Orson Welles Concurs With Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln liked to attend the theater with his secretary, John Hay, and saw several plays in which John Wilkes Booth acted. (I learned this from Lincoln at Gettysburg by Gary Wills.) He especially liked Shakespeare and admired the Shakespearean actor James Hackett.

Lincon and Hay disagreed about the way Hackett delivered a line of Falstaff’s:

“The President criticized H.’s reading of a passage where Hackett said, ‘Mainly thrust at me,'” Hay wrote in his diary, “the President thinking it should read ‘Mainly thrust at me.’ I told the Pres. I tho’t he was wrong: that ‘mainly’ merely meant ‘strongly,’ ‘fiercely.'”

“Hay is right on the narrower matter,” Wills writes. “‘Mainly’ here is ‘with might and main.’ But Falstaff’s account of his imaginary fight at Gad’s Hill is funnier if he gives a plaintive emphasis to ‘[poor] me…'”

“Orson Welles, playing Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight [a movie compilation of Falstaff’s scenes from Henry the IV and Henry the V], reads the the disputed line Lincoln’s way, not Hay’s. There was very little Hay, or any other man, could teach Lincoln about how to milk a comic remark for maximum effect.”