The main characters in Salt Lake Acting Company's Grant & Twain, the president and the author, make for one of the most dynamic and curious duos in American history. But before heading out this week to watch the play, we've got a brief history lesson for you.
Just in time for President's day weekend, director Keven Myhre and playwright Elizabeth Diggs have teamed up to bring audiences this hidden gem of history, and they have a lot to clarify. We sat down with them for this Q&A on the show:
In high school, I was taught Grant was a great general but a terrible president, plus an alcoholic. True or false?
Keven: "Liz is here to correct some of that."
Elizabeth: "When I first started working on this, I wanted to dig deep and find out the truth. The truth is that historians who’ve done the research say that there was no more corruption in Grant's regime than was normal across the board for virtually every presidential administration.
"I believe he got about the worst deal of any great American that I know. I think that he is an authentic American hero and this notion that he was—but I’m glad you learned he was a great general—a drunk were false. They were rumors that were published by the press who didn’t know him, who’d never met him, and they were just repeated and repeated.
"But Grant, of course, inherited a really challenging situation with reconstruction especially after Johnson—who was really a disastrous president. Grant did some pretty amazingly heroic things. Mainly, the most important thing was sending troops to the South to put down the klan, and he succeeded in suppressing the klan for 20 years. I think it’s impressive."
How does Mark Twain play into this?
Elizabeth: "It’s so amazing and it amazed me when I discovered it. I didn’t know. Twain was 13 years younger than Grant and he was one of many people known as 'Grant-intoxicated-men' who were just amazed at Grant's ability and his personality. Twain really idolized Grant and when Twain was introduced to him and then got to know him, it was a huge thing for Twain. He really treasured that friendship and then when he did what he did about the book [publish Grant's memoirs]—it’s astonishing."
What is the take way point of this play?
Keven: "I think that Grant had this supportive nucleus around him and he also inspired those around him to do greater things. For me, being inspired by [Elizabeth's] script made it more than just a history play. It really is a play about these men’s relationships and the other relationships Grant has with Badeau, and Julia, and Harrison and the soldiers."
Elizabeth: "At the end of Grant's life, he was bankrupted and he had to do something that was very difficult for him. He had to write a book; he had never written a book, much less a book that was good enough to be published and get high sales in order to save his family’s fortune. Then he was diagnosed with cancer, so it was a heroic effort at the end of his life. If you could possibly summon the character, determination and courage to do what he did then you would be grateful. I would say it’s a very moving and inspiring story. So we’ll see what audiences think."
Grant & Twain will be playing at Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 West 500 North, through March 2.
Photos courtesy of SLAC.