By: June Bingham
In 1997 I was at an ASCAP workshop in New York with a previous musical of mine when, during the coffee break, a young woman came up to me: “Are you a book writer?”
“Well, I’m a composer/lyricist and I’m perishing to write a musical about a woman in the 19th Century.”
As with the fairy tale prince who was startled to find a frog jumping out of his mouth, I was startled to hear the words “Mary Lincoln” jumping out of mine.
“Mary Lincoln,” she almost shouted. “Why would anyone ever want to write about her?”
By the time I had detailed Mary’s dramatic character and her Greek tragedy-type conflict with Robert the only remaining of her four sons, I was even more attracted to the idea.
Carmel Owen, the composer/lyricist, turned out to have grown up in Kentucky and she knew a lot about Mary Todd Lincoln’s luxurious childhood in Lexington followed by the financially difficult early years of marriage to Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois.
Thus was our joint musical Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln born. After several false starts, we limited the action to the year 1875, 10 years after the death of Lincoln, when MARY’s eldest son, ROBERT, had her committed to a lunatic asylum called Bellevue, near Chicago. The action starts with her entrance to her hospital room with its barred windows and ends with her departure from it. Her imaginative efforts to regain her freedom are fueled by her memories of LINCOLN’s own courage (two full scenes of flashback enable the audience to see Lincoln himself). She was also eventually helped by her longtime friend, MYRA BRADWELL, the first woman lawyer in the US and the publisher of the first law journal, as well as by her feisty African-American nurse, DELIA, and by the journalist Frank Wilkie whom she allowed to interview her and who told the American public the truth, that indeed Mary Lincoln was not insane. In the end MARY also manages to win over her keeper, DR. RICHARD PATTERSON, psychiatrist and owner of Bellevue.
Only Nurse Delia is an invented character, although modeled very much on strong African-American friends that Mary always depended upon to give her strength in time of need, as when her 10-year-old son Willie died in the White House. All other characters are historically accurate. The show is both a tragedy and a victory for the main character, who moves from helpless despair to clever activism, from the fear that she might in fact be insane to a burning desire to be free again. Mary Todd Lincoln turned out to be even more worthy of being written about than I had thought possible ten years ago. Indeed, she has turned out from audience as well as authors’ point of view to be fascinating and completely unforgettable.