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The Hamilton musical and historical unknowns

With a record-breaking sixteen Tony Award nominations for his hit musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda will soon have to clear some space on his trophy shelf next to his Grammy and Pulitzer. But there is something remarkable about the play that all the critical acclaim has missed entirely. Reviewers have rightfully celebrated Miranda for telling the life story of one of America’s greatest Founders using energetic numbers, a multiethnic cast, and a strong emphasis on hip-hop. Yet Miranda has not received due credit for an important and distinguishing characteristic of his musical: his unique approach to what is unknowable about the past. His script makes it clear that there are significant gaps in the historical record concerning Hamilton and his times. Of course, the play takes liberties, as any historical play must–and has a great deal of fun in the process. But in numerous places, Miranda shows us the limits of what we can know about the past.

In so doing, Miranda captures something central to the experience of every historian. The actual record of the past is riddled with conspicuous silences. Digging through an archival collection, we may find a reply to a letter, but the original letter to which it is responding has been lost. We are left to wonder what was in it, and about the sensibility of the shadowy correspondent on the other side. Multiply such conundrums by a factor of several thousand and you have the working reality of the historian.

The playwright has a different task. While the historian has an obligation to be candid with the reader about what the record fails to disclose, artists are under no such restrictions. In fact, they run a risk in observing them. No audience longs for two hours of scrupulous qualifications. Instead, audience members want to watch and hear a compelling story that transports their imaginations, something a talented playwright will provide, even if it means making whole the residual fragments of a bygone age.

Yet Miranda often chooses to face the unknowable head-on. One vivid example comes to us in a number called “The Room Where it Happens,” performed by the magnetic Leslie Odom, Jr. in the role of Aaron Burr. This scene pertains to a mysterious dinner in June of 1790 in which Alexander Hamilton, a New Yorker, brokered a historic deal with his Southern rivals, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Hamilton agreed to relocate the nation’s capital from New York to Philadelphia and ultimately to the Potomac. In turn, Madison and Jefferson would relent in their opposition to Hamilton’s plan for the federal government to assume states’ debts. While we live with the consequences of that dinner still today, how exactly these three statesmen crafted this bargain remains unclear. Miranda opts not to dream up the scene behind closed doors. Instead, he acknowledges the unknowability of the event. Its very obscurity is a source of intrigue for Miranda. He cleverly uses our lack of knowledge to showcase Aaron Burr’s desire to be a major player in American politics. Burr sings with jealousy, “No one really knows how the game is played/The art of the trade/How the sausage gets made/We just assume that it happens/But no one else is in/The room where it happens.” The number ends with Burr resolving, “I’ve got to be/In that room/In that big ol’ room.”

Miranda’s depiction of the Reynolds affair further illustrates his engagement with historical silence. In 1797, Hamilton was cornered into publicly confessing to an extramarital tryst. The historical record tells us nothing of the reaction of Hamilton’s fiercely loyal and pious wife, Eliza. Played with verve by Phillippa Soo, Eliza burns her letters while singing, “I’m erasing myself from the narrative/ Let future historians wonder how Eliza/ Reacted when you broke her heart.” She adds defiantly, “They don’t get to know what I said/I’m burning the memories/Burning the letters that might have redeemed you.” Historians know that sometimes silences in the archives are telling. A letter may not be merely missing but destroyed. And so we try to derive meaning, as Miranda does here, not only from existing evidence but also from its absence.

Miranda’s humble approach to the unknowable reflects the seriousness with which he takes history and surely grows out of his collaboration with the scholar Ron Chernow, a Pulitzer Prize winner in his own right whose thick biography on Hamilton inspired the musical. As Miranda’s hit expands its reach through technology and tours, it reminds us that many people learn about history from art. If a playwright’s role in historical drama is partly to entertain, then it is also partly to educate. Miranda has done much to teach his audience an important lesson about the limits of historical knowledge. Much like the subject of his play, he offers a model for how others might make use of the spotlight.

Featured image credit: Center from left: Anthony Ramos, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan in the musical “Hamilton” at the Richard Rodgers Theater. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

Recent Comments

  1. Zachary Schrag

    All honor to Miranda, but Sondheim did all of this in 1976: “Someone in a Tree.”

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