Paul Giamatti Spars With Lincoln In 'Rivalry'

Douglas vs. Lincoln

Back when Democrat Stephen Douglas (left) and Republican Abraham Lincoln were debating, the time frame was rather different. The opening speaker was given a total of 60 minutes, and a rebuttal could go on for 90 minutes. AP/AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP/AP
The Two Debaters

Paul Giamatti (left) and David Strathairn star as Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, rivals for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, in L.A. Theatre Works' The Rivalry. Courtesy L.A. Theatre Works hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy L.A. Theatre Works

As presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain trade jabs in their final presidential debate Wednesday, another historic political debate will be under way across the country. In Los Angeles, actors Paul Giamatti and David Strathairn will be reenacting the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, as part of the play The Rivalry.

Though the seven-part face-off occurred 150 years ago — and the Norman Corwin play was written in 1958 — its content is pertinent, the actors tell Alex Cohen.

At the time, Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas were competing for a seat in the U.S. Senate. This was, of course, well before the days of televised debate coverage. Giamatti, who plays Douglas, says that likely worked in the candidates' favor.

"These two guys, they were physical freaks," he says, "Douglas was 5'4" and Lincoln was like 8 feet tall, and they both weighed like 90 pounds!"

But back in 1858, looks weren't as important as eloquence — and longevity. The debate format was very different back then, says Strathairn, who plays Lincoln.

"The opening speaker would speak for 60 minutes, the next speaker had 90 minutes where he could read his rebuttal, then after that the first speaker would have 30 minutes ... These guys could go on for hours!"

Though formats have changed a lot since then, some of the issues remain the same. Eric Simonson, director of the play, says the script mentions the U.S. banking system and the Mexican War.

"Douglas chides Abraham Lincoln for not supporting the war," he explains. "And Lincoln's answer is 'I did support the war in terms of spending, but I didn't support the action of the war.' It's the same argument that's being made for those who oppose the Iraq war today."

The main issue of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, however, was slavery and states' rights. Douglas believed states should be able to rule themselves, and Lincoln wanted to see an end to slavery.

The spin that current voters are so familiar with, however, was there in full force.

"The Republicans would report the speeches one way, and the Democrats would report them another way," says Strathairn, adding that the Democrats carefully edited Douglas' speeches so they appeared gaffe-free.

That would never fly in today's world of real-time blogs and live TV coverage. Negative campaigning, on the other hand, seems to transcend time and technology.

"There are lots of cracks about Douglas drinking too much that flew around ... even during the debate!"

Douglas had his share of attacks. He invoked racist rhetoric to defeat Abraham Lincoln, and it worked. Though Lincoln was considered the more eloquent debater, Douglas eventually won the Senate seat.

"It came down to public sentiment," says Strathairn, "and Douglas ... had that high ground of public sentiment in terms of states' rights and the slavery issue."

But it was Lincoln who went on to become president two years later. Then in 1865, slavery was abolished. And now, the actors note, an African-American man could become the next president.

The Rivalry opens Wednesday at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles.

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