Theater is a distillation, not a distraction.
Like most of America, I have a lot of thoughts about the statement Brandon Victor Dixon read to Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence after the November 18th production of Hamilton and Donald Trump’s tweeted reaction.
There are those who think it was disrespectful for the cast to call out a member of the audience. “You go to the theater to be entertained,” those folks say, “not to have politics shoved down your throat!”
If that’s your take, you might want to stop reading now. You’re not going to like what I have to say.
There are others who will argue that by focusing so much on this Hamilton controversy, I’m falling into Trump’s trap of redirecting attention from his other scandals, especially the news, announced the same day, of the $25 million fraud settlement in the Trump U case.
Those folks have a point: we need to pay attention to as many of Trump’s misdeeds as we can. But this critique implies the theater is somehow not a part of the larger political world, that it is a distraction from “the real world.” I couldn’t disagree more. Theater is a distillation, not a distraction.
(But, because I agree that it’s imperative for us to hold Donald Trump accountable for all of his decisions, here’s a partial list of the things I’m also paying attention to: the $25 million settlement in the fraud case mentioned above; the appointment of white-supremacist, misogynist, anti-semitic Steve Bannon as chief strategist; Trump’s many business ties to Russia; the evidence that Russia hacked the 2016 election; the choice of a Jeff Sessions, a man considered too racist to be a federal judge 30 years ago, as Attorney General; and the choice of an islamophobic national security advisor. There are a lot more. Feel free to add them in the comments.)
I can worry about all of this and still have thoughts about what happened at Hamilton. As I tweeted on Saturday, when it comes to worrying (paraphrasing Whitman) “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Okay, now that all that is out of the way….
I have always thought that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is like a first cousin to Shakespeare’s Henriad (which comprises Richard II, Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V). Like Richard II, Hamilton depicts the overthrow of a king. Like Henry IV, Part I, Hamilton addresses the aftermath of that overthrow and subsequent internecine conflicts. Like Henry IV, Part 2, Hamilton embraces the place of the tavern and the commons.
But most of all, Hamilton reminds me of Henry V with its looming questions of succession and its grappling with ideas of nationhood, national identity, and pluralism, the political role of the center and the periphery. Where Henry V expands the definition of “Englishness” with its inclusion of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish soldiers, Hamilton defends an inclusive and expansive meaning of “Americanness”–insisting on the fulfillment of the promise of equality–by casting people of color in main roles.
But with the aftermath of the performance on November 18th, these days Hamilton is reminding me most of Richard II in the way the play has adapted to and entwined with contemporary political crises.
The staging of Richard II has a history of being famously controversial. By depicting the deposing of a king (in very immediate and symbolic ways), the play skates perilously close to treason. Elizabeth I has long (if erroneously) been reported to have said, “I am Richard II know you not that?” And supporters of the Earl of Essex paid the Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II on the eve of the Essex rebellion.
Richard II may or may not have been written with these intentions in mind. Art is funny like that—it morphs and mutates, takes on a life of its own.
Similarly, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was written before Trump’s election, but the social and political ideas running through it have unintended connotations and consequences.
According to audience members at the November 18th production, there were two moments in the musical that served as touchstones.
The first occurred in this famous exchange between Lafayette and Hamilton in “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”:
The battle of Yorktown. 1781
In command where you belong
How you say, no sweat
We’re finally on the field. We’ve had quite a run
We get the job done
That line (“Immigrants/We get the job done”) caused the audience to erupt in cheers. Small wonder when Trump has been declaring that he will deport immigrants, build walls, and deny Muslims entry into the country based on an unconstitutional religious test.
The other big moment of the night, though, shows how Hamilton has adapted to current political crisis: King George singing “What Comes Next.” According to this account of the performance in Fortune,
“The audience members weren’t the only ones reacting to Pence’s presence. King George III, played by Rory O’Malley, reportedly sang portions of “What Comes Next?” directly at Pence and had to pause the song for a standing ovation after he sang the words, “When your people say they hate you.”
In the direct aftermath of the evening, Pence was silent (he has since then, in an interview with Fox News, said of the audience booing “that’s what freedom sounds like”).
Donald Trump, however, was neither so generous nor so well-spoken, tweeting out:
My view: Trump’s response had little to do with any concern for Pence. Rather, Trump took the audience’s reaction as a personal insult. I don’t know whether Trump has seen Hamilton or read the lyrics or heard the music. But I can imagine Trump seeing himself in the portrayal of King George: rich beyond the imagination of the people he represents; unwilling to listen to criticism; petulant, childish, and out of his depth.
So far Trump has only claimed to be King of Debt, but he is not far from some Trumpish version of “I am King George III know you not that?”