'Edith:' Art mirrors life

Friday August 17, 2012


With this summer's production of Kelly Masterson's new play "Edith -- Force of Nature," the relevance of President Wilson's valiant struggle to have American sign the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations is replete with clear echoes of the congressional standoff today. As Eagle critic Jeffrey Borak (August 8) noted in his conclusion: "Edith: ...depicts a Washington climate in which the political divide was the product of deeply held conviction and principles rather than vindictiveness and spite..." The physical similarities and acting skills of Jack Gilpin as Wilson and Jayne Atkinson as Edith Bolling Galt are strong, and the illusion that we in the audience are back in American history a century or so ago can waft you into close sympathies with the originals.

Before Wilson came to fight his long, tragic, physically destructive struggle for the Treaty of Versailles with its incorporated League of Nations he had to face reelection in 1916. In his first election he was greatly boosted by the battle within the Republican Party. William Howard Taft won his party's re-nomination and Theodore Roosevelt, angered at Taft's conservativism, ran against his old party as a Progressive, his famous Bull Moose campaign. That split the Republican Vote; Wilson won.


Wilson, seen as a reformer, accomplished much in his first term, including the Glass Act that established the Federal Reserve Act, that stabilized the currency and banking system; the Adamson Eight-Hour Law that eased the working day and his deft handling of Mexican affairs amidst their revolution and German international meddling among others. Best of all for voters with the slogan "He Kept us out of the War." Wilson had managed to keep the United States neutral -- a position that ended when the Germans started unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 and the United States declared war.

In 1916 the Republicans forwarded the nomination of Charles Evans Hughes, former New York governor and then an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. Hughes resigned from the Court on June 10, 1916 with an abrupt note to the president.

Since "Edith" has been playing, I have been reading an account of the Wilson presidency by his secretary, Joseph P. Tumulty, an Irishman who worked his way up in the Jersey City machine by loyal party work and keen political thinking. He served Wilson from his rise from president of Princeton to reform governor of New Jersey to the American presidency. In the Berkshire Theatre Group production, Tumulty is portrayed with unflinching loyalty to Wilson and clashes unavoidably with Mrs. Wilson.


As for the real Tumulty, he reveals himself in a little-known book in which his boss is his hero: "Woodrow Wilson as I know him," published by Doubleday Page & Company, 1921. As the reelection campaign began, Tumulty wrote his analysis of the situation. It is interesting to compare how this ultimate insider in a White House staff that was tiny compared with today's massive bureaucracy, viewed Wilson's reelection opponent 96 years ago -- and what parallels with the election of 2012 might exist.

In August, 1916, Tumulty writes: "I prepared the following memorandum which explained my feelings regarding the campaign of 1916 and what appeared to be the weakness of the Republican party and the strength of our own candidacy: ". . . The position of Hughes as a candidate in this the (1916) campaign will be radically different (from the Republicans in 1913) for he will have to face a candidate representing a united party; one whose power of analysis is as great as Hughes', and to this will be added this feature of strength in the Democratic candidate -- the power of appeal to the emotional or imaginative side of the American people. Added to this will be the strength of conviction in urging his cause that comes to a man who has passed through a world crisis amid great dangers and who has brought to consummation substantial (not visionary) achievements unparalleled in the political history of the country. He will not speak to the country as the representative of a party divided in its counsels or as a dreamer of doctrinaire, but rather will he stand before the country as the practical idealist, defending, not apologizing for, every achievement of his administration."

Search your own thoughts for whatever parallels may be found here -- for me they are legion.

Gordon Hyatt is an award-winning producer.


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