When a cultural artifact becomes a certified phenomenon, as Hamilton has, the backlash is inevitable. Invariably, someone will shout “I don’t like thing! For reasons!” into the Internet ether, and will gain clicks or infamy for their bold stance against that thing that everyone else loves. Despite my tone, I welcome the backlash that comes with popularity. Popular culture needs to be vigorously interrogated. It’s difficult to have a truly critical conversation about anything unless there are different opinions (note: I am talking about popular culture here, people, not politics), and so those who beat back against the tide of Hamilton have my admiration. It’s a pretty strong tide to resist.
And yet, this most recent round of Hamilhate has me a bit defensive. Very little of the current wave of critique is based in an informed criticism of the play as a performative text. Criticisms tend to focus more on its role as a historical text, and the types and nature of the various inaccuracies in the libretto. These articles highlight the opinions of historian Lyra Monteiro, who though a fan of the play, dislikes the implications of what she calls “race conscious casting” and what she views as an elision of slavery within the play. (I am not going to address what I think are her outrageous claims that Eliza Hamilton, as played by Chinese-American actor Philippa Soo, “reads as white”, but I have many thoughts on that topic.)
James McMaster has a piece at HowlRound about his criticisms of Hamilton, and while the author is a PhD student in theater according to his bio, the criticisms again appear to be mostly about historical inaccuracies and the racial implications of the show and its likely audience.
While it is perfectly fine for anyone to criticize the play, to not love the play, or to outright hate the play, I have highlighted these specific critiques because they provide an opportunity for me to counter the prevailing claims of this backlash by examining Hamilton as a performative text–one that is much more concerned with performing history than merely re-telling it. So I’m going to put on my theory helmet and dive into the backlash.
“America” is itself a performance. Diana Taylor argues that “America” is a term “not for places or objects but for practices.” Since Hamilton the play was not written, marketed, or conceived as a historical text*, I think we can apply Taylor’s idea here. She views performance as a lens to understanding how our behaviors as America essentially “create” what we know as our country–how performances, rituals, and other practices shape the very concept of the country/region. In other words, America is not a fixed, rigid object; it is a dynamic, changing, contested practice made up not of particular ideas, but of human actions (Taylor 1419). Performances of our “founding principles” are what make up America, not the principles themselves.
Therefore, I would suggest that Hamilton is one of the many ways we “practice” or “perform” America. It is not a history of Alexander Hamilton, nor is it an exhaustive recounting of his life story. Instead, it uses the performative ritual of musical theatre to perform a narrative of Hamilton and the Founders, through enactments of diversity and immigration.
For some critics, this is problematic. They argue that eliding the history of slavery by not mentioning it enough (because it is mentioned in a few places within the libretto) will reinforce the ideas of white supremacy and Founder Myths for the mostly white, mostly rich Broadway audience. Or worse, that it might demonstrate an inaccurate view of American history for non-white audiences. There is more than a whiff of paternalism in these criticisms. First, if the audience is mostly white, as I am sure it is, they are at least watching an ensemble of mostly people of color performing a musical written by a person of color. That itself is a worthy experience, and white people could stand to see more of it. Second, I doubt that audience members of color will for one moment forget systemic racism and a history of American oppression simply because Thomas Jefferson is played by a Black actor. They will instead see a Black actor doing the fastest rapping on Broadway and perhaps feel represented on that Broadway stage.
Hamilton is also decidedly postmodern, in that it does not seek to recreate a history as much as use history to comment on our present moment. Miki Flockemann argues that performative repetition–that is, repeating images, texts, or other cultural products–can have significant value in art:
“[b]y repeating (but dislocating) images and texts from familiar contexts, repetition can be used to disrupt and defamiliarise, thus inviting fresh interpretations. [R]epetition can be employed to offer a socio-political critique by forcing recognition of uncomfortable correspondences and parallels” (404).
What Hamilton does is recycle and repeat the story of the nation’s “founding,” which is a story no doubt most Americans are somewhat familiar with, and then “defamiliarises” it by, for example, turning a cabinet meeting into a rap battle. This does not sanitize history, but requires an audience member to incorporate, momentarily, hip hop into the founding narrative of the United States. OF COURSE THEY DIDN’T RAP IN THE CABINET. So what? Lin-Manuel Miranda has simply opened up a space for African American culture to be part and parcel of our own (often fictive) narrative of America.
Additionally, the musical offers biting social commentary by forcing an audience to draw parallels between Hamilton’s story and his era and our present debates over immigration. Miranda astutely centers Hamilton’s status as an immigrant to the “colonies” and pairs him up with the Marquis de Lafayette, a French hero of the American Revolution.
By requiring the audience to see Hamilton (and Lafayette, though he is not part of Act II), as an outsider to both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (as well as nearly everyone else in Act II), Miranda emphasizes the role of immigrants in creating the nation as we know it. And while Alexander Hamilton is historically a white man, by having a Latino or Hispanic actor playing the title role (Miranda himself or his understudy, Javier Muñoz), the commentary becomes even more pointed: immigrants are not only central to our past, they are critical to our present.
Thus, I strongly disagree with critics who argue, as Monteiro does, that the deliberate multicultural casting obscures the fact that these actors of color are still telling a white story. I think everyone knows the Founders were white, and that many of them had slaves. What audiences might need to see, however, is an artist centering the bodies and musical traditions of people of color, and using those elements to tell a story about our nation, which presumably is wide enough for all of us.
Finally, just on a textual note, I’d like to address criticisms that Hamilton is dangerous because it relies on a Horatio Alger-esque bootstrap narrative to tell the tale of Alexander Hamilton’s ascendancy and success. The bootstrap narrative is, assuredly, a fiction of our our collective cultural imagination. However, even if we put aside Miranda’s own idea that he is telling a a story of a guy who represents the hip hop ethos of writing your way out of poverty, I think the play makes it clear that bootstraps break. Act I of Hamilton charts the character’s arrival in New York City, his success at school, his bravery during the Revolutionary War, his work with General Washington, the writing of the Federalist Papers, his growing rivalry with Aaron Burr, and his family life with wife Eliza and young son Philip. Act II charts his more or less direct downfall, paralleling the rising arc of Act I. In the second half of the play, Hamilton is able to win over Jefferson and James Madison and establish the Federal bank, but he concurrently has an affair, sees Burr’s political star rise, loses Washington as champion when he retires, clashes with President John Adams, alienates himself from Washington D.C., is blackmailed by the husband of the woman he has an affair with, writes a tell all about his affair and the blackmail, loses his dream of ever running for president, loses the love of his wife (temporarily), loses his son in a duel, and generally runs his mouth until Aaron Burr gets so mad that he challenges Hamilton to a duel, in which Hamilton provokes Burr’s shot and dies.
Wow, that’s quite a bootstrap narrative! A dot Ham ends up alright, doesn’t he?
*I’m aware of the new “EduHam” initiative that is bringing in children from local schools to watch performances, talk with the cast, and perform original work. I have yet to fully read up on this project and how it might impact my arguments here. If it is relevant, I will update this post accordingly.
Reading List and Citations:
- Flockemann, Miki. “Repeating and Disrupting Embodied Histories Through Performance: Exhibit A, Mies Julie, and Itsoseng.” Critical Arts: A South-North Journal of Cultural and Media Studies. 27: 4 (2013). 403-17.
- Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2006.
- Taylor, Diana. “Remapping Genre Through Performance: From ‘American’ to ‘Hemispheric’ Studies.” PMLA. 122:5 (October 2007). 1416-1430.