By Karen Isaacs
Edith Galt Wilson has sometimes been termed “the first female President” for how she shielded her husband Woodrow Wilson from his advisors and the world in 1919 after he suffered a stroke. Historians have painted a picture of a woman who during that period made important policy decisions in her husband’s name and signed his name to documents. Some have said, she was partly to blame that the US Senate refused to approve the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I and established the League of Nations. (The US never did join the League and never did sign the Treaty; Congress finally passed a separate resolution ending the hostilities).
So in our modern time when the idea of an elected woman president seems a real possibility — and with the partisan gridlock in Washington between Republicans and Democrats, the President and the Congress — looking at that period and those characters — Edith Wilson, Woodrow Wilson and the Senate leader Henry Cabot Lodge (a Republican) certainly could make interesting and thought-provoking theater.
This was long before the 25th amendment to the Constitution (ratified in 1967) which dealt with the difficult issues of presidential physical or mental incapacity and succession.
The Second Mrs. Wilson which is getting its world premier at Long Wharf attempts to explore this subject.
The play by Joe DiPietro is told in chronological order. It opens in 1915, when Wilson — a widower for less than a year — falls in love with Edith Galt, whose husband had left her a jewelry shop which she has successfully run. His close aides including Colonel House who had been with him for many, many years and his press secretary, Tumulty are less than enthusiastic. Wilson is facing a tough re-election campaign and the aides are concerned how the public will react to the romance; they obviously also had deep affection for Ellen Wilson, the former First Lady. We are also introduced to the animosity between Wilson and Sen. Lodge. Remember this is during WWI and Lodge publically castigates Wilson for not getting the US into the war even as German ships sink British boats (including the Lusitania) and kill American citizens.
At times, act one seems like a pleasant romantic comedy about a middle-aged couple finding a second chance at romance. The president is positively giddy with delight and desire. But DiPietro never really makes clear what the attraction — except perhaps physical — exists between the couple. In reality they did share interests in automobiles (still new fangled inventions) and golf. We do get a touch of some of Wilson ‘s medical problems: blinding headings, nervous strain and more. We also see his moral certitude: the war is wrong and he will not send American boys to die on foreign battlefields.
But it is also hard to swallow that Wilson would be seriously interested in Edith. He had a PhD in history and had served as president of Princeton University before becoming governor of New Jersey. Edith, in one of the early scenes, is totally oblivious to what is going in Europe (the war broke out in 1914) except that it will prevent her from going to Paris to buy couture gowns at the House of Worth. She is equally uninformed about the Constitution and the political system among other things.
But she is shown to be determined: she immediately decides she doesn’t like Colonel House and undermines him in Wilson’s eyes quickly and deftly. The woman had political skills. By the time the act ends they are married before the election, to the consternation of his advisors.
Act II finds us in early 1919. America did get into the war in 1917and American soldiers did die on foreign battlefields. Wilson now has another moral certitude: he has a plan to “end all wars” and 14 points that he wants in the peace treaty. So he and Edith are off to Paris where they are hailed and mobbed as heroes and he helps negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. Included in that Treaty is the outline for the League of Nations, Wilson’s plan for eliminating war. Historians will later point out that many of the punitive clauses of the Treaty were important factors in the rise of Hitler and subsequently, World War II.
As he and Edith return to the US, the real issue is Senate opposition — led by Lodge but not confined to either him or the Republicans — to the League. The argument was really one of sovereignty. One of the premises of the Covenant, as it was called, would require all nations to attack any nation that went to war. As Lodge and others pointed out, that is power granted by the US Constitution to Congress.
With Edith by his side, Wilson undertakes a grueling whistle stop campaign of speeches to drum up support for the war. It is during one of these that he suffers the stroke from which he never fully recovers.
Edith totally takes over. She allows no-one — not even Wilson’s closest advisors to see him; all official papers must go through her and she decides which she will discuss with him during his “good moments”. The stroke partially paralyzed him, and while did not necessarily severely affect his reasoning ability did both limit his speech and contributed to emotional outbursts. As his aides struggle to shield the press, the public and Congress from his condition, they are also attempting to find some compromise that would garner the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the treaty. Neither Edith nor Wilson are willing to move one inch.
The play ends with the Senate defeat of the Treaty. By the way, Wilson never fully recovered and died in 1921; Edith lived on in Washington until 1961.
If the first act plays like romantic comedy, act two cannot decide what its focus is: Edith and her bullying of everyone to protect and hide Wilson’s condition, or the fight to save the Treaty. It appears that DiPietro went for the first option. While one can understand Edith’s wifely devotion to Wilson and his dreams of the League, it is also appalling to modern audiences — her cavalier disregard for the spirit of the Constitution and her usurpation of the authority of the President. For that is exactly what she did: she made major policy decisions on her own authority and she forged Wilson’s signature on others.
Unfortunately in this play, the balance is off. The aides and even Senator Lodge are minimized as characters in the second half so that the issues are never really illuminated. Probably Edith did not allow a discussion but the audience doesn’t even really see the others discussing among themselves the realities of the situation.
With any creative work based on history, the author is allowed to some degree veer away from total historical accuracy. Though DiPietro does this in some significant ways, it is not egregious and does not substantially alter what went on.
The Long Wharf production, directed by Gordon Edelstein, features a lush set by Alexander Dodge that in the rear looks likes a gentleman’s club of the period replete with pool table. Linda Cho’s costumes are accurate for the period and the lighting by Christopher Akerlind creates the mood effectively.
Margaret Colin as Edith gives us a woman who knows how to use her Southern charm but is also a steel butterfly. In the early scenes you almost see her calculating her feelings for Wilson (which were more hesitant than his) with the prestige and status that would accrue. This woman is determined. Later on you feel her affection for Wilson and her influence on him. She begins to control him more and more and undermine his aides. It is clear she is enjoying the power and wants to use it fully.
John Glover gives us a Wilson that is focused on only two aspects of the man: his delight in his later-age romance and his moral certainty about his decisions leading to an unwillingness to compromise because God had ordained it. As he says to Lodge in the play, “how could any good Christian reject this covenant?” In the last half of act two, Glover is really limited to some childishly emotional outbursts as the stricken Wilson.
Harry Groener as Colonel House essentially disappears in act two; he could have been a foil to Edith and also helped illuminate the issue. Fred Applegate plays Joe Tumulty. The biggest disappointment is Nick Wyman as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge — he neither has the carriage nor the sound of a Boston Brahmin and he certainly does not convey the power of this man who in many ways was a certain of his “rightness” as Wilson was. Stephen Barker Turner is Dr. Cary Grayson, who is complicit with Edith in hiding the President’s condition.
Unfortunately, rather than give us a more substantive discussion of this relationship and its effect on the world, author Joe DiPietro has elected to make this a rather lightweight comedy. Too bad.
So if you want a romantic comedy dressed up as history, you may enjoy The Second Mrs. Wilson. If you would like a more substantive approach to the subject see if you can a copy of the book, When the Cheering Stopped OR a copy of the play, Edith by Kelly Masterson which covers much the same territory in a more thoughtful way.
The Second Mrs. Wilson is at Long Wharf through May 31. For tickets go to Long Wharf.