The memory of President Lincoln is widely revered – there is even statue of him in Edinburgh – but the First Lady who supported him through the Civil War is forgotten in Scotland and reviled in America.
A new play, which has its international premiere at the Fringe (and has earned a ★★★★ from Broadway Baby), reassesses the life of Mary Lincoln and allows her – rather than her enemies – to tell her story for the first time.
The American Civil War Statue (also known as the Scottish-American Soldiers Monument), in Old Calton Burial Ground, dates back to 1893 and commemorates Lincoln and the Scots volunteers who fought and died in the brutal Civil War that succeeded in ending slavery.
Emphasising the strength of the links between Scotland and America, this was the first statue to a US president outside the country’s borders and the only one to commemorate the Civil War.
The play, Mrs President takes audiences into the world of Mary Lincoln who was highly active in rallying support for her husband, and was sitting hand-in-hand with him at the theatre when he was shot in the head by an assassin.
Her life was torn by tragedy and mental ill health. She was tormented by the death of her children, grief stricken after staying by Abraham’s side for hours as he died and later tormented by cruel accusations.
Sadly, her place in history is as one of America’s most reviled First Ladies.
Mrs President, by writer and artist John Ransom Phillips, sees Mary enlist celebrity photographer Mathew Brady – whose images of Abraham Lincoln helped win him the Presidency – to recast her image and silence Washington.
This was a man of immense influence – his battlefield pictures defined the American Civil War and his wider work helped forge the USA’s national identity. Tensions rise as subject and artist clash over creative control.
Mrs President explores identity, agency, and the power of representation – of narrative – and ultimately of legacy. It gives Mary her own voice for the first time.
Phillips says: “Mary Lincoln is the most vilified First Lady in American history. The Edinburgh Fringe is the ideal place to take a fresh look at her story and to begin changing her place in history.
“There are powerful connections between Edinburgh and the Lincoln presidency, with Scots having volunteered to fight to help end slavery. And the city is home to the greatest performing arts festival in the world.
“This play shows Mary as a woman in the grip of profound grief – she had buried three sons, saw the assassination of her husband and was then betrayed by her remaining son.
“Viewing her through modern eyes, and through Mathew Brady’s outdated lens, holds lessons for us. Controlling your image is precarious, and Mrs. President shows us just how hard it can be.”
Director Lily Wolff adds: “Mary Lincoln haunts me. Her brilliance and depth of feeling meant she didn’t fit in the box society assigned her.
“Sadly we still perpetuate dehumanising narratives about this First Lady, failing to recognise the terrible losses she endured. Mary’s life was full of ghosts.”
Mrs President plunges audiences back into an era which continues to affect American politics and the Culture Wars which divide contemporary society.
Born to a wealthy slave-owning Kentucky family Mary was a devoted supporter of her husband. Of their four sons only one outlived her, with two dying as children and one at 18.
In later life her behaviour became erratic, she was briefly confined by her remaining son to an insane asylum. Deeply depressed Mary tried to take her own life and endured worsening physical health. Rather than being understood as vulnerable she was damned as “crazy”.
The play takes audiences into Brady’s studio where Mary traverses her life story. Under his focus, she is forced to explore who she truly is, regardless of history’s limited view.
Picture by Colin Hattersley.
Notes for editors
- Venue: C Venues, Aquila Temple Theatre, Roman Eagle Lodge (Venue 21)
- Time: 14:30
- Dates: 2 to 27 August 2023 (not Mondays)
- Duration: 60 mins
- Ticket prices: £12 full price, £10 concessions, £8 under 18
- Advisory: 12+
- Warnings: Strobe lighting
- Venue box office: 0131 581 5555 / www.CtheArts.com
- Fringe box office: https://tickets.edfringe.com
Cast and creatives
- Company: Rec Room Arts and JPR Art Group
- Performers: LeeAnne Hutchison and Christopher Kelly
- Director: Lily Wolff
- Writer: John Ransom Phillips
About Out Rec Room Arts
Rec Room Arts is a non-profit organisation that brings daring and ambitious world-class theatre to audiences locally, nationally and internationally. Based in Houston, Texas, it is dedicated to improving the social wellbeing of audiences around the world through research and presentation of innovative and risk-taking theatre productions. Established in 2016, Rec Room has become a vital member of Houston’s artistic landscape, where experienced professionals work alongside passionate emerging artists. With over 150 past productions, in addition to Mrs. President the 2023 season includes A Number by Caryl Churchill, Wolf Play by Hansol Jung, Heroes of the Fourth Turning by Will Arbery, and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie productions.
About John Ransom Phillips
Working across various mediums – painting, film, theatre and poetry – John Ransom Phillips lives and works in New York but has spent significant periods of time in Europe and Egypt. While continuing his painting and creative writing, he completed his BFA at the San Francisco Art Institute and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.
Having studied with Richard Diebenkorn, Phillips expands on his teacher’s love of light, particularly the blue light of southern California. With this use of colour and love of paint, Phillips engages history, both narrative and psychological. His ethos is evident in the choice of subjects; the meaning of “Narcissus” in today’s world; the photographer Mathew Brady, who rearranged his subjects in the name of a higher truth; the Renaissance painter Pinturicchio and the fixation on self. Rather than representing recorded histories, he explores inner lives, dreams, fantasies, and for many, secret wishes and desires.
Phillips’ paintings combine image and text and can be read in the larger legacy of Symbolism. His oil paintings and works on paper have a dream-like quality where forms morph and melt into one another. From his Sleeping Presidents series, beds become wondrous landscapes where dreams become real and where psychological narratives are enacted. Phillips is “devoted to the idea of being connected with something more than simply what you see or what you hear.”
For media information contact Matthew Shelley at SFPR on 07786 704299 or at [email protected].