“Hamilton:” Triumph, or Triumphalism?

Originally posted on Facebook on July 13, 2020; edited to embed a link (link originally posted in comments due to FB algorithm).

So… one of the things that has bothered me about the anti-“Hamilton” position the past few years is that the show’s detractors — not those who offer engaged critique but those who dismiss it — often refer to the show as a “hagiography.” I’ve bristled at that description for years and last Sunday night, watching with Jessie and Chloe, I think I finally understand why. Because to label it a hagiography demands a particular minimization: “Sure, the show portrays Hamilton as incredibly shitty to women — both his wife Eliza, and Mariah Reynolds — but it valorizes his public accomplishments beyond what they deserve.”

But we can also understand the show in the inverse: “Sure, it valorizes his public accomplishments beyond what they deserve, but it also portrays Hamilton as incredibly shitty to women.”

These may seem like identical statements. But just as with the first version, in the second version, the latter clause is meant to repudiate the first statement — and if “he was incredibly shitty to women” doesn’t seem an adequate repudiation to public accomplishment, well… maybe it should? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Lin-Manuel Miranda intended it to be such; abuse of women, whether physical or emotional, is so often used as a prop for male protagonists’ narrative arcs that I seriously doubt he meant to villainize Hamilton, rather than simply “humanize” him. (Because hurting women — and Feeling Sad About It — is what makes men human!) I also don’t particularly care about authorial intent, in this case or more broadly. We can read against texts! Theater, and stories and art more broadly, are not defined by a single interpretation! Listen to BIPOC/feminist/queer/disabled critical theorists!

Because the reason that Hamilton is shitty to women is related to the biggest complaint against “Hamilton”, which is that it doesn’t take the issue of chattel slavery seriously. And it doesn’t do so because Hamilton himself didn’t, despite his professed opposition — he was president of the New York Manumission Society — but that opposition was, despite Lin-Manuel Miranda’s attempts to render it more forcefully, only ever pretty half-hearted. To be truly committed to abolition would be to risk his public position, his power and his patronage, for nothing more than principle, and nothing was more valuable to Hamilton than his public position. Recall that the only reason he torpedoes it by writing the Reynolds pamphlet is to forestall even more damaging rumors; he was perfectly willing to strip his wife of her dignity and position in order to try to protect his own.

Why, then, are people so ready to regard it as hagiography? Lin-Manuel Miranda has not been shy that he wrote it to celebrate Hamilton, but I experience the story not as celebration but as a confession — not only of Hamilton’s poor treatment of the women in his life but also of his anti-Blackness, as we watch the construction of the “hardworking immigrant” mythos, the lens on which the show is premised, form over the course of the events depicted within it (very meta, indeed). And inside such a narrative template, erasure of chattel slavery is the only possible choice, because the entire purpose of the “hardworking immigrant” mythos is precisely to denigrate and erase Black achievement and to justify anti-Blackness; after all, the logic of this mythology goes, if Irish/Italian/Cuban/Indian/Chinese/Mexican/[Insert Nationality Here] immigrants could achieve success in the US, this merely proves that Black Americans deserve their place in the social hierarchy!

The hardworking immigrant myth is beloved by the benevolent/liberal version of white supremacy, because it creates an illusion of equal opportunity, but its most ardent supporters are the hardworking immigrants themselves, because this myth guarantees that they cannot fall to the bottom of the social strata. It erases advantage by assuming meritocracy and it flatters the struggle of every immigrant group that gets to point to Black Americans and say “If only they were more like us….” I’m Cuban-American; we roll hard for this shit.

(Remember when self-proclaimed “Tiger Mom” (and Brett Kavanaugh stan) Amy Chua published a book about the “cultural traits” that made certain immigrant groups particularly successful in the US? Cubans were reeeeeeeeal proud about being one of those groups. Also, in case it still needs to be said: the book and its arguments were and are garbage.)

But immigrants, and the non-Black people of color who predominate amongst immigrants, can also confuse this mythology for solidarity, instead of recognizing it as the basis for the necessary middle caste around which whiteness and Blackness both pivot. (Isabel Wilkerson, of “The Warmth of Other Suns,” wrote a stunning longform piece about this in the NYTimes recently.) Conflating the struggles of Black and brown, without acknowledging the very real structural and positional differences embedded in those identities, *feels* like a repudiation of white supremacy, not a reification of it — but white supremacy is wily in its violence, and so it allows and then instrumentalizes the achievements of brownness for the precise purpose of perpetuating anti-Blackness. Solidarity can only exist, therefore, in the opposition to whiteness, never in accommodation, assimilation, or aspiration.

And Hamilton was all about accommodation, assimilation, and aspiration. He valued his public position and political power above all else; above his marriage and his abolitionism, absolutely. His path to legitimacy — the ur-narrative of the American Immigrant Striver, the logic of which is reproduced in the show itself by American Immigrant Striver Offspring Lin-Manuel Miranda (who has said that Hamilton reminds him of his own father) — is predicated on appeasing that perfect instantiation of benevolent white supremacist power and violence, George Washington. It feels different when Washington is played by a Black actor, but once the show is licensed for high schools and the casting requirements are stripped away, the illusion will be hard to sustain.

So if Hamilton is a white-supremacy-appeasing misogynist who is made by protagonism into the hero of the piece, then what is “Hamilton”? The tempo of the show’s verse is more upbeat than Shakespeare but I still can’t see the story of it as anything other than a tragedy; it’s as much a hagiography as Lear, the story of a selfish leader who misplaced his trust and saw his beloved child die from his own misguided efforts to build a legacy.

But despite all that, I’m not mad at “Hamilton” — because where the story confesses its own worst impulses, as a show, as a piece of theater taken as a whole, it succeeds wildly. The songs are bangers (in the words of kids today, it slaps). The direction is intricate and energetic and extraordinary; it’s spectacular without relying on spectacle, building awe out of a single straightforward set and relatively minimal props — compare the staging of “Hamilton” to the hits of Julie Taymor or Cameron Mackintosh or any of the Disney musicals and it is distinguished by its foregrounding of *humans*, of performers rather than effects. And, goddamn, those performers — Daveed Diggs is a national treasure, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Philippa Soo are both heartbreaking, and Leslie Odom Jr is so fucking good that it’s downright chilling. Theater is a medium of human performance and human connection and so many overproduced musicals lose their humanity within the spectacle, but “Hamilton,” for all its budget and cues, keeps humans, and all their complications, at its center.

And of course, those humans are mostly Black and brown; and this is the central paradox of the show, because it is what obscures the anti-Blackness embedded within the story — both the actual history, and this particular, immigrant-elevating framing of it — but it is also what gives the show its subversive power and presence. To have a majority Black and brown cast remains a rare thing on any stage, on Broadway and throughout this country. To have a majority Black and brown cast that gets to have so much *fun* together, rather than be presenting another struggle story to wealthy white audiences — I can’t think of any other popular show, certainly not any other major musical, that has ever offered such opportunity.

And maybe that feels small, relative to all the hype. “Hamilton” is worth interrogating and critiquing; like most good art, it benefits from interrogation and critique, but if the product of such interrogation and critique is only to recognize the extravagant, embedded whiteness that has so long impoverished American theater, that might seem like so much less than what was promised — after all, few Americans see theater very regularly; it’s expensive and inaccessible to many. But that expense and inaccessibility is precisely what enables theater to remain so stubbornly white, to grind down and shut out so many talented and dedicated writers and directors and designers and performers of color, to keep audiences of color alienated so that they don’t demand access and affordability. It’s a closed loop of entitlement and exclusion, and if “Hamilton” offers no answers or solutions to the many knots and paradoxes it offers us, it at least exposes the contradictions of its questions. It reinvigorates the possibility of what popular theater can contain, and it offers a lesson — albeit an unintentional one — on why the liberal belief that understanding the American identity as “a nation of immigrants” must necessarily fail, in its erasure of Black (to say nothing of indigenous) Americans, to offer meaningful justice or liberation.

Perhaps that is less revolutionary than the war depicted within the show itself. But it might also be a worthwhile place to start.

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