Ulysses Grant has been the subject of many plays in the past hundred years and two of them have actually been quite good: "Mr. Grant" by Arthur Goodrich and "Triumph" by Horace Green. In 2002, a new Grant play hit NYC and I can only thank God I never suffered through a performance. For anyone who admires General Grant, this play is an abomination, a hideous malady which bears no resemblance to the actual man, U.S. Grant. Saying that this stains his reputation is sort of like saying that in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, a small firecracker exploded.
Indeed, Guare's characterization of the General seems to have been made up out of while cloth. Grant is scarcely in the play, but when he appears in a wheelchair (which he never used), he spends his entire time ranting and railing. Repeatedly the character of Grant utters no dialogue, the stage directions merely say, "USG: rants," or, "USG: rails." Guare has Grant doing things he never did: cursing, heaping baseless ridicule his son, U.S. Grant, Jr., and carrying on in a drug-induced stupor throughout two hellishly miserable acts. The Grant in this play is drunk, drug-addicted and a babbling moron.
The historical "facts" in the play are laughable. The Grants are presented as so destitute they can't afford to purchase ice cream. Someone should have informed Mr. Guare that ice cream wasn't sold in pints in 1885, that refrigerators weren't yet invented and Grant never ate ice cream anyway. The Grant depicted here also tells people he was drunk at Cold Harbor, another blasphemous invention.
The errors in the book appear predictably throughout the play: Grant never used cannabis; he never courted his wife in Galena, Illinois; Julia Grant never called her husband "Lyssy;" (!), his daughter did not have a British accent; he never ate "calf's foot jelly" (God forbid that dish being conjured); Mark Twain never threatened to murder Grant's aide, Badeau; the sculptor Karl Gerhardt never suggested sculpting the General in the nude, and Grant's man servant was never a soldier at Cold Harbor. Perhaps a little birdie should have whispered in Guare's ear that black soldiers hadn't been integrated into the Army of the Potomac in 1864, but why bother with accuracy?
An unintentionally lucid moment occurs in the Preface, where the author candidly admits, "I don't work off research" (page ix). Gee, lucid people figured that out already on page one.
The real Ulysses Grant is a truly great story: he was a military genius but he was also a man of rare moral fiber, courage, decency and gentleness. The real story of Grant is something so much greater than this tripe that comparisons are futile. If you admire Grant, do yourself the ultimate favor and avoid this nauseating character assassination.