Edinburgh Fringe preview: Mrs President

Writer John Ransom Phillips brings his new US drama, Mrs President, to the Edinburgh Fringe for its international premiere.

It is a play about Mary Lincoln (1818-1882), widow of President Abraham Lincoln, and how her image was portrayed as “America’s First Widow”.

Find out more about this historical piece on the power of representation as we chat to John about it and irs contemporary relevance.

Where: C ARTS

When: 2-27 Aug (not Mondays), 2.30pm

Ticket link: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/mrs-president

Promotional image for Mrs President

What are you most looking forward to at the Fringe?

As I have never attended the Fringe before, I’m looking forward to all of it. I’ve been fortunate to live a creative life.

Being in the midst of all the creative work that the Fringe gathers is something I’m grateful to be a part of this year. Meeting fellow artists and creators, seeing art and new perspectives are things I always appreciate.

Most of all, I’m eager to see Mrs President come to life for an international audience and what Fringe-goers will make of Mary Lincoln and Mathew Brady.

Mary Lincoln is a very interesting character for a play, with a lot of action, conflict, and heartbreak in her story? What drew you to her as a subject?

Much of my work explores history. Originally, my focus was drawn to Mathew Brady, who was a renowned photographer whose portraits were said to make people famous.

Brady’s studio captured much of the American Civil War, too. His images created narratives which were idealised, but not necessarily true. He often cleaned and repositioned the war dead for his photographs.

Being a student of American history, I began to wonder about the stories behind Brady’s images. Mary Lincoln’s portrait by Brady became a curiosity for me.

If you consider Mary Lincoln’s flawed reputation, framing it with things like her fashion, her devotion to her family, and her husband being murdered right in front of her, doesn’t this sound like another American First Lady?

Jackie Kennedy came to mind for me right away. American history loves her. So, why is Mary Lincoln unloved? I needed to understand this and discovered that she was much more than is commonly understood.

The role of First Lady has been a difficult one to juggle, particularly in the last century. Do you think it is easier for the more recent inhabitants of the role than it was in Mary’s day?

Being the First Lady of the United States, no matter the era, cannot be easy. While the place of women in society has improved since the founding of the country, each woman married to a president surely has had their fair share of challenges.

Mary Lincoln and her contemporaries surely felt the injustice of being regarded as second-class citizens with no say in their society, with no ability to vote.

They were bound by marriage, and even physically bound by their fashion, considered incapable in so many ways despite the reality being entirely to the contrary.

In the modern era, while there is more equality than ever, the First Lady of the United States, and any woman in a position of power, for that matter, is still too easily made a target.

From Eleanor Roosevelt to Jill Biden, unfair and unfounded criticisms and obstacles are too easily hurled at these women. Perhaps they have it easier because there are more tools and more information available to set things right.

In a way, I’m trying to give Mary Lincoln that same chance, now.

Mrs President concerns image and identity at a time when photography was in its infancy. Do you think Mary would fare any better in today’s Instagram-heavy world?

While the social media landscape has its inequities, it does enable the user to more directly control their own narrative.

In Mrs President, Mary struggles for control of her image and narrative with Mathew Brady. Mary Lincoln was extremely smart. If she had her own IG account now, Brady would be out of a job, and Mary would be an influencer.

Many women were condemned as hysteric or insane in less entitled times. How does this impact on the story of Mary Lincoln?

This tragic mistake of condemnation is at the heart of Mrs President. In our time, we now understand more about trauma and loss. Things like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression were not understood in Mary Lincoln’s time.

Moreover, as women were commonly regarded as property and vessels for making children, societal compassion for the death of children or a husband was comparatively non-existent. Grief was practically blasphemous.

The mindset that labeled Mary Lincoln insane is what still dominates our history. Over millennia, humanity’s emotional landscape hasn’t changed much. Our understanding of it, and how we deal with it has varied wildly, often too coloured by gender.

Mrs President invites audiences to reconsider Mary Lincoln through a compassionate lens for who she was and wanted to be, not just what she lost and who she was married to.