Abraham Lincoln, Matchmaker

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared at First Things on September 11, 2017. 

What if Abraham Lincoln had sent a young socialite to meet an injured soldier, without telling her that the soldier was black? What if an unspoken romance blossomed across the color line?

This is the premise of If Only…A Love Story, a new play by Thomas Klingenstein that is now playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. It is a play about impasse. Imprisoned by social conventions and emotional perplexity, Ann Astorcott (Melissa Gilbert) believes in emancipation but can’t quite manage her own. Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) escaped from slavery but can’t inflict liberty on those too timid or too comfortable to take it.

We meet Ann and Samuel in 1901, many years after their time together in the Civil War army hospital. She is now sixty and in a childless marriage to a prosperous New York businessman. He has become a schoolteacher in Chicago. They meet at Ann’s invitation. Ann is decisively indecisive; she longs for something buried in her past, but she doesn’t know what. Samuel has built his adult life around disappointment and sees one last chance to redeem his hopes.

Klingenstein’s play leverages the audience’s hope that Samuel will somehow rescue Mrs. Astorcott from her respectable life. But this is 1901, and the dramatic resolution must be smaller and subtler. Smaltz gives Samuel a few glints of anger over his situation. But Samuel has lived a life with a carefully maintained broken heart, rather than a life of resentment against the system. He wants to change things, including the décor of Ann’s parlor, but he is no W.E.B. DuBois.

“Lincoln was our matchmaker,” Samuel says at one point, but like other matches Lincoln struck, this one was thwarted by the crosswinds of history. One of the most moving parts of Klingenstein’s play occurs when Ann relinquishes herself to her memory of a Union soldier from Maine as he lies close to death and asks her to carry a message back home to the girl to whom he had failed to confess his love—another impasse, one permanently sealed by death. Is this Ann’s fate, too? Not exactly.

Ann and Samuel are linked by their love of Lincoln. They can quote to each other alternating lines of his speeches. The “If Only” of the title is partly the question what might have happened “if only” Lincoln had lived. That question, however, remains unspoken, as do other matters that are on the hearts but not the tongues of the characters. Ann has in her charge a child who, from psychological trauma, has gone mute. She embodies Ann’s own voicelessness and perhaps stands in for an America that, after Lincoln’s assassination, lost its most eloquent voice for unity and healing.

Laura Collins-Hughes, reviewing If Only in The New York Times, panned it as “inert,” “overloaded with back story” and “much rehashing of old memories.” These criticisms might be better applied to any identity-based campus protest these days. Klingenstein, who is a reader of Edith Wharton, got the time, the place, and the culture of 1901 America exactly right. Ann is alienated from herself by a kind of “white privilege” that is no privilege at all, and Samuel is too busy inventing himself as a free man to dwell on old memories.

Though the play is set more than a century ago, it plainly seeks to say something about the here-and-now. Much of what If Only says is that we need to re-learn our Lincoln, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Racial antagonism is all malice, no charity, and its costs include the impasse that separates even the innocent from their better selves.

Image: Wikimedia 

  • Share

Most Commented

January 9, 2023


NAS Celebrates the Nomination of Reform-Minded Trustees to the New College of Florida Board

The National Association of Scholars is delighted with Governor Ron DeSantis’ nomination of six education reformers to the Board of Trustees of the New College of Florida....

December 7, 2022


New Study Tracks Rise of DEI in STEM Departments, Associations, Grants, and Literature

A new study published today by the National Association of Scholars, Ideological Intensification, offers an in-depth quantitative analysis of just how far DEI has advanced into STEM fields....

January 5, 2023


NAS Condemns the Attacks against Jordan Peterson

The National Association of Scholars condemns the unrelenting illiberal attacks being levied against Dr. Peterson and against anyone who dares push back against the enemies of intellectual f......

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...

September 19, 2022


How Many Confucius Institutes Are in the United States?

UPDATED: We're keeping track of all Confucius Institutes in the United States, including those that remain open, those that closed, and those that have announced their closing....