by Elaine Jarvik
“How would you like to write a play about our first gay president?” Plan-B Theatre’s Jerry Rapier asked me in the summer of 2016.
And so I began researching the life of a man I knew little about, one of those presidents who fall somewhere in the vague middle, one of those indistinguishable men with a high collar and a grim mouth. And what I discovered, of course, is that there is always more to the story.
James Buchanan was the only president to live out his White House tenure as a bachelor. So there were rumors then; and there are assumptions today. But the facts are slim: His best friend was Sen. William King of Alabama, who was also a bachelor, and they lived in the same rooming house in Washington; some said then that King was Buchanan’s “better half”; they were referred to as “Miss Nancy” and “Miss Fancy.”
And, finally, Buchanan once wrote a letter to a friend in which he bemoaned the fact that Sen. King had been appointed minister to France: “I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me,” he wrote. “I have gone a-wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.” And that’s pretty much it: some innuendoes and a few letters, which we filter through our 21st century understanding of the way men act and speak.
As I read more about Buchanan, I began to wonder what he would make of other assessments of his life and his administration. Some historians argue his actions and his inaction led America into the Civil War, and his name tops the lists of “worst presidents.” One of his biographies is titled: Worst. President. Ever. (Note to the outraged: these lists were made prior to January, 2017.)
This is what fascinated me: what might a man wish he could say to historians and the rest of us if he had a chance to explain himself? What would it feel like to be called “the worst” a century and a half after your death? What would it feel like, as a 19th century man, to be called “gay”? What would it feel like to be publicly, relentlessly called out on the eternal archive of the Internet?
And so I’ve written AN EVENING WITH TWO AWFUL MEN, an alternative reality in which James Buchanan (Jason Bowcutt), John Wilkes Booth (Aaron Adams) and Harriet Tubman (Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin) appear on “Dead People Live”, a darkly comic reality-show-of-sorts where the long-dead share with the not-yet-dead what it’s like when your name lives on forever, and your legacy might not be what you want it to be.
Playwright Elaine Jarvik has previously premiered MARRY CHRISTMAS (which celebrated the one-year anniversary of marriage equality in Utah), BASED ON A TRUE STORY and RIVER.SWAMP.CAVE.MOUNTAIN. at Plan-B Theatre. Her latest, AN EVENING WITH TWO AWFUL MEN, also features Emilie Starr in the cast and premieres at Plan-B February 21-March 3. Details and tickets at planbtheatre.org