Paul Giamatti Spars With Lincoln In 'Rivalry' David Strathairn and the Sideways star are reenacting the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the play The Rivalry. Though the seven-part face-off occurred 150 years ago, when appearances were less important than eloquence, the actors say some things haven't changed.

Paul Giamatti Spars With Lincoln In 'Rivalry'

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with Day to Day. Tonight, one politician known for his eloquence and another known for his straight talk will meet in a debate. Now, we're not talking about the McCain-Obama face-off on Long Island. This debate will sound a little different.

Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI (Actor, The Rivalry): (As Abraham Lincoln) I do not expect the union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

Mr. DAVID STRATHAIRN (Actor, The Rivalry): (As Stephan Douglas) Mr. Lincoln, by his scriptural quotation, is inviting warfare between the north and south to force our government to become all one thing or all the other.

BRAND: Those are the actors David Strathairn and Paul Giamatti in "The Rivalry." The play is a reenactment of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, and it opens tonight in Los Angeles. Day to Day's Alex Cohen has more.

ALEX COHEN: Exactly 150 years ago today, Democrat Stephen Douglas and Republican Abraham Lincoln debated a seventh and final time in Alton, Illinois. This was, of course, well before the days of televised debate coverage, and perhaps, says actor Paul Giamatti, that worked in their favor.

Mr. GIAMATTI: It is funny. If you think of these two guys, they were kind of physical freaks. I mean, Douglas was five foot four, and, you know, Lincoln was, like, eight feet tall, and they both weighed like 90 lbs. It is totally - they were freaks, kind of.

COHEN: Douglas and Lincoln were competing for a U.S. Senate seat. In the play "The Rivalry," Paul Giamatti plays Douglas and David Strathairn plays Lincoln. Though the actors might not bear too much physical resemblance, Giamatti says. there are likely other solid reasons behind the casting choices.

Mr. GIAMATTI: I mean. if you want somebody to play a fatuous, loudmouth, political loser, that's me. Somebody who can go on for hours and you actually have no idea what they're saying, that's me.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: Excellent.

COHEN: Though the two joke about it, the ability to talk spontaneously at great lengths was a necessary skill for any politician at the time. The debate format, says David Strathairn, was very different back then.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: The opening speaker would speak for 60 minutes, for an hour. The next speaker would have 90 minutes in which he could read his rebuttal. And then. after that. the first speaker would then have 30 minutes. So there - and they would go on for hours.

COHEN: Transcripts of those lengthy debates serve as the basis of the play "The Rivalry," written by Norman Corwin.

Mr. ERIC SIMONSON (Director, The Rivalry): You can sit down, and when you have the interruption, you can start here and then stet up.

COHEN: Director Eric Simonson says, even though the debates were held in 1858, and the play written a century after that, some of the issues in "The Rivalry" seem especially timely now.

Mr. SIMONSON: There's a mention of the Mexican War. Douglas chides Abraham Lincoln for not supporting the war, and Abraham Lincoln's answer is, I did support the war in terms of spending for the war, but I didn't support the action of the war. It's exactly the same argument that's being made for those who oppose the Iraq War today.

COHEN: But the main issue of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was one you're not likely to hear about in tonight's McCain-Obama encounter. Actor David Strathain says the topic was slavery.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: Douglas being on the side that the states should be able to decide for themselves whatever policy is right for them, and Lincoln more so focusing on human rights really, and they went at it.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Stephen Douglas) Is sectional warfare to be waged between northern and southern states merely because Mr. Lincoln says a house divided against itself cannot stand.

COHEN: Paul Giamatti as Stephen Douglas.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Stephen Douglas) Surely, Mr. Lincoln is a wiser man than those who framed our government. Washington and the fathers of the revolution well understood that the laws and institutions...

COHEN: In addition to rehearsing their lines, the actors have also been studying historical accounts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Actor David Strathain notes that these encounters back in 1858 marked the first time the press was present at a major political debate.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: There was spin, too. The Republicans would report the speeches one way, and the Democrats would report them another way.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yeah.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: It was really interesting.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yeah, they'd keep all of Lincoln's intact, and all his, you know, whatever gaffes may have been there, you know, fluffles and stuff like that, and then they would edit. If they were sympathetic to Douglas, they would edit his speeches and make them look pretty succinct and clear.

COHEN: In today's world of realtime blogs and live TV coverage, that would never fly. In many ways, Strathain says, the world of politics seems different now, especially when debates force candidates to answer questions about tough issues in a mere 120 seconds.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: It's disrespectful to the audience, I think, that they have to make an assessment on a two minute collection of soundbites. You know, the last one with Tom Brockaw, he was constantly talking about the clock. I mean, how reductive is that?

Mr. GIAMATTI: For these guys, actually, I think maybe it's harder now. They have to jam everything into two minutes and know that it's really about your tie, whether you sighed too much, while the other guy was - I mean, to know that it's really about nothing but your personality has got to be intense pressure in a weird way.

COHEN: But, says Giamatti, certain aspects of today's politics are absolutely no different than they were in 1858.

Mr. GIAMATTI: The campaigning was pretty brutal. I mean, you know, lots of cracks about Douglas drinking too much. I think that one flew around even in the debate.

COHEN: The negative campaigning went both ways. Stephen Douglas invoked racist rhetoric to attack Abraham Lincoln and, says David Strathairn, it worked. Though Lincoln was considered the more eloquent debater, Douglas eventually won the Senate seat.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: It came down to public sentiment. Douglas sort of - he had that high ground, public sentiment, in terms of states' rights and the slavery issue and the way government had been - the country had been going.

COHEN: But it was Lincoln who went on to become president two years later. Then, in 1865, he was able to abolish slavery and now, the actors note, an African American could become the next president.

David Strathairn and Paul Giamatti say they don't expect their production to affect how people will vote in this election, but they do hope the play will inspire audiences to think more about the political process.

Mr. STRATHAIRN: People will walk away with a wide variety of reactions, you know, and hopefully be entertained by a little bit of history, and if it has some resonances today that they - makes them think about how our leaders are displayed today and the power of the media.

Mr. GIAMATTI: I hope they vote for Douglas. That's all. I'm hoping that they put Douglas in the White House. Oh, wait a second.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COHEN: "The Rivalry" opens tonight at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. Alex Cohen, NPR News.

BRAND: If you want to hear an excerpt from "The Rivalry" go to our web site npr.org/daytoday.

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