The Second Mrs. Wilson

Woodrow Wilson, Edith Wilson, President

Woodrow and Edith Wilson

A timely new play at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, especially for political junkies, is Joe DiPietro’s The Second Mrs. Wilson. You may recall that Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke during his second term as President and that, for many months afterward, his second wife, Edith, was in all but title Chief Executive. Detractors called her the nation’s first female president.

This was the time when the treaty ending the appalling First World War was being considered. In Paris, Wilson had helped negotiate the treaty and, back in the States, he campaigned tirelessly for it. He’d been president of Princeton University (and, briefly Governor of New Jersey) before becoming President, so may have had an especially keen appreciation of the nearly 20 million soldier and civilian lives lost, worldwide, many of the soldiers young men who were age peers of those he’d led at the University. In 1919, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, then, on a public speaking tour to promote the treaty, he collapsed.

Edith was his second wife. For nearly 30 years, he’d been happily married to Ellen Axson, but she died early in his first term, a loss that left him devastated. Almost miraculously, it must have seemed, Edith Bolling appeared on the scene and renewed his zest for living.

A two-hour play necessarily collapses and condenses a great many events and emotions, and this play focuses on his love for his new wife and her dedication both to him and his foremost concern: ratification of the Versailles Treaty, which included adoption of the League of Nations. Wilson believed the League was the key to sustained world peace and the avoidance of future conflicts. But with him bedridden, the political forces rose against the League, dramatized in the play through Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Republican opposition, combined with Wilson’s inability to consider any compromise in the legislative language, ultimately denied him this victory.

No one knows how history would have played out had America joined the League, but certainly the country’s post-war isolationism drastically weakened the organization during the period leading to World War II. Although the play is grounded in events of almost a century ago, we see today the problems of intransigent political opposition, when politicians make decisions not on what is best for the people they represent, their country, or the world, but their own political gain.

The play is brilliantly acted by John Glover (Wilson) and Laila Robins (Edith), whom we have seen and appreciated in numerous previous productions. Michael McGrath as Wilson’s aide Joe Tumulty and Stephen Spinella as his long-time colleague Col. Edward House are particularly poignant, facing their chief’s decline. The second act could be somewhat shorter, though Glover’s portrayal of Wilson’s initial extreme disability and the gradual return of functioning is both masterful and deeply moving.

It’s not possible to discuss this play without reference to recent events at Princeton University , where black students have protested the naming of various university units—including the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs—after Princeton’s and the nation’s former president. Wilson supported racial segregation a hundred years ago, when that was Americans’ predominant view. Judging the past by the standards of the present is always problematic, and in this case ignores the tremendous good Wilson—deemed one of the nation’s greatest progressive presidents—contributed to social justice through expanded voter and worker rights and many other measures.

The Second Mrs. Wilson is on stage until November 29.

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