Follow TV Tropes


Theatre / Abe Lincoln in Illinois

Go To
Romancing Ann Rutledge.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois is a 1938 play by Robert Sherwood. It is a study in the life of you-know-who, starting with Lincoln as a young man in his twenties in search of his destiny. He loves and loses Ann Rutlege, marries Mary Todd, overcomes a pile of debt incurred when his general store fails, and establishes himself as a lawyer and a politician. The third act of the play deals with Lincoln's famous campaign against Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate in 1858, then his campaign against Douglas again (and others) for the presidency in 1860. The play ends as Lincoln leaves for Washington to be inaugurated.

In 1940 the play was adapted for film, with Raymond Massey, who originated the role on Broadway, reprising his part. Massey's deep, rumbling voice would for decades be strongly associated with Lincoln, despite the fact that Lincoln's real voice was quite a bit higher. The film was directed by John Cromwell, and also marked the screen debut of Ruth Gordon, as Mary Todd.

See also the film's Dueling Movies opponent, Young Mr. Lincoln, released the year before.


  • Adaptation Expansion: The film includes additional material, such as a scene with young Abraham living in his father's house, Abe piloting a flatboat on the river, and the true story of the time when he forgot the command to march his militia company single file.
  • The Alcoholic: In the first scene Lincoln tells his teacher that he's $1500 in debt because his partner in the general store drank all their whiskey and ran the store into the ground. Later, Lincoln's law partner William Herndon is drunk every time he appears.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: "It's—it's nothing but vanity that's kept me from declaring my inclinations toward you", says young Abraham to Ann Rutledge.
  • As You Know: "Ninian Edwards, eh! The Governor's son, I presume." The movie has lines like "Hello, Billy Herndon!" and "I wonder what the great Stephen A. Douglas has to say" to introduce characters.
  • Betty and Veronica: Ann Rutledge, the daughter of the tavern-keeper and one of the founders of New Salem; and Mary Todd, who comes from a rich, proud family of prominent aristocrats.
  • Dashed Plot Line: Act 1 deals with Lincoln in New Salem in the 1830s, Act II finds him a fledgling politician in Springfield in the 1840s, and Act III dramatizes his career on the national political stage 1858-61.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: In the movie, Jack Armstrong becomes Lincoln's pal after Lincoln defeats him in a wrestling match. While this happened in Real Life, the "friendship" part of the story was omitted from the play.
  • Election Day Episode: The climax features Lincoln and his inner circle awaiting the returns on Election Night 1860.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The play starts with Lincoln receiving a grammar lesson from Mentor Edwards. The movie starts with him reading a volume of Shakespeare in his father's humble cabin. Either way, he's established as a young man who wants to improve himself.
  • Foreshadowing: Young Abe, who takes the oath of "I, Abraham Lincoln, do solemnly swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America" as New Salem's voting clerk, would later take such an identical vow when elected and inaugurated as 16th President of the United States.
  • Henpecked Husband: Lincoln sometimes, like when Mary is badgering him about not cleaning his boots or giving her warning about some Republican Party dignitaries coming to their house. A resentful Mary says at one point that she knows everyone thinks she's a nagging shrew, but she's doing it all for him.
  • Lecture as Exposition: The grammar lesson from Mentor Graham that opens the play uses a pro-Union speech from Daniel Webster as material, and thus explains the controversy over the idea of succession.
  • Meet Cute: In the movie, Lincoln first meets Ann Rutledge when chasing down an escaped pig.
  • Old Money: The wealthy, snobbish Todd family. Mary Todd's sister Elizabeth is appalled when Mary shows interest in a backwoods lawyer like Lincoln.
  • Refusal of the Call: The main theme and main source of dramatic tension. Many people, such as his old friend Joshua Speed, his law partner Herndon, and his wife Mary, all push him to be the man and leader they know he can be. Lincoln spends much of the play hesitant, unsure of himself and awed by responsibility.
  • Shown Their Work: The play is dramatically rather inert, but it does serve as a pretty accurate account of Lincoln's political career, with some dialogue taken verbatim from the historical record.
  • Uptown Girl: The romance between Mary Todd, daughter of a very rich family, and Abraham Lincoln, who grew up barefoot in a cabin.
  • Young Future Famous People: The first two acts deal with Lincoln as a young man and a beginner politician.

Alternative Title(s): Abe Lincoln In Illinois