Benjamin Chapin’s career as a stage performer peaked on February 12, 1909, when his four-act play Abraham Lincoln at the White House finished its six-day run in New York City. At least 1,200 customers paid 50 cents, 75 cents, or a dollar to celebrate Lincoln’s one-hundredth birthday at the matinee show of the lavishly appointed Garden Theater on Madison Avenue.
They got to see vignettes of the president dealing with Fort Sumter in 1861, reacting to the battle of Gettysburg in 1863, and getting ready for an evening at Ford’s Theatre in April 1865. An irascible Secretary of War Stanton and a snarly General Joseph Hooker kept putting Lincoln’s equanimity to the test. He assuaged them with stories and jokes, and his patient forbearance also worked wonders on his cantankerous wife. Whether in politics or domestic life, Chapin’s Lincoln put charity first. When Stanton insisted that a traitor be hung for his crime, Lincoln found a reason to pardon him.
For a 34-year-old writer-impersonator who had toiled for a decade on lyceum platforms and vaudeville stages as a Lincoln look-alike, this February 12 spent behind the New York City footlights was a day to relish. It gave him hope that his play might hit the jackpot and get picked up for a national tour.
Chapin had felt that hope once before. In the spring of 1906, his brand-new show had appeared for three weeks at the Liberty Theater on West 42nd Street. But he got mixed reviews at best. After the last performance on April 15 — the anniversary of Lincoln’s death — Chapin was forced back on the road. His one-act “playlet” performance ran on vaudeville stages as far west as California, where his dignified show, as the Los Angeles Times remarked, was squeezed into “a hodge-podge of noisy variety.”
Only the gathering excitement for the 1909 Lincoln Centenary got Chapin his one-week revival at the Garden Theater. In a publicity flyer chock-full of testimonials from Mark Twain and lesser lights, Chapin reproduced the most glowing lines from his 1906 notices. Often those reviews had also expressed strong misgivings about the show.
One after another, critics judged his play to be “of very little moment,” as John Corbin said in the New York Sun. They noted that Chapin, who’d never acted before 1906, lacked the theatrical skills to evoke a character so multi-sided as Lincoln. And his rudimentary scripting fell short of delivering the “sterner” side of the president’s leadership, as one writer called it, along with his personal sweetness.
Yet even Chapin’s detractors agreed that he excelled at summoning Lincoln’s physical presence: his towering, ungainly frame, his shambling, awkward movements. The performer’s meticulous make-up and fine command of Lincoln’s mannerisms transfixed many spectators. Those who had never seen Lincoln in the flesh got a good sense from Chapin of why many in the older generation continued to dwell so insistently on the president’s appearance.
The public could easily abide the play’s flaws, said the reviewers, since Chapin’s “embodiment” of Lincoln offered such a wholesome and patriotic payoff. People should be sure to take their children to see it. “With Lincoln present in the flesh, walking and talking, a living man and not a silent figure in the dim pages of history,” said the Los Angeles Times, “anything but absolute respect for the vehicle [the play] is impossible.”
Chapin’s centennial run appears to have marked the end of his theatrical aspirations. As that door closed, another opened. By 1913, he had turned to film, and by 1917, the first four episodes of his planned Lincoln “Cycle” — an extended biographical epic — were playing at the Strand, one of Manhattan’s premier “picture palaces.”
In 1906 and 1909, the New York Times and other papers cautioned playgoers not to expect too much from Chapin’s work. But in 1917, to the filmmaker’s delight, the paper issued a different sort of warning:
“Patrons of the Strand,” said the Times, “should be condemned to seeing trashy modern photoplays all the rest of their days if they do not flock to see the Lincoln cycle on exhibition there this week.”
Benjamin Chapin never got to finish his Lincoln Cycle. He fell ill on Lincoln’s birthday in 1918 and died a few months later, apparently of tuberculosis, in a sanitarium in Liberty, New York. He was only 43 years old. But he had pioneered the impersonation of Lincoln on stage and screen alike. “He took dead history and made it live again,” the Chicago Tribune wrote. Next to a short obituary, the paper placed a photo of Chapin taken from the side, in full Lincoln dress, looking down appreciatively at an American flag.