The challenge of playing Jefferson Davis on stage
Jefferson Davis was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. While some celebrate him as a great military man, others see him as the reason for the South’s failure in the Civil War. Traitor or martyr, Davis’ significance within Southern history cannot be contested.
In “Unconquerable Heart: A Life of Jefferson Davis,” opening Thursday at PURE Theatre, writer-actor Dorin Seymour endeavors to put a human face on this often-misunderstood figure. Shunning politics, Seymour sheds light on Jefferson Davis the man.
“I was so touched by the details of his life, and I’ve tried to bring out a lot of the details in his humanity,” Seymour said.
Seymour, whose great-grandfather served in the Civil War, is no stranger to the character of Jefferson Davis. An avid history lover and lifelong performer, he inhabited the role in a 1998 workshop performance of Mark Weston’s two-hander “The Sacred Trust.” This encounter sparked a deep interest in Davis.
“It didn’t become a mission for me but it did become a delight to find out more about him and share it with other people,” Seymour said.
June Murray Wells, director of the Confederate Museum in Charleston, explained that history has made Davis a scapegoat of “Mr. Lincoln’s War.” Often blamed for the South’s loss, Davis was just trying to keep afloat in a position that he did not believe he could handle, Wells said.
“He got a job he didn’t want and wasn’t suited for,” she said.
Davis, a graduate of West Point, was home sick with a migraine when he was chosen to be president, Wells said. Though he would have preferred to be on the battlefield, he saw it as his duty to accept the nomination.
“During the war, he was sitting behind a desk where he didn’t want to be,” she said.
“Unconquerable Heart,” a one-man show, begins in 1865, following Davis’ arrest for treason. Act One takes place in the jail cell where he spent the next two years. As different characters move in and out of Davis’ life, the audience is privy to his sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle deterioration. Act Two focuses on his life post-incarceration and his efforts to mend the breach between the North and the South.
Seymour acknowledged the inherent challenges in having Davis as a protagonist. When portraying characters whom history has cast in a bad light, one must work to earn the sympathy of the audience.
“It’s a completely different experience than, say, playing Mark Twain or Charles Dickens,” he said. “It’s a different animal. But from that standpoint, it’s thrilling.”
Mary Gibble is a Newhouse School graduate student.