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Half a century ago, when the second World War was barely concluded and patriotic fervor ran high in the fields of the Republic, The Magnificent Yankee may have been counted a rousing, even challenging piece of theater—it’s full of noble ideas about a “living Constitution” and the sanctity of free expression for anti-war types, and it echoes, with heartening reminders of democracy’s blessings, the “Four Freedoms” of FDR’s 1941 inaugural.
Nowadays, Americans cherish fewer illusions about the workings of government and the essential goodness of the men and women who populate its halls, and so the few political points made in this sweet, sentimental homage to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. seem less bold—we’ve come to take the ideas behind them for granted, even if we’re cynical about how often such sentiments prevail.
Luckily, the play isn’t really about Holmes’ politics so much as it is about a few guiding principles, and about his 57-year love affair with his indomitable wife, Fanny Dixwell Holmes. In the new production at Ford’s Theatre, James Whitmore and Audra Lindley sketch their relationship with such spirit that audiences may well overlook the utter dearth of drama in Emmet Lavery’s script.
Holmes, for the history-impaired, was not the “Aye, tear her tattered ensign down” fellow—that was his Boston Brahmin father, the noted physician and writer. Junior was the thrice-wounded Civil War hero, author of The Common Law, a Supreme Court justice for 30 years, and one of this century’s greatest defenders of free thought (though he is most famous, ironically enough, for expounding on its limits in Schenck vs. U.S.A.). A social and political conservative, he nevertheless believed that the law must be flexible enough to allow for change, and that the judiciary must not allow its own views to overrule the will of the people as expressed by the legislatures. More often than not, this philosophy left him at odds with the rest of the fairly reactionary court of his day, and he became known as “The Great Dissenter”—as much for the eloquence and passion of his dissents as for their frequency.
The Magnificent Yankee begins in 1902, as Holmes leaves behind the chief justiceship of the high court in Massachusetts to take his seat with the federal Supremes. He and Fanny are looking at houses in Washington—though, as the first scene establishes, Fanny is the sort of woman who picks a home, arranges things with the real estate agent, and gives the forwarding address to the postman, all the while allowing her husband to believe he’s in charge. (Late in the play, Holmes observes that the old notion of two people becoming one through marriage is all well and good; “the trouble is, you were always the one.”)
After they’ve settled in, Holmes proceeds to infuriate Teddy Roosevelt, who appointed him to the bench, by dissenting in a case dear to the president’s heart, and Roosevelt publicly threatens to turn the new justice away from the White House should he dare to approach its threshold. Interestingly enough, the Holmeses have been invited to dinner at the executive mansion that very evening, and there’s much concern over what to do until Fanny, who has in the meantime been confounding an overly inquisitive newspaper reporter by leading him to believe in the existence of a previous Mrs. Holmes, announces her intention of charming the pants off the president. She does just that, and all is well in Washington until the second act, when the Holmeses fret over whether Supreme Court nominee Louis Brandeis will be confirmed by the Senate (I told you there’s really not much conflict to drive this narrative). The play skips over the remainder of their tenure in Washington, touching on the high points and ending 31 years later with the first inauguration of that other Roosevelt.
Along the way, Lavery never misses an opportunity to reinforce the impression of Fanny as the great woman behind her great man. She’s always ready with a thoughtful observation when he’s stuck on a particularly knotty question, and she’s never at a loss when it’s time to bring her idealist husband back down to earth (he sees himself as a “missionary,” but to Fanny he’s “a kind of traveling salesman with a consuming passion for naughty French novels”). There’s tremendous affection behind her bossiness and her barbs, though, and Lindley brings just the right combination of quick wit and tenderness to her performance. A couple of Mrs. Roperisms—a two-handed gesture of frustration, a particularly piercing inflection given to a complaint—creep into the first act, but otherwise her Fanny is the very picture of a dignified, intelligent woman who’s established herself as her husband’s equal, in defiance of social norms that insist otherwise. Lindley takes care, too, that the audience should see Fanny’s very real fondness for her husband. There’s an especially beautiful moment in the next-to-last scene, during which an ailing Fanny confides to a third party her concern over how Holmes, 90 years old and increasingly frail, will cope when she’s gone. A moment later, the old man himself comes in, carrying a bunch of violets he’s plundered from someone’s hothouse during his afternoon walk.
They’re not as fragrant as the yard-grown variety, he confesses, “but they do say they bespeak a loving heart.” There’s a beat, and she looks up at the old sentimentalist, her face alight. “Silly,” she says gently, and in Lindley’s hands the single word carries more devotion than a sonnet.
Whitmore’s Holmes is more one-dimensional, but that’s mostly the fault of the playwright, who insists on making his hero deliver speeches rather than dialogue: “Life is a passionate and profound thing, or it is nothing at all,” he says, and “Never measure things by your fears, but by your faith.” Poor Whitmore; he blusters impressively and manipulates Holmes’ famously exquisite mustaches with panache, but it’s hard to be fully human when you’re the subject of a hagiography. Among the extensive supporting cast, Bill Raymond’s Justice Brandeis and Don Perkins’ Owen Wister make the most vivid impressions. Director Peter Hunt doesn’t pay enough attention to the show’s pace, and he really should have done a little judicious trimming in that scene with the umpteen secretaries and the endless handshakes, but Noel Taylor’s delightful period costumes and Hugh Landwehr’s lavishly detailed realization of Holmes’ library make up for many of the deficiencies in production and play. Together, they and the two leads conjure up a charming couple of hours from a time when there was such a thing as an afternoon mail, and when crocuses bloomed on the White House lawn for anyone to pick.CP