Hamilton won a number of Tonys and received glowing reviews. Alex Nichols from Current Affairs offers a contrarian critique of the smash musical:
How did a ten-million-dollar 8th Grade U.S. History skit become “the great work of art of the 21st century” (as the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik says those in his circle have been calling it)?
The New York Times can delight in the novel incongruousness of “a Thomas Jefferson who swaggers like the Time’s Morris Day, sings like Cab Calloway and drawls like a Dirty South trap-rapper.” Indeed, it does take some getting used to, because the actual Thomas Jefferson raped slaves. We might call it a kind of, well, “blackwashing,” making something that was heinous seem somehow palatable by retroactively injecting diversity into it.
Besides, you don’t actually need to “write nonwhite people into the story.” As historians have pointed out, there were plenty of nonwhite people around at the time, people who already had fully-developed stories and identities. But none of these people appears in the play. As some have quietly noted, the vast majority of African American cast members simply portray nameless dancing founders in breeches and cravats, and “not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play.”
Slavery is left out of the play almost completely. Historian Lyra Monteiro observes that “Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world.” The foundation of the 18th century economic system, the vicious practice that defined the lives of countless black men and women, is confined to the odd lyrical flourish here and there.
Miranda found that by trying to write a song about his main characters’ attitudes toward slavery, he ran into the inconvenient fact that all of them willfully tolerated or participated in it.And in the brief references that are made to slavery, the play even generously portrays Hamilton as far more committed to the cause of freedom than he actually was. In this way, Hamilton carefully makes sure its audience is neither challenged nor discomforted, and can leave the theater without having to confront any unpleasant truths.
And in the brief references that are made to slavery, the play even generously portrays Hamilton as far more committed to the cause of freedom than he actually was. In this way, Hamilton carefully makes sure its audience is neither challenged nor discomforted, and can leave the theater without having to confront any unpleasant truths.
The conservative-liberal D.C. consensus on Hamilton makes perfect sense. The musical flatters both right and left sensibilities. Conservatives get to see their beloved Founding Fathers exonerated for their horrendous crimes, and liberals get to have nationalism packaged in a feel-good multicultural form. The more troubling questions about the country’s origins are instantly vanished, as an era built on racist forced labor is transformed into a colorful, culturally progressive, and politically unobjectionable extravaganza.
To read a full review, go to Current Affairs.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.