In his Guthrie world premiere of "Appomattox," Christopher Hampton mashes up two turbulent eras in U.S. history to crystallize some of the nation's most vexing questions.
With his long, flowing hair and easy manner, Christopher Hampton looks like a shampoo-commercial model now enjoying a hippie's retirement. But you would be wrong to underestimate the wide-ranging intellect of this British playwright who is fascinated by history.
Hampton, 66, has taken events from two of the United States' most wrenching periods -- the Civil War and the civil rights movement -- and put them side by side in "Appomattox," his brooding three-hour drama that premieres Friday in Minneapolis.
What unique thing does this Englishman born in the Azores have to bring to the subject?
An outsider's eye that helps him to "tell the truth of the situation," Hampton said. "I don't choose sides, but present the story objectively."
Hampton's fact-based play centers on Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson. The play is set in April 1865, just as the Civil War is drawing to a close with hopes for a national reconciliation, and in February 1965, shortly after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
"President Lincoln fought to keep the nation together, and did what it took," Hampton said.
A century later, "Johnson was still dealing with the fight of blacks and minorities to have the vote," he said. We have Obama in the White House, he continued, but stubborn issues around race, freedom and equality will not go away.
Hampton's research included traveling to the South, where so many people were killed for freedom. He also listened to hours of recordings that Johnson made in the Oval Office, some startling and some quite mundane.
"Johnson taped almost everything," he said.
"Appomattox," which is part of a three-play Hampton festival at the Guthrie Theater, opens at a time when voter rights remain an issue. The national debate over voter ID, for example, which includes a proposed constitutional amendment in Minnesota, is about extending or curtailing the voting franchise now, just as it was in the 19th century.
Hampton said that he juxtaposed the two centuries in "Appomattox," which is partly adapted from the libretto of an opera that Hampton wrote with composer Philip Glass, so that he could have a laser-like focus to show the nation's progress, or lack thereof.
A writer who has worked in theater and film ("Dangerous Liaisons" and "Sunset Boulevard" as well as translations of Yasmina Reza's "Art" and "God of Carnage"), Hampton comes across as a latter-day Alexis de Tocqueville. Like that French chronicler of 19th-century America, he is a keen-eyed observer who probes conflicts and contradictions in the nation's soul.
A son of a British engineer, Hampton spent his formative years in Egypt. The 1956 Suez Canal crisis, when Egyptians sought to control both the canal and their destiny, forced his family, and many other expatriates, to flee.
Back in England, Hampton attended Lancing College, where his schoolmates included lyricist Tim Rice ("Evita," "Aida," "The Lion King"), and playwright David Hare ("Racing Demon," "The Blue Room"). Hampton got valuable advice from a teacher who encouraged him to learn languages. He doubled down on French and German, which opened up world literatures for him and led, arguably, to his success, including in translating Reza.
"She suspects that her plays are funnier in translation," he said with a smirk.
Hampton said that he remains curious about an America that is simultaneously the envy of the world, in terms of freedom and opportunity, and yet remains so close to some parts of its history.
"States' rights was about the right to own slaves, to extend slavery," he said.
"Appomattox" is his grand attempt to crystallize the nation's vexing questions in the starkest terms. He admits that he did not necessarily set out to write something with a happy ending.
At the Guthrie, his drama is being staged by David Esbjornson, and features a big, A-list cast of performers who are sinking their teeth into their characters.
Actor Harry Groener plays both Lincoln and Johnson. He said that he has come across suggestions in his research that Lincoln may have been killed because of his mention of voting rights.
"In his last speech, three days before he was assassinated, he used those words, voting rights, and we think [killer John Wilkes] Booth heard him," said Groener. "That's what sent him over the edge."
Sally Wingert, who plays First Ladies Mary Todd Lincoln and Lady Bird Johnson, said that she cannot believe that we're still orbiting the same historical questions well over a century later.
"It's all so unsettled and unsettling," she said. Wingert said that there are continuities in terms of strength and manner between the women she plays, even though they seem very different.
Actor Shawn Hamilton plays King in what is expected to be a career high point for the stage journeyman.
He said that he understands Hampton's telescoping of history.