George Washington on Stage and Screen

Proof that he was a vaudeville emcee: “Let’s give her a great big hand, folks!

Presidents Day notwithstanding, February 22 is the actual birthday of George Washington.

Washington (like Lincoln) was once worshipped in this country with a fervor 21st century people can scarcely conceive. If Lincoln was America’s Jesus, Washington was its God. Myths were propagated; his graven image was everywhere, and we named cities, counties, states — and for that matter, babies — after him. I grew up in Washington County, Rhode Island and have always been proud of the fact that Washington’s horse was a Narragansett Pacer, bred about five miles from where I grew up. And the portrait above was by Gilbert Stuart, also from Rhode Island (he born about ten miles from my hometown). Washington stopped in Newport briefly early in the Revolutionary War; it’s where Lafayette landed when he came to America! Haha, that’s all my Washington-Rhode Island trivia.

Veneration for Washington fell out of fashion many decades ago. On the left, it’s because he owned slaves and became a sort of poster boy for unreflective patriotism, both objections I get and am in accord with. In recent times, I would contend that the majority of those on the right have shown Washington even greater disrespect by dishonoring his memory. Washington was the American Cincinnatus. The main reason historians all over the world have held him in high regard is that he was that rare national leader who voluntarily relinquished his power. He set a precedent by serving his terms, then returning humbly to private life. Sound like a small thing? It’s not. Such unselfish retirement was rare to nonexistent prior to Washington. His example, honored by successors, made America a relatively stable country for a time, and has undoubtedly been a major factor in the country’s longevity. Then, in 2020 we had a “President” who chose not to roll that way.

I have visited Mount Vernon, and worked at the New-York Historical Society when we presented an exhibition on Washington in 1998 (absorbing all the talks and lectures about him), and I’ve read a half dozen books about the man and another dozen about the American Revolution. My take on him can, without boasting, be called better-informed than average. But this is a theatre blog! And American theatre lovers quite frankly should erect a statue to George Washington. Washington was a major theatre patron in a time when those were in short supply in this fledgling country. Theatre was not just frowned upon but illegal in most of Puritan New England. And the South was rural. But as the nation’s leader, Washington’s playgoing in the successive capitals of Philadelphia and New York helped legitimize the performing arts in this country. Theatre in New York City pretty much begins as a sustained cultural project during the brief time the capital was here. Addison’s Cato was one of Washington’s favorite plays, but he also loved comedies, even pretty racy ones. And John Bill Rickett’s Circus!

Theatre had an odd way of paying Washington back though. There are are surprisingly few stage plays about the “Father of Our Country” and/or the parts of the Revolution he took part in. Just a couple spring to mind: Percy MacKaye’s George Washington (1920), starring Walter Hampden and directed by Robert Edmond Jones; and Maxwell Anderson’s Valley Forge (1935), which was made into a tv movie with Richard Basehart 40 years later (below).

More numerous are screen depictions of the first President, and so as we have done with Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, a brief gallery of motion picture Washingtons.

Joseph Kilgour

Played him thrice: in Washington Under the American Flag (1909), The Battle Cry of Peace (1915), and Janice Meredith (1924)

George MacQuarrie, Betsy Ross (1917)

William Beery, The Spirit of ’76 (1917)

Arthur Dewey in D.W. Griffith’s America (1924)

Francis X. Bushman in The Flag (1927)

Alan Mowbray

Thrice: Alexander Hamilton (1931), The Phantom President (1932), and Where Do We Go From Here? (1945)

Robert Warwick, Give Me Liberty (1936)

Montagu Love

Twice: in Sons of Liberty (1939), and The Remarkable Andrew (1942)

John Crawford in John Paul Jones (1959)

Richard Basehart, Valley Forge (1975)

Ken Howard, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976, a Broadway musical, also presented on TV)

Yep, same guy who played Jefferson in 1776!

Peter Graves, The Rebels (1979 )

Barry Bostwick, George Washington (1984)

Kelsey Grammer, Benedict Arnold (1984)

Jeff Daniels, The Crossing (2000)

David Morse, John Adams (2008)

FWIW, this is probably my favorite characterization.

Jason O’Mara, Sons of Liberty (2015)

Christopher Jackson, Hamilton (Broadway, 2015; movie 2020)

For much more on this topic, see Mount Vernon’s excellent article here.