Editing by Karli Wessale
Art by Cat Faulkner https://www.jellyarmchair.com/
I would like to advocate for the inclusion of the 2015 musical play Hamilton in the list of works available for study in the English Literature curriculum at the University of Edinburgh, particularly in contemporary theatre and American literature courses. Hamilton retells the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, in the form of a hip-hop and R&B-style musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the play’s creator, is an American composer of Puerto Rican heritage. He plays the title character in the New York production, whose cast is almost solely made up of actors of African American, Latin American or Asian American heritage.
Despite its undeniable influence, wide-ranging popularity and repeated labelling as a “cultural phenomenon” (Newsweek.com), works like Hamilton are under-represented in the academic canon. During my course of study at Edinburgh University, I encountered hardly any works that had direct relevance to current social and political trends with which my peers and I were ourselves involved; ‘popular’ works, that appeared on our TV screens and on our Facebook newsfeeds, having an impact on our day-to-day lives. Whilst Edinburgh’s English Literature course provided me with a detailed understanding of the history of English-language fiction (at least in Britain), I believe it lacked focus when it came to works whose impact is fresh and newly resonating in the culture and communities of the students studying them. In my view, this is contradictory and a serious missed opportunity. As Shakespeare and Dickens have proven, it is often the works that are best loved by the masses, including those without university degrees, which last the longest in cultural memory.
Hamilton, which has been described as a “musical for the age of Obama” (NewYorker.com), quite clearly reflects, to a significant extent, many of the more progressive social and political voices of the 2010s. Miranda describes the musical as “a story about America then, told by America now” (TheAtlantic.com), in reference to the show’s embracing of multi-racial America and the positive impacts of immigration on that country’s prosperity. As Hamilton’s Broadway debut took place in August 2015, the show’s rise to popularity coincided with that of Donald Trump, a right-wing figure with white nationalist sympathies that go against many of the values that Miranda’s work upholds. The show has, in many ways, come to represent an opposition to prejudice ideologies, exemplified by African American cast member Brandon Victor Dixon’s post-show address to vice president-elect Mike Pence expressing that the “alarmed and anxious” people of “diverse America” fear their “American values” (NYTimes.com) will not be upheld by his administration. Coverage of the Women’s Marches, which took place on the day of Trump’s inauguration, featured photographs (Slate.com) of protesters carrying signs that quoted Hamilton: “Immigrants, we get the job done”; “history has its eyes on you” and “rise up” (Miranda) to name a few examples. The political context and associations of the show would be an interesting aspect to delve into if the play were studied as part of an American Literature course.
A lot can be gleaned about the cultural significance of Hamilton from a study of its form and genre. Close reading of music and lyrics and their connotations within literature was something that often came up in my English course – medieval sacred hymns, Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, Feste’s songs in Twelfth Night – and yet the modern musical did not appear in any form. I would argue that this is a substantial omission, considering the contribution of musical theatre to popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries (and the 19th, if music hall and Gilbert & Sullivan are included). Indeed, the fact that Miranda’s poetry in Hamilton is set to a rap or a tune should not cause it to be dismissed as unworthy of inclusion under the banner of ‘literature’. Rather, it should be seen as a form for language that can be interrogated and analysed. For instance, in the opening number, Miranda employs a complex metre and internal rhymes that reflect the style of modern day hip-hop artists, in order to tell the story of ‘long-dead white men’ (NYTimes.com) that previously have had no association with this type of poetry. Hip-hop is a musical and lyrical style that was born in African American communities in New York, and continues to be associated with and performed by people of colour in America and other Western countries; therefore, placing it in conjunction with the story of the founding fathers, a story of white men, is a powerful statement. It immediately dismantles expectations and raises questions about how we should be reading history, who should be telling the stories, and who should have control over how they are told.
This question is explored in-depth throughout Hamilton. Much of the slang and modern-day language that is used in the script would seem antithetical to the 18th century setting and the serious, political subject matter. For instance, congressional debates between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson are played out as fast-talking rap battles. Rather than undermine the seriousness of the topics the characters are discussing, the rap battle instead highlights the combativeness and one-upmanship that lurks under many political debates, and provides a sense of the urgency and excitement brimming amongst the young creators of a new republic. Thus, the modernised language does not jar or appear out of place. Instead, Miranda’s use of language and form serves to reclaim the dry vision of “stately figures in high school history books” (NYTimes.com) to the “young, scrappy and hungry” (Miranda) revolutionaries that appear far more vividly and emotionally in the imaginations of young people today.
In summary, Hamilton is a valuable and fascinating piece of work that contains rich areas for academic study. Firstly, its associations with the political climate surrounding its inception provide an insight into current social moods and movements. Secondly, its use of language and genre are unique and represent an evolution in forms of contemporary theatre. Thirdly, it contributes boldly to an important debate about the role of race in history, and the reclamation of historical narrative by those who have been largely omitted from it. Alexander Hamilton may himself have been a straight white man, but that is hardly important: it is not him, but those speaking through and for and about him, to whom this text draws attention.
Brantley, Ben. “Review: Hamilton, Young Rebels Changing History And Theater”. The New York Times. 6 Aug. 2015, nyti.ms/2k2c3uW. Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.
Delman, Edward. “How Lin-Manuel Miranda Shapes History”. The Atlantic. 29 Sept. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/09/lin-manuel-miranda-hamilton/408019/. Accessed 8 Jan. 2017.
Gopnik, Adam. “Hamilton And The Hip-Hop Case For Progressive Heroism.” New Yorker. 5 Feb 2016, www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/hamilton-and-the-hip-hop-case-for-progressive-heroism Accessed 8 Jan 2017.
“Hamilton Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Show’s Journey to Cultural Phenomenon”. Newsweek. 10 Feb. 2016, europe.newsweek.com/lin-manuel-miranda-hamilton-interview-504042?rm=eu. Accessed 8 Jan. 2017.
Mele, Christopher. “Hamilton Had Some Unscripted Lines for Pence. Trump Wasn’t Happy”. The New York Times. 9 Nov. 2016, nyti.ms/2k5Ydbb Accessed 8 Oct. 2017.
Miranda, Lin-Manuel, performer. Hamilton. 2015.
Wickman, Forrest. “The Best, Nastiest Protest Signs from The Women’s March On Washington.” Slate. 21 Jan. 2017, www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2017/01/21/the_best_protest_signs_from_the_women_s_march_on_washington.html#comments. Accessed 4 Feb. 2017.
About the author:
Rae Glasman recently graduated with an English Literature degree and since then has spent most of her time travelling the world. Her main artistic interests lie in theatre, and she has directed several plays in and out of university. She hopes to continue creating and writing in the future as she progresses in her professional life.