In his meticulously researched and densely detailed manuscript, Stenzel portrays a resolute Lincoln firmly aware of the social and historical significance of his speech.
To illustrate the point, Stenzel includes a conversation between Lincoln and his wife where she begs him not to go on account of Tad’s illness. Stenzel also includes a conversation between Lincoln and his secretary, John Hay, in which the president dismisses any offense to the fact that he was not chosen as the keynote speaker for the ceremony (a distinction that belonged to Edward Everett).
“For Lincoln, the cemetery dedication ceremony was more than an obligation,” Stenzel said. “It was an opportunity for him to explain to the American people why the Civil War was being fought at all, and why it must continue until the Union prevailed — no matter what the cost.”
To understand the importance of the Gettysburg Address, however, Stenzel also illustrates its the costs on the battlefield.
Much of the play focuses on various war accounts that Stenzel chose specifically to give a representative cross-section of the population.
He includes accounts from the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment, whose heroic deeds at Gettysburg have earned it a battlefield monument, as well as accounts from drummer boys, women and townsfolk.
He includes the story of Jennie Wade, who was killed while baking bread and was the only civilian casualty from Gettysburg, and Charlie Coulson, a Union drummer boy who refused anesthetic for his amputations and instead trusted his pain to God.
Stenzel also weaves unflattering accounts of soldiers — ransacking dead bodies on the battlefield, friendly fire killings — with moments that underscore the unlikely humanity of war. In one of the play’s most symbolic scenes, Lincoln insists on shaking the hand of a Confederate soldier during a visit to a field hospital.
“When Lincoln said, ‘with malice toward none,’ he meant it,” said Stenzel, referencing the oft-quoted line from Lincoln’s second inaugural address. “He walked the walk as well as talked the talk.”