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Hamilton: An American Musical and the Accomplishments of Alexander Hamilton's Wife

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Eliza Hamilton: History, Broadway, and Beyond

Hamilton: An American Musical is the Broadway smash-hit based on the story of American founding father, Alexander Hamilton. The brainchild of composer, lyricist, and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton chronicles the life, death, and legacy of the titular statesman, along with that of his family, friends, political enemies, and superiors. With its hip-hop-based musical style, ethnically-diverse company, and distinct commentary on the resonance of history, the show blends both the historical and the contemporary, and creates a realm through which the birth of America collides with America as it is today. Within this interpretation of American history, one of Hamilton’s most noteworthy characters is Elizabeth “Eliza” Schuyler Hamilton, Alexander’s wife, whose achievements are brought to light at the end of the show. In the same way it manages to succeed, Hamilton’s attempts to highlight Eliza’s remarkable accomplishments are equally overshadowed by its lack of forethought, in terms of casting, structural organization, and representation. While Hamilton aims to resist the historical plight of exclusion through challenging the normalizing gaze, it fails to do Eliza justice, reinforcing notions of performativity and the limiting perspective of Foucauldian history. Although this musical formulates a unique perspective of how history can be reconstructed as a means of recognition and sustainable reinvention, it is ultimately lacking in fully establishing the grounds of Eliza’s agency and conditions of her historical absence, thereby weakening its romanticized, emboldened portrayal of her.

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Hamilton has been lauded by many for its diverse cast and its range of outspoken female characters. Upon further investigation, however, the flaws of the show’s feminist nuances begin to shine through. During the initial run of Hamilton performances, Chinese-American actress Phillipa Soo originated the role of Eliza. Her voice is most prominently featured in the songs “The Schuyler Sisters” (McCarter and Miranda 42-45), “Helpless” (McCarter and Miranda 70-77), and “That Would Be Enough” (McCarter and Miranda 110) during Act One, and “Take a Break” (McCarter and Miranda 168-170), “Burn” (McCarter and Miranda 238), and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” (McCarter and Miranda 280-281) in Act Two. In comparison with Hamilton’s staggering 46-song repertoire, Eliza’s narrative arc is rushed and disjointedly presented, a soft murmur hustled into completion against the domineering cries of Hamilton’s men. While many of Eliza’s male counterparts, from Alexander himself to Aaron Burr to King George III, are granted numerous musical opportunities to sing about their growing ambitions and arising feuds, the Schuyler sisters themselves are denied such gateways of expression. James McMaster of Emerson College’s HowlRound notes, “The female characters simply do not get enough stage time and, when they do appear onstage, their desires, fears, hopes, plans, and narratives exist only in relation to Alexander, the man at the center of Miranda’s musical” (McMaster). According to McMaster, it is even doubtful whether Hamilton passes the Bechdel Test, which asks that two named women speak together about a topic unrelated to a man. Within the scope of the musical, the women’s voices are shoehorned into sparse, seemingly empowering tunes about themselves, only to have actually been singing in reference to Alexander the entire time instead.

Similarly, the song most widely-praised as an illustration of Eliza’s agency—“Burn”—is, at heart, a song regarding the aftermath of Alexander’s actions. It directly follows “The Reynolds Pamphlet” (McCarter and Miranda 234-237) a musical number centered around the circular of the same name, in which Alexander admits to his illicit liaison with Maria Reynolds. Historian Ron Chernow points out in his biography, Alexander Hamilton, that, “We have no letters between Alexander and Eliza Hamilton that refer even obliquely to the scandal” (Chernow 1048), making “Burn” a dramatic interpretation of what transpired following the publication, counterbalanced against the revelation of the Hamilton-Reynolds affair. The song also serves as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s take on the unaccounted absence of Eliza’s letters to Alexander (“Search: ‘All Correspondence between Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Hamilton’”). In the PBS documentary “Hamilton’s America,” Miranda states, “I loved the notion which is true that Eliza burned a lot of their correspondence, she wanted Hamilton to be known for his political acts, so I recast that burning of the letters as an act of… anger and acknowledgement of betrayal” (“Hamilton’s America”), functioning as Eliza’s apparent revolt in the remaining realms Alexander had virtually no control over—their domestic lives and collective, historical memory. Contrarily, Chernow hypothesizes that Eliza merely sacrificed her letters in an effort to sustain her husband’s legacy by diverting attention away from herself (Chernow 25). To reframe this act of selfless humility—which the self-effacing Eliza maintained throughout her fifty years of widowhood (Chernow 1781)—into a gesture of vengeance severely undercuts the very foundation of Eliza’s lifelong mission to preserve what remained of Alexander’s services to America, and completely contradicts the significance of her self-inflicted erasure.

Moreover, even the very minds behind Hamilton are undecided as to whose letters were destroyed in “Burn”—Eliza’s only solo throughout the entirety of the show—Alexander’s or her own. This discrepancy is a reflection of the creative liberties Miranda took to restructure the Hamilton’s’ timelines, reminiscent of Foucauldian history. As Mark Poster describes in “Foucault and History,” “the practice of the discourse of the past places the historian in a privileged position: as the one who knows the past, the historian has power. The historian becomes an intellectual who presides over the past, nurtures it, develops it, and controls it” (Poster 120). In the case of Hamilton, Miranda has taken control of Eliza’s past and reshaped it into his vision. An example of this is “That Would Be Enough,” in which Eliza appeals to Alexander to stay with her, proposing that life as a father is just as noble and commendable as life on the battlefield. Miranda admits in a footnote that, “There is no historical basis for this song,” before arguing that “Eliza needed to say it, so she did” (McCarter and Miranda 110), exercising his authority over Hamilton’s story. In “Burn,” Eliza sings, “The world has no right to my heart. / The world has no place in our bed. / They don’t get to know what I said.” (McCarter and Miranda 238), choosing to remove her voice from the disgraceful narrative she’s been roped into. Yet, Hamilton: The Revolution, a book documenting how Hamilton came to be, asserts, “What retribution could be crueler or more fitting? She burned the letters he had written to her—she destroyed his words” (McCarter and Miranda 228), an outright contradiction to a turning point central to Eliza’s character development. Without a definitive, conclusive answer, the ambiguity behind this key segment throws Miranda’s vision into disarray. This conflict disrupts the fundamental decision that ascribes Eliza her agency, and clouds Miranda’s idealization of Eliza’s intentions, thereby weakening this pivotal moment within the show.

Furthermore, despite how Eliza is continuously able to put her words into effect through illocutionary language in her songs (Butler 3)—specifically, “That Would Be Enough,” “Burn,” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” through which she finds, refuses, and reaffirms her place within the narrative of Alexander’s life and the musical itself—her one true instance of celebrating her personal contributions comes too little too late: In her final lines during the last song of the show. Rather than worry about whether her efforts to honor the work done by Hamilton’s many men have paid off, she allows herself a brief moment in the spotlight and sings, “I establish the first private orphanage in New York City. / I help raise hundreds of children. / I get to see them growing up. … ”—previously known as the New York Orphan Asylum Society (Chernow 1775), the orphanage now exists as Graham Windham (“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Eliza’s Story?”)—“And when my time is up? / Have I done enough? / Will they tell my story?” (McCarter and Miranda 281). Eliza’s focus on her own legacy is, at long last, fully rooted in her sense of self. She is able to speak for herself and vouch for her own achievements, albeit briefly. All it took were 45 songs before Eliza was finally given her time to shine independently. McMaster’s take is that, “Though Miranda does offer an admirable amplification of Eliza Schuyler’s historical contributions, this move is both too little and too late for this male-dominated musical. Where were the duets between women about women? Why choose to tell this story?” (McMaster). At its best, Hamilton attempts to shed light upon the problematic nature of women’s history, a sphere with sources that are few and far between; at its worst, Hamilton features its women, especially Eliza, only when convenient, regardless of the musical’s open-ended title of “Hamilton.” It fails to elevate the female characters’ statuses the same way it does to that of the male characters, and confines them to the domain of domesticity.

In addition to the above, Hamilton’s applauding of having cast black and Latino actors, without acknowledging the effects of Phillipa Soo’s casting, creates a point of gross contention regarding performativity. Judith Butler’s notion of performativity dictates that language exists as a living thing beyond the scope and limits of time and history. Along this same vein, language can hence be employed as a tool to maintain the existence of a being, as well as to harm it: “If language can sustain the body, it can also threaten its existence” (Butler 5), and the same is reflected by the racial coding of Hamilton’s most prominent figures. Eliza, in particular, “reads as white” to critic Lyra Monteiro, as she mainly sings traditionally “white” Broadway ballads (Monteiro 91). Considering the ways in which she is characterized—demure, soft-spoken, and reserved—it is arguable that Hamilton is reinforcing stereotypical images of the subversive, submissive Asian woman too, as Eliza spends the entire musical dedicating her life to the much more domineering Alexander. There is little consideration of how Soo’s casting adds to Hamilton’s mission of inclusivity, aside from Miranda’s idyllic observation that “audiences instantly and instinctively warmed to her, just as Eliza’s contemporaries had done” (McCarter and Miranda 108). This is a shortcoming that Marvin McAllister reasons obscures the historical basis of this show, tipping it towards falseness: “[T]he danger of this fluidity [of race and ethnicity] is how easily a faux history can emerge that avoids complexity for the sake of unity, alleged inclusion, and even fantasy” (McAllister 288). Despite its tries at race-conscious casting (Monteiro), Hamilton’s resistance of the normalizing gaze, which explores “[t]he coexistence of identification and difference, of recognition and misrecognition” (Hesford and Brueggemann 18) by presenting identities outside of normative standards, is sufficiently impaired by an ironic lack of racial sensitivity, thus undermining Soo’s and Eliza’s importance to the show on a whole.

Likewise, Hamilton’s successes in reconstructing Eliza’s historical legacy are greatly overtaken by its fictionalized image of her. Graham Windham created a page entitled Eliza’s Story, encouraging fans of Hamilton to contribute to the organization’s cause (“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Eliza’s Story?”). What is intriguing about this webpage is how it draws from the language of Hamilton, using a photo of Soo and Miranda as its header image, and quoting lyrics from the show as opposed to factual words uttered by the historical Eliza Hamilton. This actor-role bond is further evidenced by the Eliza Project (“American Graduate Day”), an arts program created by Phillipa Soo in collaboration with Graham Windham. In an interview as part of the AOL BUILD series, Soo details the connection she feels with Eliza during the final moment of the show, when she looks out into the audience and gasps, “ … whether it’s, you know, in Eliza’s mind or in Phillipa’s mind, they’re both one and the same, which is beautiful about that moment” (“AOL BUILD”). Regardless, as Eliza’s voice has been lost to history, leaving her in “virtually complete historical obscurity” (Chernow 1775), Hamilton continues to lie beyond the reaches of historical accuracy. As Butler indicates in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, “The failure of language to rid itself of its own instrumentality or, indeed, rhetoricity, is precisely the inability of language to annul itself in the telling of a tale” (Butler 8). Although Hamilton triumphantly restores the events of the American Revolution to modern collective memory, its medium as a art form diminishes its agency and function as a mode of representation and recognition. When all is said and done, Hamilton does neither Phillipa Soo nor Eliza Hamilton justice, notwithstanding their indispensable roles to the microcosmic narrative of the show and the macrocosmic narrative of American history as its own being, as well as in terms of existing within the expansive narrative of world history.

Finally, the grandest pitfall Hamilton suffers is its failure to determine whether it had earned the right to single out Eliza’s history. Given how she spent her remaining days to preserving her husband’s legacy instead of her own, great uncertainty exists regarding whether she had “put [herself] back in the narrative” (McCarter and Miranda 280), as the show’s concluding song states, or been involuntarily made to do so. Ariel Nereson proposes that, “as much as Hamilton invites viewers into this history, the history itself is incomplete, its archives fragmented both by chance and by intentional omission” (Nereson 1054). As Chernow repeatedly describes, Eliza Hamilton was a modest woman, one who “would gladly have devoted herself to private life alone, but she submitted good-naturedly to the demands of her husband’s career” (Chernow 818). Following her husband’s death, she abandoned any glimmer of fame and committed herself to restoring Alexander’s work to the forefront of historical memory. The notion of rightful representation then becomes all the more complex, when considering the implications of a musical devised by men assuming ownership over this same woman’s legacy, and decidedly dramatizing it for its audiences. In the final pages of Hamilton: The Revolution, Miranda confesses that, “It’s unusual to end a musical with somebody other than the protagonist, but I felt like I had permission to end with Eliza … ” (McCarter and Miranda 280). Whether he did or not, this remains a question Hamilton unfortunately fails to answer. “Language remains alive when it refuses to ‘encapsulate’ (20) or ‘capture’ (21) the events and lives it describes. But when it seeks to effect that capture, language not only loses its vitality, but acquires its own violent force” (Butler 9). In the same respect, Hamilton’s endeavors to call attention to Eliza’s lifelong devotion to Alexander’s career and memory are thus disrespectful towards her original intentions, and an act of aggression against her humble wishes.

In conclusion, while Hamilton operates as a unique reinterpretation of the events of the American Revolutionary War, it is ultimately unsuccessful in encapsulating such experiences due to ill-conceived choices made in terms of casting, organization, and representation. Most notably, the show’s emphasis on the efforts of Elizabeth “Eliza” Schuyler Hamilton have left critics intrigued and perplexed, generating debates regarding the reasons behind Eliza’s historical silence, and how Hamilton’s portrayal of Eliza speaks for the need for improved racial representation and gender representation within history. Alexander Hamilton once joked in a love letter to Eliza that “your business now is to study ‘the way to keep him’—which is said to be much the most difficult task …” (Brookhiser), and certainly, Hamilton strove to demonstrate the ways Eliza did so. However, having raised questions of women’s representation, creative liberties, factual discrepancies, and historical inaccuracies, the very same features that were meant to be Hamilton’s triumphs serves as its failures, particularly due to how the aforementioned factors impeded its idealized view of Eliza’s character. In Alexander Hamilton, Chernow contends: “To the extent that she has drawn attention, [Eliza] has been depicted as a broken, weeping, neurasthenic creature, clinging to her Bible and lacking any identity other than that of Hamilton’s widow. In fact, she was a woman of towering strength and integrity who consecrated much of her extended widowhood to serving widows, orphans, and poor children” (Chernow 1775). As a woman who, at times, acted as her husband’s confidante (Chernow 365), messenger—through dictating his letters (Chernow 392) and delivering his essays (Chernow 610)—critic (Chernow 1259-1260), and gatekeeper of his legacy (Chernow 24), Eliza Hamilton took on countless roles as one of the proverbial Founding Mothers of America, something which Hamilton unfortunately fails to accurately reflect, reducing her to all but a historical afterthought.

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