History Has Its Eyes on You

Every action has an equal, opposite reaction, and so whenever any piece of popular culture becomes a runaway success, you can set your watch to the moment when the backlash comes roaring up behind it.

Seeing as Americans are determined never to agree on anything—albeit some of us more vigorously than others—it is inevitable—and probably for the best—that even the most widely and deeply beloved of our national treasures will sooner or later find a detractor or two hiding under some rock or other.

However, for a good long while, it appeared that in this regard—as in so many others—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was truly one-of-a-kind.  That this audacious, revisionist Broadway musical-cum-history lesson had transcended all the usual cultural mores, rules and laws (including gravity) to emerge as the one thing on which everyone can agree.  Call it the Adele of the Great White Way.

As a true believer, I was perfectly fine with this rarefied mass ecstasy over (of all things) an expensive Broadway show.  As much as I value open debate on practically any subject, listening to the Hamilton cast album over and over has become something approaching a religious experience, and we all know what happens to reasoned dissent once religion enters the picture.

All the same, over the last week or so, a sort of anti-Hamilton faction has finally—finally!—begun to consolidate in various online media outlets.  While I have so far found the arguments in these pieces generally misguided and unconvincing, it is imperative that my fellow fanatics take a break from their unconditional Hamilton love and read them.  They might be surprised how much they learn.

While these critiques are by no means interchangeable—their authors approach Hamilton in different ways and reach different conclusions—they tend to focus on one of two claims:  First, that Hamilton is not as historically accurate as it appears; and second, that it is not as socially progressive or “revolutionary” as its creators and fans have proclaimed.

At first blush, the complaints about accuracy could be dismissed as preposterous—not because they’re false, mind you, but rather because strict adherence to historical truth is so obviously not this show’s primary objective.  To any fair-minded listener, it should become clear—say, during the Cabinet meeting where Hamilton tells Jefferson, “Sittin’ there useless as two shits / Hey, turn around, bend over, I’ll show you / Where my shoe fits”—that Miranda has granted himself certain liberties with the Founding Fathers that are, shall we say, fairly easy to infer.

It is the nature and the right of historical dramas to take history into their own hands for the sake of clarity and entertainment.  One must never let facts get in the way of a good story (as Mark Twain may or may not have said) and while the Revolution is undoubtedly one of the greatest stories of all time, artists have always manipulated the events of 1776 to their own ends.  It is absurd to hold dramatists to the same academic standard as historians and biographers.  “All we can reasonably ask,” Roger Ebert once wrote about a certain film, “is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.”

That brings us to the more compelling and provocative critique, which says that—contrary to the prevailing view that Hamilton is a watershed moment in American culture—there is actually nothing historically innovative about Miranda’s take on the Founding Fathers.  Specifically, that despite its ethnically diverse cast and über-contemporary soundtrack, Hamilton is ultimately just one more show that lionizes famous white men—and only white men—who birthed a nation that purposefully and violently excluded African-Americans and other undesirables from realizing their fullest potential as human beings.

In her superb essay, “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro sees Hamilton as a continuation of so-called “founders chic,” observing, “[D]espite the proliferation of black and brown bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. […] Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.”  (Monteiro then proceeds to name several black individuals who could easily have figured into Miranda’s story.)

Continuing this thought in an equally-thoughtful blog post, “Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think it is,” NYU PhD student James McMaster writes:

“[I]n Hamilton, the fact that the white men that founded the United States—colonizers all, slaveholders some—are played by men of color actually obfuscates histories of racialized violence in the United States.  Case in point:  During ‘Cabinet Battle #1,’ when the talented Daveed Diggs argues as Thomas Jefferson for the security of the South’s slave-holding economy, the actor’s blackness visually distances his performance of racism from Jefferson’s whiteness, enabling a (largely white) audience to forget the degree to which they are implicated in the violent, anti-black histories of the United States.”

While we should all be extremely grateful for these reminders of the truth—the whole truth—of how this country came into being, my immediate response to these charges with regards to Hamilton is through an old Stephen Hawking line:  “You can’t think of everything.”

Or, to put it slightly less glibly:  Lin-Manuel Miranda devised a particular way to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton that would serve his own interests, which meant that a boatload of other interests—however worthy—would necessarily be left on the cutting room floor.

In point of fact, the writing of every play, movie and book in history has involved including a million little details while omitting a million others.  To be a writer is to be an editor and a synthesizer—as David McCullough once said, “I’m not a writer; I’m a re-writer”—which requires making choices that both sharpen and narrow the focus of one’s work in order not to juggle too many balls at once.

Contra Monteiro, who takes issue with Hamilton’s tagline, “The story of America then, told by American now,” I interpret the race-conscious casting not as a means to conceal the founders’ inherent white supremacy, but rather to demonstrate that the ideals for which they fought apply to people of all races.  That most of the founders clearly didn’t intend this at the time is an irony that cannot (and should not) be overlooked, and part of what makes Hamilton so irresistible is the implicit knowledge that if the real people suddenly materialized and saw themselves being portrayed by the likes of Leslie Odom, Jr., and Daveed Diggs, their expressions would be worth well over 1,000 words each.

In short:  Hamilton does not directly confront the realities and consequences of slavery because, in the end, that’s not what the play is about.  Miranda chose to dramatize the life of Alexander Hamilton and the handful of powerful people with whom he interacted, and that is how the piece should be judged.  Call me old-fashioned, but I find it slightly unfair to critique an artist for the work he didn’t produce rather than the work he did.

This does not mean that objections like the ones above should not be raised and heard.  If Hamilton has any purpose beyond entertainment, it’s to stimulate interest in the history of the United States—including the history that Hamilton does not have the time or inclination to cover.  If Miranda and company truly intend to democratize the country’s founding, they should own the ways in which their own efforts are incomplete.  They don’t need to be complete, but nor should they suggest that they are.

As it stands, we are left with exactly what we’ve always had:  A brilliant, addictive piece of theatre that we can love and question at the same time.  A guaranteed job creator for every talented non-white actor in New York that is nonetheless a celebration of dead, white slavers.

The truth is that Hamilton invited this minefield of hypocrisy the moment it took on America as its primary subject.  As a wise man said:  It’s full of contradictions, but so is independence.

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