Lincoln’s Voice

Category: Civil War, Theatre History

Guest Blog by Ken Ross

Twenty years or so ago, when I was working as an audiobook producer, I got to know an actor in his mid-sixties. At the start of his career, in the nineteen-fifties, he had worked with a veteran American actor who told him the following story.

In the mid-thirties Roosevelt had set up the Federal Theatre Project as a relief measure to employ artists, writers, directors and theatre workers during the Great Depression. The actor in question performed in one of their productions, a play about Abraham Lincoln, playing Lincoln himself. It was a touring production and one performance took place in the town of Gettysburg, scene, of course, of the battle and of Lincoln’s Address on the 19th of November in 1863, a natural high point of the play. After the show the actor was introduced to a local resident in his eighties who had actually been present, as a boy of twelve, to hear Lincoln deliver the speech in person. The man complimented the actor on his performance, but said, referring to the Gettysburg Address, ‘but he didn’t say it like that’. The actor, like everyone else I have ever heard deliver it, had stressed the prepositions in the conclusion – ‘government OF the people, BY the people, FOR the people, shall not perish from the earth’. No, said the old man, he said it like this: ‘government of the PEOPLE, by the PEOPLE, for the PEOPLE, shall not perish from the earth’.

November 1863 Gettysburg Address: Hay Copy

The way one stresses a sentence changes its meaning. ‘The MAN hit the ball’ means something different to ‘The man hit the BALL’. The alteration of meaning in the Lincoln quote is more subtle, but it clearly exists. Stressing the prepositions makes the statement expository, analytical; stressing the noun – along with its repetition, like a drumbeat – injects passion, urgency, belief and the sense of a crusade.

Of course, the veracity of the story is unprovable. The original witness could have misremembered or simply lied, as indeed could any of the story’s subsequent transmitters. Word of mouth over three generations is almost a definition of unreliability. But, in fact, I do believe it. First, because it is simply a better and richer ‘reading’ of the line – so if Lincoln didn’t say it like that, he damn well should have! Second, because I believe one can hear variations of this kind of rhetoric in later American oratory – particularly, for me, in the speeches of John F. Kennedy – so there is arguably a living tradition in play. And, of course, I simply want to believe it. I get goosebumps at the thought that, through this accidental miracle of transmission, I can catch, across 150 years, the faintest echo of the voice of Abraham Lincoln.

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