An honest look at honest Abe


Seven score and 10 years ago, Steve Holgate's forefathers came to Oregon. Twenty years ago, Holgate joined the diplomatic service, and five years ago he started writing a play about Abraham Lincoln.

He debuted his one-man show in 1999 in Monterrey, Mexico, where he was cultural and press attachŽ for the U.S. embassy, and followed it up with shows in Sri Lanka and Bahrain when he was transferred there.

Holgate's play, 'A. Lincoln,' comes home to Portland for its U.S. debut at the Jack Oakes Theater on Northeast Sandy Boulevard.

'People have told me I look like him, and I don't think they meant it as a compliment,' says the genial Holgate, who at 50 has to darken his hair to match the look of the 16th president. 'I did a great deal of research and I read probably 15 books about him.'

Holgate says his two-act play doesn't shrink from some of Lincoln's faults. At one point in his political career, Lincoln suggested blacks should be sent back to colonize Africa, and he denigrated them in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

'I think it makes him more real, and I wanted to show his evolution,' Holgate says. 'Sometimes the ability to change is what makes people great.'

Holgate was intrigued that Lincoln understood he wasn't the center of events as he presided over the Civil War, where more than 600,000 Americans died. 'Far from controlling events, they have controlled me,' he said later.

And Holgate says Lincoln couldn't get over the irony 'that I who cannot stand to wring the neck of a chicken is in charge of this great slaughter.'

Lincoln's own letters and speeches provide source material for much of the play, says Holgate, along with newspaper stories and imagined conversations.

'The best quote is the Gettysburg Address, but I use almost all of the second inaugural address, too,' he says.

The most surprising detail Holgate turned up was that Lincoln was enigmatic and a chronic depressive, a man of tremendous modesty and deep feelings.

'He had a large hidden part he never revealed to anyone. His law partner once said, 'He is the closest-mouthed person about himself I ever knew in my life.''

And that was the challenge in writing the play, Holgate says:

'Everybody knows about Lincoln, but they don't know many details. But people have a strong image; there's a sense that he fought for good and the rights of all. He represents basic American values.'

Ultimately, Lincoln's transformation from uneducated hillbilly to savvy politician is what fascinated Holgate.

'He was almost a Jed Clampett character from the hills of Kentucky,' he says. 'He transcended his limitations in ways that are almost unimaginable.'

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