Lincoln, Douglas to Spar Again Actors to Re-Enact Historic Debate
Heun, Dave, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Dave Heun Daily Herald Correspondent
As many as 300 to 400 people gathered in towns throughout Illinois on seven separate occasions in 1858 to listen to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas debate the most pressing issues facing the state and country.
Batavia Park District and Depot Museum officials are hoping for that many or more to hear one of those debates at the sixth annual Lincoln Dinner Theater event at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the Lincoln Inn Restaurant.
A re-enactment of the first debate, held in Ottawa Aug. 21, 1858, when Lincoln was launching his unsuccessful bid to secure a seat in the U.S. Senate, will be the main feature of the annual fund-raiser for the Batavia Historical Society.
"This will be the first time we have staged the debate, and we did it because it is the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and also the beginning of the celebration of Lincoln's 200th birthday coming next year," said Carla Hill, director of the Depot Museum.
Hill said she spoke to Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln impersonators Max and Donna Daniels last year to see if they could participate in a Lincoln-Douglas debate.
"They said they had a program written for that, and now we are very excited about the whole possibility because it is something new," Hill said.
Max Daniels, who lives in Wheaton, will portray Abe Lincoln, while Brian Gugala of Bartlett will take on the role of Douglas.
Gugala's wife, Valerie, has portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln in the past and is a history major and Lincoln scholar. She got Gugala interested in history, but he wasn't able to take on the role of Honest Abe to complement her Mary Todd.
"I don't have the height for Lincoln," Gugala said. "I am only 5-foot-2."
But another Lincoln impersonator told Gugala that he resembled Lincoln's great nemesis, Stephen A. Douglas.
So he set his sights on a historic figure he considered just as fascinating.
"I started to portray Sen. Douglas because he was a very fiery, very passionate man," Gugala said. "Plus, I have the look, the right stature and height for him."
Those who attend the dinner Sunday night will see Gugala's portrayal of Douglas go into a serious debate about slavery in the United States against Daniels' portrayal of Abe Lincoln.
"I have done the debates several times, but this is the Reader's Digest version," said Daniels, who along with his wife has been portraying the Lincolns at various events for 21 years.
"The actual debate was about three hours long, and we are condensing it to 45 minutes."
Gugala said that is actually as it should be.
"You can condense the ideas they were trying to get across in that amount of time," Gugala said. "You have to remember that the actual debates were held in front of large crowds and the audience was very participative.
"The audience would heckle at times and they would boo and cheer on every single word."
The words were possibly some of the most important uttered in this nation's history. Slavery was the key issue of the time in light of Douglas sponsoring the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which opened the issue of slavery again, overriding the Missouri Compromise that had prohibited it.
"I truly believe that Douglas thought he was doing the right thing in presenting slavery as something that the people in the individual territories should decide on for themselves," Daniels said.
Gugala called Douglas, who eventually won that Senate seat, "a man of his time" because most of the country was embracing the thought of not changing anything and leaving slavery as an issue that each state should decide.
"And Lincoln clearly had the abolitionist view that slavery was just not right," Gugala said. "His party was called Republican, but it was still all about abolishing slavery, and many of them were radical for that time. …