Written by Steven Fielding.
That most peculiar of demographic groups – left-wingers and liberals who like musical theatre – has keenly anticipated the opening in London’s glittering West End of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit Hamilton. Reader, it is here! Those who can afford to travel to the capital and have enough cash left over for the price of a ticket, are apparently in for a treat.
Miranda’s musical traces Alexander Hamilton’s story from his Caribbean birth through the tumult of the revolution against the British, onwards to his battles as George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, the sex scandal that brought him down and death through dueling. Hamilton’s was a dramatic life. But more importantly, as Helen Lewis has confirmed, the musical literally recasts US history in multi-racial terms. Actors with diverse ethnicities play most of the historical characters and to reinforce its inclusive message, the songs are performed in the hip-hop style, the musical genre created by poor black and Puerto Rican youth.
This is however not the first Broadway dramatization of Hamilton’s life. Alexander Hamilton, co-written by and starring the British actor George Arliss, opened in 1917. Already famous for portraying Benjamin Disraeli, Arliss went on to achieve fame playing a variety of historical leaders and authority figures in Hollywood, including that of Hamilton in his play’s 1931 movie adaptation.
The Arliss rendering of Hamilton’s life is very different to that of Miranda. Hamilton’s immigrant status is never mentioned. The leading characters are all played by white actors apart from Hamilton’s loyal servant, who talks in the hackneyed patois some then took for black speech. The play also begins just as the revolution ends with its protagonist already an established member of the elite. It then traces Hamilton’s attempt to put the new nation on a secure financial basis through his Assumption Bill, drafted to allow the federal government to settle the country’s war debts. Surrounded by mostly corrupt politicians seeking favours for their support, Hamilton is presented as a singularly honourable man who only plays the game of politics to secure the national interest. Refusing ‘to barter America’s honour’ Hamilton ultimately sacrifices himself and his private happiness in favour of public duty but in so doing wins the Bill’s passage. The play presents this legislation as laying the foundations for what Arliss has Hamilton predict will be ‘the most powerful nation in the world’. It is there the play ends, with Hamilton established as a hero and lovingly reconciled with his wife.
If Miranda’s musical celebrates the diversity of American society the Arliss play is a nationalist paen to one of the country’s Founding Fathers, a celebration of what the New York Times called a figure of ‘gentlemanly rectitude, constructive statesmanship, and heroic patriotism’. If Miranda’s Hamilton is a radical figure, Arliss casts him in deeply conservative terms. To the modern eye the latter looks ridiculous. But all Arliss did was that which Miranda has also done: mangled the past for contemporary political ends.
When making the 1931 Hollywood version of his play Arliss claimed:
I was curious to know what the name of Alexander Hamilton meant to the average man, so I asked a group of American citizens in the studio and I found it meant nothing; only one of them seemed to know anything about him and he said he wasn’t sure what Hamilton did, but he knew he had something to do with Nelson. This puzzled me until I suddenly thought of Lady Hamilton. I have come to the conclusion that today the man-in-the-street, as he is called, doesn’t know anything about history and his own country, and doesn’t want to know’.
Arliss was right and wrong. To the overwhelming despair of professional historians most people have never known much about their country’s past. But many want to know, hence the popularity of the very dramatized historical accounts produced by Arliss and Miranda. But in their search for an audience such dramas tend to tell contemporaries stories of the past tailored to their own preferences, or prejudices if you like. Historians like to call this ‘cultural memory’. In the 1930s Arliss played real authority figures that helped comfort frightened audiences living through the Great Depression. Miranda has in turn given his audience a vision of the past as they would like the present to be. And in the Trump Era in which attempts are being made to ban Muslims entering the United States and to build a wall on the Mexican border, you can see why so many progressives are nostalgic for a past that never was. But all Miranda has done is create a historical safe place, one that avoids the harsh realities of the past – and so of the present.
Steven Fielding is a Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: Author provided.