Hamilton: An American Tragedy

Hamilton: An American Tragedy

In which I sketch out a few thoughts on Hamilton: An American Musical, the Broadway hit that reinvents the American revolution as a musical tragedy that some have said is Shakespearian in its vision and scope. The play is radically innovative, mingling rap and hip hop music with traditional Broadway show tunes and sounds from other popular genres. Its success has reached far beyond the usual scope for Broadway shows, drawing the attendance of no less than the president of the United States who in turn invited the cast for a command performance at the White House. This play has captured the hearts of audiences who hate musical theater and who despise rap. Why is this the Hamilton moment? I argue that it’s precisely because Hamilton’s tragedy is America’s tragedy.

Tragedy… dredges up something from the bottomless pit. Like the gorgon’s gaze, what it brings up ought not to be faced directly, as one knows instinctively, but is better viewed at a slant, though a mask or an image.

Louise Cowan in “The Tragic Abyss” introductory essay to the anthology The Tragic Abyss edited by Glenn Arbery

The Tragic Landscape: A Shared Communal Guilt

In her essay “The Tragic Abyss” Louise Cowan argues that tragedy usually portrays the collapse of the myth of order. Furthermore, she says, the tragic realm is usually founded on human sacrifice:

What is first discernible in the no-man’s land that surrounds the abyss is its menacing and horrid aspect. . . . Ancient memories of human sacrifice, long hidden out of sight, remind the audience of a shared communal guilt.

In Hamilton the “shared communal guilt” is slavery. It’s alluded to in the opening song and it haunts the entire play. Washington’s sad and grim “Not Yet” at the end of Yorktown reminds us that the Revolution wasn’t able to restore a fundamental order to the polis because, for all its ideals, as Laurens says, “we can never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as you or me.” Then there’s also the specter of the French Revolution whose reign of terror had its seeds in the American Revolution: “will the blood we shed begin and endless cycle of vengeance and death?” Hamilton ponders and it seems the answer might be yes. King George isn’t decapitated, but King Louis is and that tension never quite gets resolved despite Hamilton’s gravedigger humor.

But the unfulfilled promise of the Revolution isn’t only that the slaves aren’t free. The Schuyler sisters remind us that women are also disenfranchised, “When I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel,” Angelica sings. And then she follows this up with impassioned letters urging Hamilton to compromise with Jefferson and to keep at it until they agree. Hamilton posits an unfinished Revolution, an incomplete war whose battles still must be fought in today’s America and whose horrors still haunt the founding myth, making the American experiment weak from the very beginning of its inception. This is the tragic landscape in which Hamilton’s personal tragic fall takes place, the public and private tragedies intertwined throughout.

The Tragic Moment: Looking into the Abyss

Bear with me for a rather long quote from Cowan’s Tragic Abyss. I really want to unpack what Cowan is saying about what tragedy is:

Unlike the other models of which Aristotle speaks, tragedy cannot really be said to be a mimesis of a praxis, an imitation of an action. Certainly it has a plot, characters, and the other elements he names as imitating an action “serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…. But tragedy, rather than being a model of life experience, seems absolute like a diagram or a recipe. It evokes something rather than reminding us of something. As raindancers strive in their ritual not so much to imitate human action as to make gestures that, reaching beyond the human, cause rain to fall, so tragedy bends all its efforts toward producing a result. And in this purpose it stands in contrast with comedy, whose long-drawn-out episodic turns mimic in distorted guise the trials and narrow escapes of daily living. Viewed in this light, tragedy is less a simulacrum of human action than a liturgical confrontation of a deep-seated dread which, when brought to light, can be bourne only through a medium of poetic language. It’s plots, then, should be recognized for what they are: not really, as Aristotle would have it, structures with a complication and a resolution– with a beginning, middle, and end– but dramatizations of single moments of unmasking, accompanied by whatever is necessary to reach that chilling and epiphanic event. For a moment in the tragic vision one looks beyond the boundaries of ordinary awareness and glimpses the caverns of a lightless abyss. The protagonists who find themselves in this severe place– Job, Prometheus, Oedipus, Hamlet, Macbeth, Ahab, Joe Christmas, among others– discover that they are transfixed, as though caught in a trap. They face the immediacy of an ultimate choice. For, in the dead air of this unmoving time, they are unable to go forward or backward. They have reached a point of no return. These chosen protagonists qua victims confront the final alternatives. This is the tragic moment.

The image of the raindancers striving through ritual to cause rain to fall reminds me very much of the choreography in Hamilton. There is something so very liturgical in the gestural language the choreography creates, a language which emphasizes the essential unity of the play and the ever present dread of the tragic moment whose seeds are present from the very first song when Burr steps forward to declaim: “I’m the damn fool who shot him.” This liturgical action and unity is epitomized by the character of the Bullet, one of the dancers of the Greek chorus-like ensemble, who in the play’s climactic duel literally traces the path of the bullet across the stage during Hamilton’s final soliloquy. In her excellent essay on the role of the Bullet Phoebe Corde quotes Ariana DeBose, the original Bullet, as saying, “I always know I’m aiming for him—even if the rest of the ensemble members don’t. So even if I’m just a lady in a ball gown at a party, there’s still a part of my character that knows that that moment is going to come.” Corde shows that the Bullet’s presence haunts the entire play and that she is death’s harbinger not only for Hamilton but also for Laurens and Philip (she actually gives Philip the direction to find George Eaker) and for Burr too. From the very beginning of the play all her motions point to this final end, this liturgical confrontation, this tragic moment.

Interestingly in a note in the book, Hamilton: The Revolution, on the final duel between Hamilton and Burr, Tommy Kail, the director, refers to the scene as : “The white whale. . . elusive, monstrous, unknowable.” This confirms for me that it’s deliberate. The play really does have a sense of the tragic moment. (And I love the allusion to Ahab, another tragic figure, who Cowan also mentions.)

And that final duel has the precise qualities that Cowan describes. Hamilton’s final soliloquy takes place in the moment after Burr fires his gun. And we have it all: the “dead air,” as the music stops an we are confronted for the first time with acoustic silence, the “unmoving time,” we are literally stopping time to a crawl, marked by the slow progress of the bullet across the stage. Hamilton has reached “the point of no return.” He cannot turn back time, he cannot undo his choices, he must face them, face death not as a memory but as a present reality.

This is where we can see that the entire play is, as Cowan argues tragedy must be, “a dramatization of a single moment of unmasking, accompanied by whatever is necessary to reach that chilling and epiphanic event.” This is the moment of unmasking where Hamilton finally sees himself and his situation clearly for the first time. What is it he sees in this moment, when he looks into the abyss?

First, he confronts his own death for the first time not as a memory but as a present reality. Now he has to make a choice about how he faces the reality of death, not the memory of his mother’s death and the moment when death passed him over and he “couldn’t seem to die.” The deferred death that he’s been chasing since childhood, the bullet he’s been dodging since Eliza’s impassioned plea for him to “Stay Alive!” is finally upon him.

Then, he sees Burr as both friend and enemy. He confronts the horrific reality that one of them is about to kill the other. That Burr’s may be the last face he sees. Can he really bring himself to kill Burr? And if he doesn’t? If he throws away his shot, as he’s said all along he will not do? What then? This moment is absolute. “What if this bullet is my legacy?” he asks, finally confronting the obsession that brought him to his downfall, that destroyed his political career, his marriage, his son, his friendship, everything. What is his legacy going to be? The man who killed his friend, who killed the Vice President in a duel? We see how easily he and Burr could have traded places. How easily Hamilton could be the villain and Burr the hero. How really he is the villain, as responsible as Burr for bringing them to this moment. How the two of them are mirror images, both tragically flawed.

And for the first time Hamilton asks, “What is a legacy?” He’s been so obsessed with having one; but has he really ever considered what it is? It’s planting seeds, he says, it’s singing the notes of a song that someone else will finish. And what are the seeds he’s planted? What is the song that he began and how will it end after he is dead? Who gets to sing it? He never really thought about who he was leaving behind. Unlike Washington, he’s never before considered life and death from the perspective of those left behind. He’s been so obsessed with death that he’s never properly lived. He’s never properly done what Eliza kept urging him to do, to look around.

So he tells himself to “wise up.” He’s been an idiot but now is his final chance to see things clearly, to face what must be faced. “Eyes up,” he says: Look around, like Eliza’s been telling him all along. When he looks what he sees is death, but not death the bullet coming towards him, what he sees are the dead, all those who have died before him. He sees, in fact, life beyond death: ”a glimpse of the other side.” What he sees is Laurens and the soldiers’s chorus, then Philip, then his mother, then Washington. All his dead. He’s been imagining death, but not imagining life beyond death. Death has been “more like a memory,” because for him death was always the past not the future. He was so fixated on death in the past that was its only reality, stuck in the moment of his mother’s death and the feeling of helplessness that he couldn’t see it properly, couldn’t see the forest for the tree. He couldn’t see the lesson he needed to learn from it, about love and leaving a legacy for those you love to protect them from that loss.

And now he finally, but too late, understand’s Washington’s “teach me how to say goodbye.” He must leave his legacy in Eliza’s hands now, for good or ill. He must relinquish control and acknowledge his helplessness and the fact that in this life he never will be satisfied. But with that surrender is hope, because if he can say goodbye properly then there is “the other side” and the hope of reunion with Eliza. There is, because he is a Christian, resurrection. And in Eliza’s hands, the hands of mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation, there is hope that his legacy can be redeemed. And so he ends with “my love take your time….” for the first time he realizes there’s something worth living for and he’s really thinking of Eliza. And wishing for her to have time, time to mourn and time to laugh and time to fulfill the promise that neither Laurens nor Philip nor he was able to realize with their lives cut tragically short. That repetition “rise up, rise up, rise up,” is about resurrection, about the fulfillment of the revolution’s promise, about finding a purpose. And its an injunction to the audience as much to himself, to rise above our personal flaws,but also to as a nation rise above our flawed founding to fulfill the promise of those seeds Hamilton planted. His final words remind us of that initial vision: “Raise a glass to freedom.” For Hamilton perhaps this is the freedom of a soul no longer in bondage to hatred or fear or an obsession with legacy, it’s the freedom of love and forgiveness. For us it’s the freedom to recreate the American promise, to tell a new story about America that includes the marginalized and oppressed, that promises freedom for all and hope and healing.

Tragic Catharsis

Cowan also writes about tragic catharsis:

As an art form tragedy helps its viewers (not its protagonists!) look upon violence and turn away from it freed and content. It enables them to rise from the devastating experience with a sense of having been fulfilled and liberates them to shape their lives into the wisdom of comedy. But tragedy supplies the knowledge with which they shape that wisdom. Without the tragic there could be no comic resolution. Further, it is important to note that tragedy itself never simply turns into comedy. If it effects a reconciliation– as in the Oresteia– its harmony comes about still within a tragic terrain. And that terrain is elsewhere. For the situations and characters of the tragic world make us see not our own lives but rather something in the universe that, though it affects out world, has no counterpart in the daily lives we lead.

Perhaps one reason why Hamilton has been so wildly popular across all demographics and political affiliations is this cathartic effect of tragedy. Do we sense this regenerative energy as it confronts the deepest wound of the American psyche, the communal guilt of slavery? That doesn’t quite seem to work since there’s not a clear connection between Hamilton’s downfall and the problem of slavery. But there’s something here… in Hamilton’s confrontation with the problem of legacy, with what kinds of garden will spring up after you’ve planted the seeds. What seeds did the Revolution plant? Perhaps Hamilton the musical implies that we are still fighting to realize the vision of Revolution, that the war is incomplete and perhaps it is part of Hamilton’s tragedy that his fall kept him from becoming president, from achieving a political position where he could have implemented his abolitionist vision. Instead, his life was cut short too early, just like that of Laurens who never got to lead the first black battalion, and with his downfall America lost a visionary president who might have found a way to fulfill that revolutionary promise, that lost dream.

And this is where the metanarrative comes in. Because it’s Eliza who ultimately lives and tells Hamilton’s story and it’s Lin Manuel Miranda who tells the story. Just as Eliza puts herself into the narrative, so does Lin Manuel Miranda. He makes this a story about New York immigrants. He writes blacks and Latinos and Asians into the narrative. He makes it their story. The story of America then as told by America now. And it’s immigrants who get the job done, who break out of the endless cycle of violence, who cut through the black and white binary and envision a different narrative, one where the founding fathers are free to be flawed human beings at the same time that they are visionaries whose ideals are worth preserving. Perhaps their legacy can be redeemed, their sins forgiven, and their vision reclaimed from the dustbin of history?

Miranda is telling the narrative of the unfinished Revolution. He’s writing Hamilton back into the narrative, an abolitionist, a hero for the underdog, the immigrant, the minority. He’s watering the seeds Hamilton planted, the garden he never got to see, he’s ensuring Hamilton’s legacy. And it’s not a coincidence that this play was written and produced at a moment when we have the first black president. Obama is part of this narrative too, of this communal need to revisit our roots, our founding narrative. It’s Hamilton’s moment and Miranda’s moment because it’s America’s moment. We need to confront this communal guilt and purge it. Hamilton is the tragedy of our time.

And Eliza shows us a way forward. She shows us what forgiveness looks like. She helps us to imagine forgiving the unforgivable. And she shows us how to move on. It’s unimaginable but she shows us how to love that which all reason tells us we should hate. She despises Hamilton’s obsession with his legacy, she sees that it destroyed their marriage, destroyed their son, destroyed Hamilton himself. And yet she is able to redeem it. She spends fifty years working to ensure his legacy. But it’s a purified legacy that reaches beyond Hamilton’s dreams. It’s a legacy that is human and humane. Listening to the soldiers and telling their story, building monuments to Washington who taught us how to resolve differences peacefully, how to step down, how to defy ambition and how to say goodby.

Eliza gives us a formula for moving on: stop wasting time on tears, she tells us, make a difference, put yourself in the narrative. Don’t drop out. Don’t be a Burr constantly waiting for the right moment. Do something. Listen to the stories of the people around you, even to the stories of your enemies. Help the orphans and oppressed and powerless. Tell your story. Tell the story of America today.

Take a Stand with Pride: A Few Thoughts on Burr the Antagonist

One last thought. Burr is the antagonist not only because he pulls the trigger, but because he lacks principle and because he is unwilling to take a stand. He is the embodiment of that force which would destroy the new found order before the country is even created. Burr’s lack of conviction begins in Aaron Burr, Sir in his very first exchange with Hamilton:

”Pardon me, are you Aaron Burr, Sir?”
“That depends. Who’s asking?”

Burr is so unwilling to be pinned down he won’t even admit to his own name, claim his own identity, without knowing who he’s talking to and why they want to know. It’s not just that he won’t let them know what he’s against or what he’s for. He won’t be pinned down to anything at all. His lack of conviction, his unwillingness to commit himself, undermines everything the Revolution stands for. As Hamilton says, Jefferson has beliefs, Burr has none. No matter how strongly he disagrees with Jefferson, Hamilton realizes the country can survive his presidency whereas a Burr presidency, founded on nothing but the desire for power, threatens the very foundation of the American experiment. What America needs, Hamilton argues, are idealists, but also selfless statesmen like Washington who know when to step down for the good of the country. So Burr must be opposed.

But before the end Burr does offer us one nugget of insight that he gains from the duel, “I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.” And this is another key to the vision of the play, to the possibility of reconciliation. A healthy republic is one in which people with competing beliefs and ideals can coexist, where other people have the right to be wrong, where we can make room for those whose beliefs stand in stark opposition to our own. The world is wide enough.

Forgiveness: Can you imagine?

But Eliza gets the final word in the play and so she, and not Burr, should get the final word here. 

Eliza’s shining moment comes in It’s Quiet Uptown. It’s not what she says, it what she does. We have seen Eliza’s rage in Burn. We’ve heard her wordless cry over the body of her son in Stay Alive. How can the play ask us to believe that she not only forgives Alexander but spends the next fifty years ensuring his legacy. But she does. She forgives Alexander for a double crime that is unimaginably horrible. Not only did he bring another woman into their bed, his adultery is directly responsible for the death of their son. Yet not only does Eliza forgive him, she takes up his broken dream of a legacy and realizes it, transforms it in a way he could never have imagined and makes it into something amazing. And this becomes the model not only for individual reconciliation but for national reconciliation. This is what it looks like to love the one who hurts us, to see the good in them, and to transform our brokenness into a new dream.

The play ends on a question mark: “Who tells your story?” Except that’s not really the end. After the final note is sung, Eliza looks up into the audience and gasps. Some people have interpreted this moment as Eliza seeing Hamilton on the other side, an echo of his dying vision of Laurens and Philip and Washington. But I don’t think that’s credible because even while she’s gasping Hamilton is on the stage behind her. No, I think in this moment Eliza is breaking the fourth wall and seeing the audience. This is the completion of the metanarrative and the answer to the question about who will tell her story and Hamilton’s: it is the audience who will tell the story.

More about Hamilton: Is Hamilton Another Hamlet?

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