In Barbarous Nights, Abraham Lincoln plays an important, though somewhat enigmatic, part in Buster Keaton’s journey to discover his humanity. As Keaton explains to the Maiden in scene two of the first shade after she wrenches off his mask, “My face is iconic. My face is as iconic as Lincoln’s face someone once told me.” Keaton strongly identifies with Abraham Lincoln, the other “great stone face” of American history.
In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, she describes Abraham Lincoln being photographed in 1863, a month after he gave his revered Gettysburg address:
“On Sunday, August 9, [John] Hay accompanied the president to Alexander Gardner’s photo studio at the corner of Seventh and D streets. The pictures taken that day do not reflect what Hay characterized as the president’s 'very good spirits.' Rigidly posed, with one hand on a book and the other at his waist, Lincoln was forced to endure the lengthy process of the photograph, which almost invariably produced a grim, unsmiling portrait. Subjects would be required to sit absolutely still while the photographer removed the cap from the lens to expose the picture. ‘Don’t move a muscle!’ the subject would be told, for the slightest twitch would blur the image. Moreover, since ‘contrived grinning in photographs had not yet become obligatory,’ many faces, like Lincoln’s, took on a melancholy cast.”
While Lincoln’s “stone face” in photos from the era may be attributed in part to the technological limitations of the camera or cultural norms regarding smiling in pictures, whatever the reason for his serious expression, it is clear is that the images of Lincoln circulated amongst the public were not fully representative of the man known to his close colleagues, friends and family. Abraham Lincoln’s iconic “deep set gaze” that appears “steady and melancholy” in his photographs is not only a constructed image separated from his everyday self, a Presidential mask, if you will, worn for the public eye, but it is also readily apparent to anyone familiar with the arduous task of posing for a photograph (Goodwin 230).
Perhaps Lincoln and his public were more comfortable with the dual identity of the President than Buster Keaton seems to be with his own, struggling to navigate without his mask in a world where nobody seems to know who this star of silent pictures is. In this play, Lincoln not only helps a modern audience understand the level of fame Buster Keaton had achieved at the height of the silent film era, his face as iconic as Lincoln’s, but he also represents part of Keaton’s personal journey to uncover his identity beneath the “stone faced” celebrity persona. When Lincoln says to Buster, “It is impossible to see our humanity,” perhaps he is talking celebrity to celebrity, speaking of the iconic mask we recognize as “President Abraham Lincoln” and silent film star “Buster Keaton.”
Much thanks to Nathan Kinsman for his brilliant historical knowledge, thoughts, and assistance researching for this post.