Hamilton, Theatre, and Truth

Tierney Watkinson | News Director

(Photo Delfont Mackintosh Theatres)

I listened to the soundtrack of Hamilton: An American Musical over and over again while I was tree planting. Sometimes I heard that album two or three times a day. If I planted a certain number of trees by the time I reached “The Reynolds Pamphlet”, I knew I was on a roll that day.
Somehow, after months of multiple replays of the album, and a full year since my friends first introduced me to the musical, I am still listening to Hamilton. I am sure that everyone around me is tired of hearing about it.
However, after doing some quick research, I now know that certain events shown in Hamilton are exaggerated, re-arranged, or imagined entirely. Certain events in history, even certain characters, have even been omitted completely. These changes are discussed openly by Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator. They are not hidden. No one is trying to lie about the real Alexander Hamilton’s past. Hamilton is entertainment, not a school lesson. Even so, that raises an important question: How many changes should we allow to historical narratives in the name of entertainment?
Every avenue of storytelling we enjoy has portrayed some form of historical alterations for the sake of genre or public interest. Where is the line between fact and fiction? Can history be entertaining without alterations?
The series of events in Hamilton are, for the most part, displayed only slightly differently in comparison to the actual story of Hamilton. Pivotal moments in history are relatively unchanged, if some assumed dialogue is added. That being said, I am pretty sure that late 1700’s Americans were not having rap battles or singing hip hop music to each other—a fact that surely leaves a huge chasm in the concept of joy during that time period in North America—but Hamilton is, again, meant to be entertaining and relatable.
An easy example of a key difference between the musical and reality concerns the romantic implications between Angelica Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton.
“Satisfied” is a powerful song about regret and missed opportunity. In the play, Angelica is immediately enamored with Alexander; she feels that she has finally met her intellectual match. But, Angelica sings, “I realized / three fundamental truths at the exact same time.” These truths: she cannot marry someone of lower status than her in good conscience, because she is the eldest daughter in a family with no sons; she is, in the moment, certain that Alexander is only speaking to her because of her own family’s higher social standing and does not want to be naïve; and finally, and most importantly to Angelica, her younger sister Elizabeth (“Eliza”) is already in love with him.
The song centres around her love for her sister, and how it eclipses Angelica’s own happiness, and also emphasizes the plight of women whose sole purpose in life was to climb the social ladder or at very least marry into financial security. Later in the musical, the fictional Angelica tells Alexander that she has found a husband: “I am sailing off to London / I am accompanied by someone who always pays / I have found a wealthy husband / who will keep me in comfort for all my days.” A poignant, historical truth to this song is revealed by those few lines: women were not expected to be in love with the person they married.
Coming back to reality, Angelica was, in fact, married before she ever met Alexander Hamilton. She may have loved Hamilton, but she also loved her real-life husband; they eloped in order to marry, fearful that Angelica’s father would not approve of their love match. Therefore while “Satisfied” is emotionally true—passing up a relationship that Angelica could have been truly happy in is terribly heart wrenching—it doesn’t follow the historically accurate timeline. Angelica also had two brothers, meaning she was not the sole, or indeed even primary person within her family burdened with the responsibility of maintaining the Schuyler family’s social status.
Here, the musical’s point was not to alter history but to develop plot, create a damper for the fairytale-romance of Eliza and Alexander, and to make the audience more emotionally invested in certain main characters. Miranda also sought to fit the situation of a multitude of women existing within that time-period into a single narrative, and Angelica was the perfect vehicle. Angelica of the play does not sing just for Angelica Schuyler. She represents all women of her time. (Presumably, the youngest Schuyler sister did not inspire Manuel enough to host the entirety of such a narrative, beyond tacking Peggy Schuyler onto the tail end of songs as she trails after her sisters. Alas, Margarita “and Peggy” Schuler gets only a few, if memorable, lines.)
While the song is not completely historically accurate, it still has great emotional pull: a missed opportunity for a life with someone you love, in a world where love is second to marriage contracts. The audience is made to feel torn between being happy for the newly-weds, and empathizing with the extreme regret Angelica must harbour for feeling as though she cannot allow herself to be truly happy.
Angelica’s plight becomes even more heart-wrenching when we watch Eliza, who seems to have gotten lucky and married for love, be betrayed by Alexander later. Eliza’s fairy tale is not as perfect as we or Angelica would wish for her. The problem with historical alterations comes with the question of how high we are willing to place “fact” on the historical pedestal. Does a beloved play have the potential to alter our views of history, our understanding of the past? Of course it does.
We only have what people thought to record, to write down—records that were destroyed are lost forever, because memories die with the people who held them. Hamilton’s “true” story has been pieced together by his own writings, by letters to him, and by the written memoirs of his wife, Eliza. How honest is a dead man’s story? Often in history, we have the facts but we do not have many of the in-betweens, the emotional filler; thus the gaps become subject to speculation.
Are we trying to make the story more bearable by enjoying historically based art and entertainment that has been altered by our own cravings for action, mystery, and romance? Is it acceptable to completely or even subtly change portrayals of moments in history to make a better story, a more interesting narrative, or a more beautiful tragedy? What exactly do we need to connect emotionally to history? How far are we allowed to deviate from the truth?
Whether or not the real Angelica was actually attracted to Hamilton, despite her marriage, is greatly speculative—she was close to Alexander, but while her letters to him and even other people wherein she speaks about Hamilton could imply romantic attachment, they could also merely emphasize her grasp of wit and sarcasm. And do not forget that two Schuyler brothers were cut entirely from the narrative of the musical so we could feel pity for its Angelica, trapped in a box created by the societal norms of the time.
“Satisfied” is not the only part of Hamilton in which history is somewhat left behind. However, the dates depicted within the play are correct. The Battle of Yorktown was in 1781. Burr did shoot Hamilton (no, this is not a spoiler—Burr admits this during the first song of the play) on July 11, 1804. The play remains true to the core beliefs and historical actions of the characters, if it does skip over a few minor instances and add romance where there might have been none.
Hamilton sought to be different. It climbed its way up in notoriety to become a Broadway hit despite not being entirely conventional. It is a racially diverse cast portraying historically white characters, opening a new door for theatrical possibilities and breaking perceived racial barriers. Modern music and humour also make the characters, who are stuffy old men in certain retellings, become alive and more relatable to a broader audience and thus allow us to remember that these were once living, breathing people.
Alexander Hamilton of the play is a young immigrant, born impoverished and seemingly doomed to die, who writes and fights his way to a legacy, a young man who goes from living hand-to-mouth to being George Washington’s right-hand-man. And that is the truth.
Should we be able to change history for the sake of entertainment? My first thought would be a solid “no”. However, I believe that Hamilton succeeded in something extremely notable: people who watch this musical want to learn more once the curtains have closed and the final note has faded away. They search sources for expansions on the story that, to them, has become beloved. They discover the historical alterations and learn about them as well as from them. Perhaps the real question lies in which parts of history we hold most sacred—the people of the past and what they must have felt, and in turn how they make those of us in the present day feel, or the dates and orders in which things happened.