New play explores Walt Whitman's experiences during the Civil War


A single actor alone on a stage, portraying one of America's most influential poets as he processes the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and tends to wounded Civil War soldiers. That’s the compelling premise of the new play “Lilacs & Letters” at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

The play is set at the Armory Square Military Hospital in Washington, D.C., in the shadows of an early morning in 1865. Poet Walt Whitman, a hospital volunteer, sits among the sleeping wounded as he reflects on national grief and puts the finishing touches on poetry eulogizing President Lincoln.

The one-act play will be presented several times a week through June. Tickets are free with regular admission to the museum.

Every performance is followed by a chance for the audience to talk to Zaxxson Nation, who wrote the play and portrays Whitman. He will answer questions about Whitman, the war, researching and writing the play or anything else visitors want to ask.

“We look forward to lively Q&A sessions after the shows,” said Christina Shutt, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. “People learn to love history in many different ways, and drama is one of them. We’re excited to offer visitors this new perspective on the aftermath of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination.”

Whitman cared for thousands of sick and injured soldiers in Washington hospitals. He dressed their wounds, wrote letters home for them and brought gifts such as oranges and candy. The war and Lincoln’s death inspired some of Whitman’s best-known work, including “O Captain! My Captain!” and the poetry collection “Drum-Taps.”

Nation has been researching Whitman and writing the play since 2020. He performs in the museum’s “Ghosts of the Library” production and has also appeared on every local stage, including roles in “A Chorus Line,” “Chicago,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “West Side Story.”

The music for the production was composed by Randy Erwin, another ALPLM actor who is also a talented musician.

While more “Lilacs & Letters” performances will be added later, the current schedule is:

  • Jan. 24 at 10:45 a.m.
  • Feb. 1 at 1:15 p.m.
  • Feb. 8 at 1:15 p.m.
  • Feb. 9 at 10:45 a.m.
  • Feb. 14 at 1:15 p.m.
  • Feb. 22 at 1:15 p.m.
  • Feb. 29 at 1:15 p.m.
  • March 7 at 1:15 p.m.
  • March 8 at 1:15 p.m.
  • March 13 at 1:15 p.m.
  • March 19 at 1:15 p.m.
  • March 21 at 1:15 p.m.
  • March 22 at 1:15 p.m.

The mission of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is to inspire civic engagement through the diverse lens of Illinois history and sharing with the world the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. We pursue this mission through a combination of rigorous scholarship and high-tech showmanship built on the bedrock of the ALPLM’s unparalleled collection of historical materials – roughly 13 million items from all eras of Illinois history.

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