Sampling Whitman


On the stage of the Walnut Theatre’s Studio 3, Walt Whitman holds court each evening in his Camden, N.J., living room. He’s invited friends to listen to him informally rehearse a lecture about Abraham Lincoln he’ll present in a few days.

Besides practicing his comments, Whitman talks about his life, reads excerpts from his poetry and reminisces about key moments in Lincoln’s life, including a gripping, minute-by-minute account of the assassination.

Each evening, actor Bill Van Horn transforms into Whitman. He’s the sole actor in "O Captain, My Captain: Whitman’s Lincoln," which runs through Feb. 8 at the Walnut Street Theater, 825 Walnut St.

With his white beard and commanding stage presence, Van Horn paces the stage, sits in an easy chair and directly addresses audience members as if they were his guests. The intimate 80-seat venue has been recreated as a 19th-century living room, with spectators seated on upholstered chairs and not the usual theater seats.

A seasoned actor, he’s had roles in many Walnut productions, but "O Captain, My Captain" is the first time he’s both actor and playwright.

The theater commissioned him to write a play commemorating Lincoln’s 200th birthday. This season also celebrates the theater’s 200th anniversary.

Since Whitman was a great admirer of Lincoln, Van Horn decided to give his play "a little twist" by focusing on the famed poet. The play is built around Whitman’s preparation for what turned out to be the last lecture about Lincoln.

A self-described history buff, Van Horn eagerly began the research for his play, immersing himself in the years from l850 to l865.

"It’s an amazing period of history, so this was a fantastic education," Van Horn said.

He visited bookstores and made frequent trips to the South Philadelphia branch of the Free Library, Broad and Morris streets, which is conveniently located near his home.

"I found all sorts of books and pamphlets," he said. "He’s the most photographed poet of the 19th century. He loved to have photos taken of him."

Van Horn used images to study Whitman’s posture and expressions. Along the way, the writer learned Whitman made a very calculated effort to promote his own image as a celebrity.

"Before Madonna he was one of the first to market and develop his own image," he said. "If you look at the photos carefully, they’re trying to sell an image. Everything is always very staged."

Van Horn shows Whitman’s image-making tendency in his performances: He often purposely pauses for dramatic effect and carefully uses gestures and other actions as he becomes Walt Whitman each evening.

In his research, Van Horn found the original New York Times account of Whitman’s final lecture on Lincoln, the one he’s presumably practicing in his living room. He used direct quotes from that lecture — and added much more.

Van Horn also read several biographies on the poet as well as plus his diary, "Specimen Days."

The poetry especially caught the actor’s attention.

"It’s sometimes thrilling and sweeps you off your feet," Van Horn, who recites passages with full dramatic effect during performances, said.

After the research, Van Horn started the first draft in Maine, where he spends summers as associate artistic director of the Theatre at Monmouth and a member of its acting company.

Last summer, he played Shylock in Shakespeare’s "Merchant of Venice" while writing a new play and imagining himself as Whitman.

The initial version was a hefty three hours. Upon returning to Philadelphia, he started revisions, working with the play’s director, Bruce Lumpkin, and his assistant, Kate Galvin.

"We started shaping and carving it," he said. "They helped me filter it down and keep it focused."

The final challenge was preparing for the 90-minute one-man show ­– another first for Van Horn.

"It’s scary," he said. "With most plays, you have the camaraderie of other actors on the stage with you. But I’m out there alone, and it’s quite a marathon."

But this seasoned theater pro, who has also appeared in "Man of La Mancha" and "Carousel," among others, can surely handle the challenge. He’s also been cast in a featured role in the Walnut’s upcoming production of "Born Yesterday."

Van Horn also has directed shows for all three Walnut Theatre series: The Mainstage, Studio 3 and the Walnut’s Kids’ Series.

During his yearly stints in Maine, he takes roles in three of its five productions, traveling to the New England area in early June and remaining until after Labor Day, when the theater season begins anew in Philadelphia.

"Philly’s a fantastic theater town," the Long Island native said.

He formerly lived in New York, where he was artistic director of several area theater companies. His first stage role in Philadelphia was in 2000 at the Walnut, he moved here shortly afterwards.

"I never regretted it," he said of the move.

Although his busy life doesn’t allow much time for leisure, he does keep up with his travel and reading, and is an ardent Phillies fan.

His unofficial second home is the theater, usually arriving by foot or bike.

"The Walnut is one of the best theaters in the world," he said. "To be on the same stage where so many famous actors performed — that’s unbelievable."

Van Horn is savoring his chance to portray Whitman in the play he authored. It opened just two nights after the inauguration of Barack Obama. The new president has shown special interest in Lincoln and even took the oath of office on the same Bible held by the 16th president of the United States.

"The amazing response to this election put me in a patriotic mood," Van Horn said. "It got me psyched to delve into this history."

He’s psyched each evening as he channels Whitman on the stage and shows Whitman’s deep bond with Lincoln.

Overall, it’s been an invaluable education — and a new experience.

"I’m so grateful for the opportunity to do this project," he said. "It’s fantastic to have a theater like the Walnut, which encourages artists to do original work."