Hamilton: Why The Theatre is Quickly Becoming The Best Way To Teach History

Last Friday, on the day of its release on Disney+, we watched Hamilton from beginning to end. It left me stunned, as I realised how powerful Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brainchild is. It took the American Revolution and made it understandable. It took the problems of high government and made them relatable. It was funny, heart-wrenching and so damn watchable. It all simply showed the power of the theatre, of musicals in particular, to appeal to people’s understanding and interest, and convey the most powerful messages in history. So many were thrilled that this musical, the one that had swept the world, was available during lockdown. Those who had been disappointed with cancellations, who were craving some normalcy and some excitement, were over the moon at this unique opportunity - to see a Broadway show from their own sofa, and not just any version, but the original cast.

As each woman tells her tale, a ‘Herstory’ through song is born

Using the theatre as a vehicle for historical retelling is not a new phenomenon, as Shakespeare’s histories can testify. Richard III and Henry IV (parts I and II) are profound, dramatic works. However, more recent attempts show a lighter, more playful side of historical events, aiming to educate and entertain. Six the Musical springs to mind, with its girl band inspired ballads and creative spin on the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives. Proving hugely popular with audiences and was even nominated for the ‘Best Musical’ Olivier Award in 2019. Set up as a kind of ‘Battle of the Bands’, each wife steps forward to state her case: that hers was the life of most suffering. As each woman tells her tale, a ‘Herstory’ through song is born, with the ultimate resolution being that they are far more than Henry’s wives, and individuals in their own right. With wonderful historical detail brought forward in witty comical writing and bright upbeat tunes, Six helps people relate to and empathise with historical figures from nearly 500 years ago.

But, this witty writing and comedic song partnership has been around in children’s television since I was at school. Horrible Histories was a kids TV show like no other - it made history inspiring and engaging, and above all - hilarious. Based on the book series by Terry Deary, my friends even now have Horrible Histories’ songs etched in their memories, helping them to remember Henry’s wives or Rosa Parks’ involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. It accessed that part of the brain, so prevalent in children and teenagers, where movie scripts and song lyrics are stored and helped forge permanent knowledge of key historic events. It’s astounding too, that this show wasn’t seen as corny, patronising or simple, but was truly loved. Clearly, there is an important connection here, that isn’t yet being made the most of. The combination of history, theatre and music makes events, which are often perceived as boring or stuffy, accessible, relatable and entertaining. This is the magic of Hamilton.

Clearly, there is an important connection here, that isn’t yet being made the most of

Hamilton is based on the biography written by Ron Chernow, which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda when he read it on holiday. Having had success with his first musical In the Heights, Miranda began the lengthy process of creating the eleven Tony award-winning musical. Ron Chernow serves as a historical consultant, as Miranda conveyed the story of the Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, and his role at the earliest stages of America’s conception. It also includes the stories of the Schuyler sisters: Eliza, his wife, and Angelica, his close (perhaps very close) friend and sister-in-law. Founding Fathers George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are all present, as well as a hilarious depiction of King George III. Through the use of modern choreography and Hip-Hop, the life of Hamilton, and early New York, is brought to life. Miranda’s musical has made over $1 billion worldwide and even counts the Obamas as fans, having performed at The Whitehouse.

Since its first Broadway run in 2015, Hamilton has been praised for its multiracial casting of characters which are White historical figures. However, since the film’s release during the Black Lives Matter movement, it has come under serious criticism. The hashtag ‘#cancelHamilton’ was trending as Twitter users decried the lack of acknowledgement at Hamilton’s own part in the slave trade. While the musical makes a few light references to the slave labour in the South, and John Laurens’ dreams of a regiment of Black men, the fact that almost all of the principle characters in the musical were slave owners goes unacknowledged. While it is difficult to determine whether Hamilton owned slaves himself, he certainly took part in slave trading, helping his sister-in-law and her husband in their slave transactions, and marrying into the Schuyler family, who owned as many as 27 slaves. Similarly, Miranda’s depiction of Hamilton as a go-getting immigrant, who is an ally of the people may also be overemphasized, as his later writings are decidedly elitist and he supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, which extended the time before an immigrant could apply for citizenship and allowed the President jurisdiction to deport immigrants deemed to be ‘enemies’.

the fact that almost all of the principle characters in the musical were slave owners goes unacknowledged

#cancelHamilton’ is a very understandable response. Since watching the statue of slave trader Edward Colston plummet to the bottom of Bristol harbour, as well as a multitude of similar events, it is critical that we continue questioning and calling out both past and present behaviour. Writer Tracy Clayton’s Tweet emphasises this: ‘... I really like that this conversation is happening. Hamilton the play and the movie were given to us in two different worlds & our willingness to interrogate things in this way feels like a clear sign of change’. Miranda himself responded to Clayton’s Tweet, saying ‘All the criticisms are valid. The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game.’

To me, this is the integral part: Hamilton is a piece of art, not a historical artefact. It has been created by a human, with his own biases, prejudice and version of a story to tell. Miranda, as a creator, saw a narrative, flawed as it is, within the biography of a Founding Father. It is not historic fact, and as we are realising now, it is ignorant in its interpretation, in its silence on issues of slavery. Jameela Jamil recently commented on ‘cancel culture’ during an interview with Trevor Noah: ‘The thing that we are sometimes searching for in our society is moral purity, and you’re just never going to find that. All you can find is progress, not perfection’. She asks to be corrected, called out and that ‘You should be allowed the opportunity to learn and grow and do better.’

History, and art, are there to be questioned, criticised, and ultimately engaged with

Importantly, you can read your own version of the musical. I personally don’t feel that I am being asked to like Hamilton. From the summer vacation he misses, we watch as his whole world unwinds, along with his morals and beliefs. He U-turns on a number of issues, and compromises his integrity in the ‘The Room Where It Happens’. Alexander Hamilton is not a ‘good’ or a ‘nice’ man. Critically, this is Miranda’s version of history, which is a version of Chernow’s version of history, which is a version of Eliza’s version and so on. History, and art, are there to be questioned, criticised, and ultimately engaged with. History, like art, is inherently flawed. We are so used to critiquing art in our society, with reviewers and social media, and we should treat history in exactly the same way. Remove the stigma, as a boring and unengaging subject, meant only for academics and the classroom. Add music, add costume, make it human. Because ultimately, what history we do know is someone’s version, their creation, and we can rewrite it, readapt it and dig further as we go. Combine art with history, to teach people that just because you read it in a book, or were taught it at school, doesn’t make it true, fair or most importantly, right. Make it interesting, make it fun and teach people to question - and to further investigate.