to write a play about Lincoln’s time in Washington, DC? Well, you know, one answer, which is the true answer, but can seem a little clever but is really true, is that writing something like this, on the face of it, seems pretty impossible. It seems too much to ask of somebody, or too much to ask of yourself, because he is so iconic and there are so many people, most Americans, who claim to know a lot about Lincoln, so you sort of feel like you can’t compete with people who have dedicated their lives, researchers who know everything about Lincoln. So you’re doing something that, on the face of it, seems impossible. As an artist, I sort of notice those moments because you find out what you’re made of. And for me, it makes it impossible not to say yes because that’s exactly what an artist should be doing. You should be doing the impossible. Of course there’s Lincoln himself. Endlessly fascinating, the most written about American, probably the most written about person in the world after Jesus. There’s the real privilege of getting to immerse yourself in the psyche of someone who, when all is said and done, was quite an amazing president in an incredibly difficult time. So I suppose when you look at that, there’s something about … how does that inspire me personally as well? How do you spend time researching and living with somebody as you’re writing about them who against all odds every single day was facing the absolute impossible. What is in that for me and then, by extension, the audience, to contemplate, to meditate on about our own world today? 2. So much has been written about President Abraham Lincoln, including a number of plays. Was it challenging to find a fresh aspect of Lincoln to explore? Can you describe your Lincoln? What motivates him? The only reason to do a project like this is if there’s something fresh and original about it. There are other things out there that exist we could be doing … I think that your question, “how do you describe your Lincoln” is very apt because ultimately what this comes down to is that this is my version of Lincoln. There are thousands and thousands. Another author could be working on this for three years and have a whole different version of Lincoln. It’s highly subjective. On some selfish level, it’s purely what I’m drawn to … what interests me. It’s a personal story. It’s a political story. It’s a moment in history. So in terms of my version, he’s a man of great conscience, and I would have to say a man whose conscience is greatly tortured … a man who takes very seriously the moment when he finds himself. The fact that there are thousands of people suffering loss because of the number of deaths and casualties of the Civil War. It’s sort of unimaginable. And that he was dealing with that every day….

3. Why did you choose the year 1862 as the setting for your play? I chose to set the play in 1862, because earlier in that year, of course, their 11-year-old son Willie died and there was something about that idea that you have a president and his wife, you have a family, grieving over the loss of their son. He’s also feeling responsible for creating grief for other parents, and wives and sisters and brothers and grandparents who are losing their children as well. So that parallel, how that in some ways created an even deeper empathy for him, made him more prepared to be the president at that time. I found I was very drawn to that. One of the things I read early on in research that I kept coming across over and over again was the fact that he was someone who had a hard time sleeping. He was an insomniac. Coming from the world of the theater and knowing this is on stage, you always ask yourself, “what’s theatrical about this story? What makes this something that has to happen in the theater as opposed to something that Steven Spielberg would make out of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book?” To me, that idea of: here’s a man who clearly has a burden on his conscience about what to do, how to do it. He can’t sleep. And if you take that a step further, the theatrical equation is that this is a man who didn’t sleep for five years. And of course if you look in a realistic way, strange things happen when you don’t sleep for five years. In this play, we are in the second year, so in my play he is a man who is visited by the ghosts and spirits of other Americans who are very opinioned: John Brown, Stephen Douglas, Dred Scott. He has a dream in which he has a meeting with Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederates, to really commiserate about war and how awful it is to be at the head of that to see if Jefferson Davis is feeling the same things. So there’s this incredible scene in a dream where they are sitting on either side of the Potomac River in the middle of the night in their night clothes, both dreaming, talking about war and what that is and what the responsibility is. So I wanted to talk about Abraham Lincoln the husband, the father. He was very playful with his children so simultaneously when there are very important things going on in the Oval Office, he is also playing horsey with his 9-year-old son. He is trying to help his wife through the grieving process. So who is the human being behind the incredible Lincoln Memorial? That man that is truly bigger than life. Who is that and how do we work though our very mythic and larger-than-life version of Abraham Lincoln? I think while we all probably want and need that version of Lincoln, that we want to believe someone could be that amazing that great. I think we also want to know who he really was. 4. A number of your plays are historical in nature. What draws you to write about historical themes? I do love history. I love the idea that history isn’t something that happened a long time ago—it’s family stories, it’s the politics of the situation of the time … in other words, it’s stuff that happened to real people. And it’s messy. It’s not neat. So using history, and examining history, and looking at it through a contemporary lens … that feels very exciting to me. That feels like a place again where both artists and audiences are drawn to that because we know that it happened to people like us. The idea that it happened to people like us, it connects us to what is happening to us right now. History is not something in the long ago and far away, we are closer to it than that.

A Civil War Timeline: 1860—1862
1860 November 6 December 20 Abraham Lincoln, who had declared, "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free..." is elected president. South Carolina secedes from the Union, followed within two months by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.

1861 February 9 The Confederate States of America is formed with Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate and former U.S. Army officer, as president. Abraham Lincoln is sworn in as 16th President of the United States of America. At 4:30 a.m. Confederates under Gen. Pierre Beauregard open fire with 50 cannons upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The Civil War begins. President Lincoln issues a Proclamation calling for 75,000 militiamen. Robert E. Lee, a 25-year distinguished veteran of the United States Army and former Superintendent of West Point, is offered command of the Union Army. Lee declines. Virginia secedes from the Union, followed within five weeks by Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina, thus forming an 11-state Confederacy with a population of 9 million, including nearly 4 million slaves. President Lincoln appoints McClellan as general-in-chief of all Union forces after the resignation of the aged Winfield Scott. Lincoln tells McClellan, "The supreme command of the Army will entail a vast labor upon you." McClellan responds, "I can do it all."

March 4 April 12

April 15

April 17

November 1

1862 January 31 President Lincoln issues General War Order No. 1 calling for all United States naval and land forces to begin a general advance by Feb. 22, George Washington's birthday. Victory for Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee, capturing Fort Henry, and 10 days later Fort Donelson. Grant earns the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant. President Lincoln is struck with grief as his beloved 11-year-old son, Willie, dies from fever. The Seven Days Battles begin as Lee attacks McClellan near Richmond, resulting in very heavy losses for both armies. McClellan then begins a withdrawal back toward Washington. Lee invades the North with 50,000 Confederates and heads for Harpers Ferry, located 50 miles northwest of Washington. The bloodiest day in U.S. military history as Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Armies are stopped at Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg, Maryland by McClellan and numerically superior Union forces. By nightfall 26,000 men are dead, wounded or missing. Lee then withdraws to Virginia. Lincoln issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves. 5

February 6

February 20 June 25-July 1

September 4-9 September 17

September 22

The world of the play The Heavens Are Hung In Black includes figures who were part of Lincoln’s life in 1862, and others who were long dead and appear in Lincoln’s dreams.
Edwin M. Stanton (18141869) was named Lincoln’s Secretary of War on January 15, 1862. Though the two did not always get along, Lincoln had much faith in Stanton’s abilities. The two had become close by the time of Lincoln’s death, when Stanton famously said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” William Seward (1801-1872) was one of Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, which was precisely why Lincoln named him as his Secretary of State in 1861. Seward was brutally attacked as part of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy on April 14, 1865, but survived to purchase Alaska for the United States in 1867 in a deal known as Seward’s Folly.

Walt Whitman (1819Ward Hill Lamon (18281892) was an 1893) became Lincoln’s American poet and law partner in 1852; the journalist who was two were close friends and profoundly affected by when the Lincoln family the Civil War. After made the trip to his brother George was Washington, D.C., in wounded in the war, 1861, Lamon accompanied Whitman moved to them. His special interest Washington, D.C., to in Lincoln’s safety led to work as a nurse at the his appointment as U.S. army hospital located Marshal of the District of in what is now the Columbia. It was said that National Portrait he took his job so seriously he would curl up in front Gallery. Whitman saw Lincoln often during this time, though the two never met. of Lincoln’s bedroom door and spend the night there, guarding his friend and president. John Hay (1838-1905) was one of Lincoln’s private secretaries, and it was said that Lincoln treated him as one of his own sons. Lincoln’s wife, Mary, did not share this affection for Hay, who among other duties oversaw the White House expense accounts. Years later he became Secretary of State under President Theodore Roosevelt. Edwin Booth (18331893) was one of the greatest American actors of the 19th century, and he was particularly wellknown for his Shakespearean roles. Like many actors of the time, he often toured to major cities, which included Washington, D.C. His brother, John Wilkes Booth, shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

John Brown (1800-1859) was an abolitionist who advocated the violent overthrow of slavery. He led the unsuccessful raid on the Harpers Ferry Arsenal in 1859 in an attempt to lead slaves in an armed revolt. Brown was hanged for treason later that year, though his attempts did much to stoke the growing abolitionist movement in the north.

Dred Scott (1799-1858) was a slave who sued for his freedom in 1846, on the basis that he had traveled and lived in states where slavery was illegal. Scott’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1857, where the majority opinion delivered by Chief Justice Taney ruled that Scott was still a slave, therefore not a citizen of the United States, and must be returned to his master. Jefferson Davis (18081889) was the President of the Confederate States of America for the entirety of the Civil War. He was previously a senator from Mississippi and served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. During the war, he lived in Richmond, VA, the capital of the C.S.A.

Stephen Douglas (18131861) was an Illinois Democrat who lost the 1860 presidential election to Lincoln. Two years earlier, he had soundly defeated Lincoln in the race for a seat in the Senate. During this campaign, the “Little Giant” and Lincoln engaged in a series of debates that have become famous for their brilliant rhetoric and reflection of the politics of the time. Douglas passed away from typhoid fever in June 1861. Uncle Tom is a fictional character from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tom is a middleaged slave who experiences numerous horrors, though his faith in God is never shaken. The novel was hugely influential for its depiction of the horrors of slavery; when he met Stowe, Lincoln said, “So this is the little lady who started this great war!”

Billy Brown is a quasi-fictional character created by Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell for her He Knew Lincoln series (1908). In these books, Billy Brown tells anecdotes of Lincoln’s time in Springfield; he is an amalgamation of the type of men that Lincoln would have associated with then.

In the play, when Lincoln is speaking with these dead/distant/fictional figures, do you think he is dreaming? Hallucinating? Or actually being visited by ghosts?

Lincoln’s Boys
Goats in the White House! Tad and Willie Lincoln kept goats in the White House; Tad even let his pet goat Nanny sleep in his bed. The incident described in the play is factual—Tad would sometimes harness the goats to a chair and drive them around the White House, at least once during an important reception. Though extremely embarrassing to his mother, Tad’s father was quite amused by the goats, and Tad’s antics. President Lincoln sent the telegram at right to Mrs. Lincoln on April 28, 1864, asking her to “Tell Tad the goats and father are very well—especially the goats.”

Tad’s Lisp Tad Lincoln (left, and in background) was born with a cleft palate—a hole in the roof of his mouth that made it difficult for him to talk and eat. It is a common birth defect that today is easily treated with surgery, but in Tad’s time he had to live with this imperfection. His food had to be prepared soft since his teeth didn’t grow in straight—and this was before the invention of the blender!

Willie’s Death Willie (left) was only 11 when he passed away from typhoid fever on February 20, 1862. Many who knew him said he was much like his father: quiet, studious and friendly. Both Abraham and Mary Lincoln were profoundly affected by his death; Mary (right) mourned for well over a year, and enlisted the help of mediums to hold séances in the White House in an effort to communicate with Willie’s spirit. The Heavens Are Hung In Black opens just as President Lincoln has left one of these séances.

How do you think Tad and Willie Lincoln’s experiences growing up in the White House will differ from Sasha and Malia Obama’s?

In The Heavens Are Hung In Black, Abraham Lincoln wrestles with the complexities of emancipation. It may seem obvious to us now that emancipating slaves was the morally correct choice, but at the time Lincoln faced immense pressure on both sides of the issue. It is widely thought that, personally, Lincoln believed slavery was wrong. But as a wartime president, he had to take into account a number of other factors. Although the Northern states generally did not allow slavery, those wishing to abolish slavery completely (known as abolitionists) were still considered radical. And Lincoln was worried about the reaction of Border States like Maryland and Delaware; though technically Union states, they allowed slavery and a move as extreme as emancipation might drive them toward the Confederacy. There were political advantages to emancipation, as well. Freeing the slaves would make this war about states’ rights into a war over human rights, which could attract the support of European powers like France and England. Slaves formed the basis of the economic system in the South; freeing them would essentially destroy the Southern economy, putting them at a great disadvantage in the war. Lincoln decided to wait until just after a Union victory to announce his plan for emancipation, hoping that the positive feelings of a win would increase support for the idea. He had his chance after the Battle of Antietam, when Union troops kept Confederate forces from pushing north into Maryland. Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, announcing that if the rebels did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states would be free. The Proclamation only freed those enslaved in Confederate states, leaving those in the Border States still shackled. Though morally questionable, this brilliant political move ensured the loyalty of the Border States. In fact, Lincoln wasn’t convinced that the Constitution gave him the power to free all the slaves, but he knew that he had the authority as Commander in Chief to free the Rebels’ slaves in an effort to bring an end to the devastation of the Civil War.

The first page of the Emancipation Proclamation.
First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864.

Have you ever had to make a difficult or unpopular decision? What were the factors that led to your choice?

Having “the slows”
One of the running conflicts in The Heavens Are Hung In Black is between President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton over Lincoln’s tendency to pardon soldiers. Lincoln didn’t believe soldiers should be put to death for mistakes like falling asleep on duty or even desertion: "If Almighty God gives a man a cowardly pair of legs how can he help their running away with him?" When Stanton argued that these offending soldiers must be made example of, Lincoln would counter that the soldiers were more useful to the army alive than dead. Lincoln’s tendency to pardon soldiers is reflected in his insistence on pardoning Tad’s doll, Jack, whom Tad wants executed for falling asleep on duty. Lincoln may have been lenient toward offending soldiers, but he expected much more of his generals. Portrait of General George McClellan. Though General George McClellan was a graduate of West Point and a brilliant military planner adored by his men, he was not aggressive in his pursuit of the Confederate army, which frustrated President Lincoln. When McClellan’s eventual successor, Ulysses S. Grant, refused to retreat at the battle of Shiloh in April 1862 despite heavy casualties, many called for his dismissal. Lincoln countered, “I can’t spare this man—he fights!” Less than two years later, Grant had command of all the Union forces.

An example of a pontoon boat, similar to the type McClellan tries to use to transport troops in the play.

Presidential Security
There was no Secret Service during Lincoln’s time; ironically, one of Lincoln’s last acts as president on the day he was assassinated was to establish a Secret Service to investigate counterfeit currency. (The assignment of presidential protection was not officially given to the Secret Service until 1913.) Though security had been tight at the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency, with threats of assassination affecting even his train ride to the nation’s capital, Lincoln refused most security measures, preferring to live, travel and work in private. His daily Brass knuckles used by Ward Lamon to protect Lincoln. rides to the Soldier’s Home, his summertime country retreat, were particularly dangerous, and rumors of kidnapping and assassination plots eventually led to his being accompanied by a group of cavalry soldiers. President Lincoln kept open office hours at the White House for at least three hours each weekday; anyone with a comment, complaint or request could stand in line to speak to the president. According to his secretary John Nicolay, “Lincoln seldom if ever declined to receive any man or woman who came to the White House to see him.”

If Barack Obama kept open office hours as Lincoln did, what would you ask him about?

Lincoln and Shakespeare
Lincoln’s love of theatre, and especially Shakespeare, was well known. Though the scene in The Heavens Are Hung In Black when Lincoln interrupts a rehearsal of Henry V is fictional, Lincoln’s knowledge of and interest in Shakespeare’s works are not. In a letter to actor James Hackett, Lincoln wrote:

The recipient of this letter, James Hackett, was famous for playing Shakespeare beloved character Falstaff, who appears in three of his plays.

My dear Sir, Months ago I should have acknowledged the receipt of your book and accompanying kind note; and I now have to beg your pardon for not having done so. For one of my age I have seen very little of the drama. The first presentation of Falstaff I ever saw was yours here, last winter or spring. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay is to say, as I truly can, I am very anxious to see it again. Some of Shakespeare's plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard III, Henry VIII, Hamlet and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing "Oh, my offense is rank," surpasses that commencing "To be or not to be." But pardon this small attempt at criticism. I should like to hear you pronounce the opening speech of Richard III. Will you not soon visit Washington again? If you do, please call and let me make your personal acquaintance. Yours Truly, Signed, A. Lincoln

How do you think a president should best use his or her free time?

1. Walt Whitman wrote a number of poems about Lincoln, including “O Captain, My Captain” and “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d.” Read these poems, and find the places where Whitman refers to Lincoln. How did he feel about the president? How do we see those feelings reflected in the play? 2. In the play, soldiers write letters home to their families telling them about their experiences during the war. Write a “letter home” to your family telling them about your experience traveling to Ford’s Theatre to see The Heavens Are Hung In Black—what was the journey like? Whom did you meet? What was it like seeing the play? 3. During the play, President Lincoln has to make a lot of unpopular and difficult decisions. If you were president, how would you decide the following, and why: What is just punishment for a soldier sleeping on duty? Running away from battle? Should the Marine Band be allowed to play on the grounds following Willie’s death? Should McClellan remain as commander of the Union army? Should Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation?

At the Show...
While you are at the show, look for the following things: The box where Lincoln was sitting when he was shot. The use of water (such as rain, rivers, etc.) as a theme in the play. Actors that play more than one character. A constant knocking on Lincoln’s office door.

Additional Resources
Burlingame, Michael. Inside Lincoln's White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay (1997). Epstein, Daniel Mark. Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington (2004). Forman, Steven M. A Guide to Civil War Washington (1995). Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals (2005). Lamon, Ward H. Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865 (1895). Lang, H. Jack. Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln (1941). Stowe, Harriet B. Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Thornton, Brian. 101 Things You Didn't Know About Lincoln (2006).