Lee on Stage: Lessons on Legacy and History from an English Play
By Benjamin Gee '18
In 1923, amid the oppression of Jim Crow and heavy disillusionment brought on by the First World War, a playwright named John Drinkwater wrote a simple drama titled after a controversial figure from the American Civil War. In seven small scenes, Drinkwater’s Robert E. Lee tells the story of Lee’s consequential decision to join the Confederacy, years of rebellion against the Union, and eventual surrender at Appomattox. Drinkwater’s drama was popular in its time, and its respectful portrayal of Lee won wide admiration in the United States – but the play was not itself American. John Drinkwater was an Englishman, and Robert E. Lee the product of an English mind – an outsider’s perspective looking in on a great national conflict across the Atlantic, fifty-eight years past. Why write about Lee, a polarizing American figure, in England?
If read without knowing its author, Robert E. Lee appears to be the work of a Southern writer. Treating Lee’s character as a tragic hero from Greek or Elizabethan drama, Drinkwater highlights the enormous difficulty of Lee’s choices and the stoic resolve with which he faced the challenges of opposing his country on the field of battle. Far from the rebel-leading, slave-holding villain in much contemporary discourse, Drinkwater’s Lee represents the pain of virtue under duress, of duty torn between conflicting loyalties - an American image of Shakespeare’s Brutus or Euripides’ Electra. To construct this tragic figure, Drinkwater bends history at times into a more convenient frame, mollifying and simplifying Lee’s complex personal history in the process. One critical exchange occurs in the play’s first scene. When confronted by Lincoln with a stark choice between state and country, Lee’s response better reflects Drinkwater’s twentieth-century English values than the actual substance of Lee’s decision:
Gen. Winfield Scott: I gather that the indications are that [Virginia] will follow the [states declaring secession].
Lee: In view of what has happened, I fear so.
Scott: You fear so?
Lee: Yes. I am opposed to secession on principle. More, I do not think the issue upon which it is proposed a sufficient one. I would gladly see every slave freed than that the Union should be broken.
Drinkwater’s Lee opposes both secession and slavery on principle, an oversimplified but mostly accurate presentation of Lee’s actual views – but Drinkwater goes on to hyperbolize these views: “I would gladly see every slave freed than that the Union should be broken.” This statement strays from historical reality. Were this truly the case, Lee would have joined the Union and sought for reunification and abolition instead of the Confederacy, which was driven primarily by slavery and disunion. Drinkwater presents Lee’s decision to side with the South as an agonizing, heroic choice between principle and obligation – and with Virginia’s decision to secede, Lee’s obligation triumphs over his will, committing him to a rebellious fate.
Historians tell us that the sanctification, or even sanitization, of Confederate figures advances the Lost Cause ideology, a system of belief that ennobles the Confederacy as a final gasp of agrarian chivalry against the creeping impersonal industrialism of the North. The Lost Cause’s advocates, determined to rehabilitate the South’s image, recast the Civil War as a conflict over “States’ rights” (as opposed to slavery) and presented the fighting in David vs. Goliath terms, hailing the superior heroism of Southern soldiers against a veritable flood of anonymous Union blue. At best, Lost Cause provided a romanticized view of the average Confederate soldier, cleansing his motives and defending his calling; at worst, Lost Cause perpetuated harmful misconceptions of the Civil War, implicitly absolving the South of responsibility for its dedication to slavery and the atrocities undertaken in pursuit of its preservation. Viewed through this contemporary lens, Drinkwater’s play Robert E. Lee may easily appear to indulge in the key Lost Cause trope that Robert E. Lee was an honorable, even heroic, figure – a provocative assertion today.
However, this argument does not account for the play’s author. Drinkwater, an Englishman, had no personal stake or investment in Lost Cause mythology, a phenomenon mainly of the American South, grounded in post-Confederate revisionism. He possessed none of the usual motivations for whitewashing the Civil War that Southerners did – in fact, his English background made him an even more forceful critic of American slavery. England abolished slavery in 1833, an entire generation before the United States passed the 13th Amendment, and abolition movements had held moral authority in England since the 1780’s, long before gaining cultural strength in the US. For British commentators, the American Civil War represented a long overdue reckoning with slavery – and Drinkwater accordingly rejects the Lost Cause case that the Civil War was a States’ rights issue when Lee says: “More, I do not think the issue upon which [secession] is proposed [slavery] a sufficient one.” Our question remains: Why did an English playwright who loved Lincoln and despised slavery portray Lee as more anti-slavery than he was?
Here, as before, Drinkwater offers an answer. In the play’s final scene, Lee diminishes from the stage before a procession of Confederate wounded, with several passing away before the general’s eyes. These suffering young men pass on, with Appomattox and the Confederate defeat in their eyes, but defiant love for Lee on their lips. The Confederate cause may have failed, and its premises may have been disunion and slavery, but their leader was a man worth the price they paid in his service. For Drinkwater, any redemptive meaning from the massive Confederate loss of life in the Civil War is subsumed into the service not of country, or of an inhuman institution, but a tragically flawed leader who made the wrong choice and faced the consequences. Lee represents the urge, strongly present to Drinkwater after the needless bloodshed of the First World War, for there to have been something worth dying for on each side of an awful war. For the Confederate dead, this question looms impossibly large – failure, rebellion, and slavery all hang over their deaths, denying their ancestors the opportunity to find pride or solace in their passing. Drinkwater, sympathizing with our universal need to make sense of suffering and death, offers Robert E. Lee as a reason for pride, a flawed but consequential figure whose measured leadership seemed almost separate from the regrettable circumstances of his military service.
When discussing the Lost Cause, we often stop to call out and reject the false arguments raised in defense of Southern motives and actions during the Civil War. It remains important that we pursue truth and hold these misconceptions to account. However, when doing so, we may fail to recognize why those misconceptions exist. Why do Southerners claim the Civil War was about States’ rights today, instead of slavery? Why are Lee and other Confederate figures presented as saints under duress? In short – the dead, their past and their heritage, need to have died for something – something to believe in. For many, Lee represents the one aspect of the Southern cause not irreparably tarnished by slavery, inglorious rebellion, or ignoble conduct. His modest, calm leadership inspired his soldiers through the worst of predicaments – and although their cause was unjust and fate grim, Lee presented a standard worth the sacrifice of death. Enumerating Lee’s many significant flaws and placing them alongside his purported virtues is an important task, and well worth the effort – but in doing so, we ought to remember that Lee’s centrality to Lost Cause mythology is not necessarily the sinister act of revisionary racists, but also the desperate belief of Confederate descendants that despite all the evils of slavery and disunion their perished predecessors fought for, they could have a reason to be proud for having fought for something good. Drinkwater, an English playwright obsessed with tragic historical figures, recognized the unique and healing role that Lee could play in the binding of a nation’s wounds. As we seek to faithfully represent history and present the past’s faults beside its virtues, we ought also to remember Lee’s complex legacy as a figure of both harm and healing. We would do a disservice to history to neglect either.