Kill Your Darlings, a traditional piece of writing advice*, is the title of the live lit series I’m participating in, along with other Third Coast Review colleagues and a crew of other writers and performers. We’re having a great time with it – and it’s consuming a huge amount of my time.
Kill Your Darlings: A Live Lit/Improv Mashup is the full title and we’re performing for the next six Wednesday nights at ComedySportz Theater on Belmont. We have writers and actors who read their own stories, plus improv players and sometimes live music. Each night has a theme based on one of our website’s cultural categories. And we’ll have a celebrity guest reader each week.
Kill Your Darlings: A Live Lit/Improv Mashup
7pm Wednesday, August 10, is Food Night
Csz Theater, 929 W. Belmont
Hear me read a story about potato pancakes
and my Jewish/non-Jewish heritage
I hope you’ll come out and see us this Wednesday and any Wednesday thru September 14. For each night, I’m writing a new personal story (something like a blog essay), baring my soul in some cases, editing, refining, rehearsing and refining it. I mention this as sort of an explanation why I haven’t been writing for Nancy Bishop’s Journal very much lately.
(Of course, I’m still editor in chief and theater critic for Third Coast Review. Check out my recent reviews on the Stages page. I’ve recently reviewed War Paint; Between Riverside and Crazy; Byhalia, Mississippi; Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys; and Einstein’s Gift. I also enjoyed interviewing and writing a feature on Ron Keaton, the actor who starred in Churchill and, along with Kurt Johns, has formed a new theater company, SoloChicago.)
* What does “kill your darlings” mean? Slate magazine tried to track down the original source a few years ago when a film of the same title came out about Allen Ginsberg as a young writer. Basically, the advice means “get rid of your most precious and especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work.”
So the idea for this live-lit series is that we each resurrect various darlings we’ve killed in the past and turn them into new, sharply written stories. And a few of mine actually do include or were inspired by something I wrote in the past but never published.
Here are the stories I’ll be telling for the next six weeks. Opening night was last Wednesday and I told the story about my film addiction and my favorite film directors, focusing on Guy Maddin, the Canadian film director who made films you never heard of. The Darlings, our improv team, performed along with me. I was on a DVD and they paused me now and then to comment on my “lecture.”
- August 10. The theme is Food. My story is “Potato Pancakes—and Why They’re Not Latkes.” Monica Eng, the WBEZ food editor, will be guest reader.
- August 17, Music Night. My story is “How I Became a Bruce Springsteen Fan and How It Governs My Life.” My friend, June Sawyers, who has written a couple of dozen books on pop music topics, will be the guest reader.
- August 24. The theme is Stages and I’m curating the night. The concept will be how social media and the comment community are affecting theater reviews. My story will be about the uproar around the Steppenwolf for Young Adults play, This Is Modern Art, which I reviewed last year with my 17-year-old grandson. Kerry Reid, theater critic for the Tribune, will be the guest reader.
- August 31. The theme is Beyond, beyond now, beginnings and endings. My story for this night is about my divorcee love life — it includes a long poem. My son Steve will accompany me with an improvised solo on the tenor saxophone. The guest reader will be Ian Belknap of the Write Club.
- September 7 is Art night. I haven’t decided what I’m going to write for this night yet. I may even skip the reading, but of course I’ll attend.
- September 14 is Lit night and appropriately, it will be set in a Chicago saloon. NU prof Bill Savage, the guest reader, will critique our readings in real time. My story is about my obsession with the Spanish Civil War.
Perhaps life will get back to normal after that. Although I’m not sure what my normal is any more.
Chicago has two don’t-miss exhibits this summer that are a little off the beaten path and I’m going to share my reviews with you. Actually we have dozens of amazing exhibits of art, architecture, history and science at any given moment. Keeping up with Chicago’s museums could be a full-time occupation. But I don’t want you to miss these.
Aaron Siskind: Abstractions is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago thru August 14. The Art Institute has a large collection of Siskind’s work and this exhibit shows 100 of them, many shot in the 1940s and ’50s.
His work is so painterly that you would think at first glance that they are paintings or prints. Siskind’s practice was to focus in closely on elements of everyday materials such as pavement, broken windows and seaweed, creating abstractions from concrete reality.
My review also describes the conversation about Siskind by three of his former students, which added their personal insights to the exhibit.
With a Wink and a Nod: Cartoonists of the Gilded Age at the Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St. This exhibit presents 74 original illustrations from Puck Magazine, the first successful humor magazine, published in the 1870s thru 1918.
Read my detailed review here.
The exhibit is beautifully organized around half a dozen themes about politics, society and human nature. You can see the framed original drawings plus the magazines where they actually were published. There’s also an exhibit describing the early chromolithographic printing process that was used to print color covers and centerspreads in the magazines.
The exhibit gives you the opportunity to also appreciate the Driehaus Museum itself, a magnificent 19th century mansion built for the family of Chicago banker Samuel Nickerson. The exhibit runs until January 2017.
And the bridge, as promised
Last weekend I watched the 2000 film, High Fidelity, again, for the umpteenth time. It’s a great film and I especially love it for two reasons: It’s shot in Chicago and I mean really filmed in Chicago, not pretend-filmed as many TV shows are. (They’ll film a scene under the L tracks and one on the Michigan Avenue bridge and think they’ve captured Chicago.)
Oh, and the other reason I love it is that Bruce Springsteen makes a cameo appearance. The film is about Rob (John Cusack), who owns a vinyl record store in Wicker Park, before it got gentrified. Read my Letterboxd recap.
One of my favorite scenes is Rob, philosophizing about his life and loves, on the Kinzie Street bridge. Here’s a great photo from the website itsfilmedthere.com. They get the photo credit too.
If you’ve been following my blog, you might have noticed that I’m not posting as frequently as in the past, when I was pretty reliable about posting an essay once a week. My new job as editor and publisher of Third Coast Review is taking up more of my time than I thought it would. That’s not a complaint–because it’s fun and it’s gratifying to see our site grow with so many terrific writers contributing. I’m writing theater reviews there, of course, as well as spending time on editing and admin duties. In addition, we have great articles under Music, Food, Lit, Art and Screens. To pick just a few:
We review 826Chi’s new children’s book, The Monster Gasped, OMG!
How chicken wings changed Julia’s life and made her decide to be a chef.
Caravan Palace at the House of Blues: It’s a blend of swing, gypsy jazz and electronic music.
Whether I’m reviewing or not, I’m an inveterate theatergoer. I’ve seen several good shows recently and I wanted to let you know about them so you can catch them too.
Constellations at Steppenwolf Theatre thru July 3
This is a beautifully written and performed play, a love story about an unlikely pair of lovers. Nick Payne’s Constellations is told in bits and pieces, brief scenes that roll out, double back and repeat themselves, sometimes in the same information and the same language, sometimes not. It shows the power of memory and miscommunication in our relationships. It’s a very nonlinear story that gels into a sweet and poignant story. To make it even more interesting, one of the pair is a theoretical physicist and the other a beekeeper. So some of the dialogue detours into discussions of time, atoms and space, and the lives of bees. The play runs 80 minutes. Check out my review.
Spinning by Irish Theatre thru July 3
Deirdre Kinahan’s play Spinning at Irish Theatre Company is the story of how one man grasped for happiness, had it and lost it but finds it difficult to understand how or why his actions were involved. Dan Waller, a fine Chicago actor, plays this role in a compelling fashion, along with three women in his life (four actually, but his child does not appear on stage). My review comments that the struggles of single parenthood and the dread of losing a child are what cause the worlds of Conor (Waller) and Susan (Jodi Kingsley) to spin out of control. The play runs 75 minutes at the Den Theatre.
Both of these productions are the currently fashionable under-90-minute variety and are staged with minimal scenic designs and no props.
Hauptmann at City Lit Theater thru July 10
Bruno Richard Hauptmann tells his own story with a supporting cast of six actors playing multiple parts in Hauptmann at City Lit Theater in Edgewater. It’s the other “trial of the century” (the first one being the Leopold-Loeb trial in Chicago in the 1920s). An excellent production, it’s the 30th anniversary staging of this play by John Logan, which originated in the same location and was directed by the same director. My review says “Although you know the outcome of the play before it starts, director Terry McCabe creates a tense and engrossing version of the story of the man who may have been executed for a crime he did not commit. Hauptmann, a German immigrant, was almost certainly denied a fair trial in 1930s America, between two wars against Germany.” Hauptmann runs thru July 10 and I recommend it.
Tapped, a Treasonous Musical Comedy by Forth Story Productions thru July 3
I rarely see a play that’s really bad and that’s mostly because I screen out the ones I suspect will be amateurish. I often see great theater at our huge array of storefront theaters–often as good or better than what you can see at the big Equity houses. With that as a preface, I’ll have to say that Tapped was bad. Amateurish, yes; clichéd and stereotyped, yes; and way too long, yes! To be fair, there are some funny lines, an occasional clever song and at least one great dancer. But all in all, it’s a play that should never have been staged at Theater Wit. I wanted biting political satire on our surveillance society and I got this. My review.
Haymarket, the Anarchist’s Songbook at Underscore Theatre
This was a terrific production (and I hope it’s remounted) drawn from Chicago history with original music performed by talented actor/musicians. It tells the story leading up to the Haymarket riot when Chicago working men and women rallied to call for an eight-hour workday and better working conditions at Haymarket Square at Desplaines and Randolph streets. I’m sorry to say that the play, staged at the new Edge Theatre in Edgewater, closed last weekend. My review.
Last week I spent an hour wandering around the Art Institute’s Modern Wing with Chicago poet Stuart Dybek and a bunch of other poetry fans. As I described in my article on Third Coast Review, the Pop-Up Poetry event was designed for a poet to discuss works of art that influenced him—and how they related to the writing to be discussed.
Dybek talked about a period in his life when he was interviewing for jobs and used the Art Institute as a place to hang out between interviews. Its pluses were that it had phone booths and clean rest rooms, but it also had light—light streaming in from skylights, but also the light glowing from the paintings of the Impressionists. He read a section from his book of short stories, The Coast of Chicago, called “Killing Time” about that experience.
He talked about standing in front of those paintings and feeling that he could walk into them. He wrote, “I wanted to be somewhere else, to be a dark blur waiting to board the Normandy train in the smoke-smudged Saint-Lazare station; I wanted a ticket out of my life, to be riding a train whose windows slid past a landscape of grain stacks in winter fields.”
But he would always end up standing in front of Edward Hopper’s iconic “Nighthawks,” because he felt he needed the darkness to balance the light of the Impressionists.
While talking about Hopper, he mentioned a book I was not familiar with. It’s The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper, with poems collected and introduced by Gail Levin. He mentioned that the works of many well-known as well as obscure poets created word paintings that brought new meanings to Hopper’s imagery.
Hopper’s work is quiet, even when several people are in the space within the picture frame. Are they lonely? Not necessarily. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. Lovely solitude.
The book sounded fascinating and I looked it up when I got home. Nope, it was not in any bookstore I could find. Since it was published in 1995, I was afraid it would be out of print. But not so amazingly, I found it on amazon.com, for sale from one of the Amazon Marketplace vendors. I’ve had very good luck buying quirky, hard-to-find books that way, so I immediately ordered a copy that was described as being in very good condition. I was thrilled to find it in my mailbox yesterday and it is a treasure. It’s hard cover, a slim 80 pages, with a dust jacket. The size is 7.5 x 7.5 inches.
Levin’s introduction is a lovely essay on the themes of poetry and solitude and the public awareness and appreciation for Hopper’s work. (The Art Institute’s 2008 exhibition of his work was beautifully curated with thought-provoking legends about his life and his work.)
In The Poetry of Solitude, poet Larry Levis tells a story about the woman in the 1931 painting titled “Hotel Room.” He suggests she has just finished arranging her mother’s funeral and her small estate.
Her face, in shadow,
Is more silent than this painting, or any
Painting … .
You sell the house and auction off each thing
Inside the house, until
You have a satchel, a pair of black acceptable
Shoes and one good flowered dress. There is a check
Between your hands and your bare knees for all of it —
The land and the wheat that never cared who
Touched it , or why ….
Four poets reflect upon the 1942 painting, “Nighthawks,” and the stories of the four people in the painting. Joyce Carol Oates writes,
The three men are fully clothed, long sleeves,
even hats, though it’s indoors, and brightly lit,
and there’s a woman. The woman is wearing
a short-sleeved red dress cut to expose her arms,
a curve of her creamy chest, she’s contemplating
a cigarette in her right hand thinking
her companion has finally left his wife but
can she trust him?
Of the 1930 painting, “Early Sunday Morning,” showing a row of storefronts, John Stone writes,
Somewhere in the next block
someone may be practicing the flute
but not here
Where the entrances
to four stores are dark
the awnings rolled in
Nothing open for business
Across the second story
ten faceless windows
In the foreground
a barber pole, a fire hydrant,
as if there could ever again
Be hair to cut
fire to burn ….
As I described in my post about my hour spent with Stuart Dybek, he read his own poems and the work of other poets and reflected on the nature of words and images. The book gives even broader meaning to the relationship of words and images, narrative and abstraction.
A note on the paintings mentioned here. You can see “Nighthawks” at the Art Institute. “Early Sunday Morning” is at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. “Hotel Room” is at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.
If you do a search for “Edward Hopper paintings” online, you can see and enlarge thumbnails of all of them.
It’s finally spring and it’s only May. We still have plenty of theater openings and I’m reviewing some films too. Here are a few of the current storefront stage offerings, providing perspectives on historical events. They’re all interesting for various reasons, even when they’re not four-star productions.
A Splintered Soul by Arla Productions at Stage 773 thru May 29
This is the emotional story of Polish Holocaust survivors in 1947 San Francisco. They were able to survive the death camps by doing what was necessary and now live with survivors’ guilt and other traumas. The play revolves around a rabbi, who was a freedom fighter in Poland, and now meets with survivors to help them deal with their memories and to persuade the local Jewish community that those memories should not be forgotten. The rabbi is forcefully played by Craig Spidle, a veteran Chicago actor. This play is beautifully staged, with fine directing and acting. It’s two-plus hours of good theater, except the script really goes too far in trying to include some bizarre and unlikely events. My review makes clear that the production wasn’t able to overcome the flaws in the plotline.
The House of Blue Leaves at Raven Theatre thru June 18
John Guare’s play about Pope Paul VI’s 1965 visit to New York is a sweet, sometimes silly, and ultimately tragic play. It’s a fine production by the always reliable Raven Theatre. The plot revolves around Artie Shaughnessy, a would-be singer-songwriter who works at the Bronx Zoo but has grand ambitions. The rest of the cast includes his depressed wife, his ditsy girlfriend, three nuns, a movie star, a movie producer and plenty of funny and explosive moments. My review says, “the circle of friends and family surrounding Artie immerses him in a series of ever more ridiculous events. Joann Montemurro’s skillful direction manages to keep the action credible, the accents believable, and the doom unpredictable.”
The Lion in Winter by Promethean Theatre Ensemble at the Athenaeum thru May 22
Promethean’s minimalist production of the James Goldman play about Henry II, his three sons, and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, may sound familiar. It’s best known as the 1968 film starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn as the royal pair. The dialogue is lively and witty and the plot hits contemporary notes, as well as reminding us of the Shakespearean dilemma where a king must divide up his property among three siblings. A fine production by a small theater company. My review.
How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients at Trap Door Theatre
This play by Matei Visniec is a great example of Trap Door’s serious and slyly bizarre productions that pick at the nonsensical scabs of politics and contemporary thought. The staging makes use of colorful, angular perspectives and highly physical performances to make this a delightful 75 minutes of theater. Set in 1953 before Stalin’s death, the famous writer Yuri Petrovski (who always is called by his full name, as in Russian literature) arrives at a mental hospital with the goal of using his stories to educate the mental patients about the glories of Communism. The story is played out in a ses\ries of scenarios that fall far short of being a linear storyline. No matter; you’re seeing a brilliant critique of Communism by a Romanian dissident who has lived most of his life as political refugee in France. The play closed April 30.
Bloody Haymarket at the Irish American Heritage Center thru May 28
Bloody Haymarket is a new production that portrays the dramatic events of May 1886, when speakers at a May Day rally in Haymarket Square demanded an eight-hour day and an end to the concentration of wealth in a few hands. A bomb went off during the rally and eight policemen were killed. Eight of the speakers were arrested and four of them were executed by hanging. The issues, of course, resonate today. The production dramatizes the participants, their stories, trial and public reaction with a cast of 21. I recommend this to you if you’re particularly interested in the Haymarket history, but I can’t recommend the quality of the production. Performances are on Saturday nights thru May 28.
For more info, listen to Third Coast Rewind, the first of our new podcast series, featuring interviews with the actors and creative team for Bloody Haymarket.
These days I’m doing most of my writing over at Third Coast Review. Check out our new site if you haven’t been there lately and sign up for our weekly newsletter (in the lefthand column) or the new-post feed (below the Events column on the right). We have lots of good content on the Chicago arts and culture scene. Even though I’m spending a lot of time as editor and publisher of Third Coast Review, I intend to maintain Nancy Bishop’s Journal as my personal blog, so forgive my occasional delays in posting. Today I want to tell you about some terrific theater that’s going on in Chicago right now–and a few that I want to remember.
Arcadia at Writers Theatre thru May 1
Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece of conversation and complexity about chaos theory, Fermat’s Last Theorem and English gardens. The play is an excellent choice for Writers to open their new theater venue in Glencoe, designed by Studio Gang Architects. My review comments: “Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play that tracks characters from two eras, sometimes in the same scene at the same time, is a complex play interlaced with many intellectual games. The story, not a linear narrative, involves the clash between the rational and the romantic in art and science, as well as in life. Also important is the design of gardens, specifically the gardens of Sidley Park, the country house in Derbyshire, where the play is set.”
The new theater is stunning on the outside but disappointingly bland inside. That may change as more funds are spent on its completion. The main theater space is much larger than the previous venue and has excellent sightlines. But there was one problem. Several people I’ve talked to who attended the opening or another performance complained, as I did, about acoustics. When actors were performing with their backs to us, it was often difficult to hear them. It’s not clear whether this is a problem with the actors, which the director can address, or the acoustics of the venue itself.
The Life of Galileo at Remy Bumppo Theatre thru May 1
Another intellectual tour de force, Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo is set in the past but foretells the contemporary debates over faith and science. Shawn Douglass, who plays Galileo, my review notes, “convinces us he is a real man of pluses and minuses, not a cardboard historical figure. We live with him through the wrenching changes in his life, through his delight at making discoveries and teaching about them, his conflicts with the church about the Ptolemaic vs. Copernican views of the universe; and his miseries as an underpaid teacher. Most painfully, we watch him recant his beliefs in scientific truth so that he can continue his work, even though circumscribed by the edicts of the church. (He was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to house arrest.)”
It’s beautifully acted, staged and directed, I highly recommend this Remy Bumppo production.
Mary Page Marlowe at Steppenwolf Theatre thru May 29
This new play by Tracy Letts explores the life of one sort-of ordinary woman by showing scenes from her life played by six different actors. Letts’ concept is based on the fact that each of us sees ourselves as different people throughout our lives. My review is not quite finished but I’ll add a link here when it’s posted over at thirdcoastreview.com.
Updated 4/20: My review of Mary Page Marlowe is live now. My summary is not as positive as most others. I gave it a “somewhat recommended” on theatreinchicago.com. The play is well written with smart dialogue; many of the 11 scenes are successful. But the parts don’t add up to a gesamtkunstwerk, as my German-born art history professor used to say. It’s not a coherent, successful total work of art. It’s still worth seeing, however, because a Tracy Letts play is always worth seeing. I still can’t help it wonder if it would have worked better with a single actor playing the adult versions of MPM. If you see it, tell me what you think..
New Country by Fair Trade Productions at The Den Theatre thru May 14
Not a classic theater masterpiece, but a helluva lot of fun, this fast-paced comedy shows us a few hours in the life of a famous country music star and his retinue. To quote my review: “The play is set in a Nashville hotel room on the night of the bachelor party for country music star Justin (played by Michael Monroe Goodman, a musician-actor who starred in the Johnny Cash musical, Ring of Fire, and in Million Dollar Quartet). Justin is young, successful and arrogant and he doesn’t hesitate to let his managers know who’s boss. His beloved pig-farmer Uncle Jim arrives to join the celebration, full of country jokes, and accompanied by his blow-up sex toy, Wanda June.” You dan see whe this is going.
Blood Wedding at Lookingglass Theatre thru April 24
Director Daniel Ostling’s staging of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play has a few good performances but overall the production does not capture the mood that I think Lorca intended. This is partly because, as my review notes, “The original setting for Lorca’s script is rural Spain and his characters include mysterious figures such as the Moon and Death. Ostling’s decision to set his production in the more-realistic Depression-era U.S. diminishes the mythic nature of Lorca’s story. The subdued presentation, quite different from Lookingglass’ usual physical dramas, does not redeem it.” Nevertheless, this play is not often produced, so if you like Lorca’s writing, you still have a weekend to catch this show.
Gone, but not forgotten:
Long Day’s Journey Into Night at Court Theatre
Eugene O’Neill wrote this sad and beautiful drama, modeled after his own family drama, in the 1940s but it was not published or produced until after his death in 1953. My review commented: “If O’Neill is the master of dysfunctional family plays, then Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the masterpiece of the genre. Recognized as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, the play won the Tony for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1957.” The Court production was beautifully acted and staged. Mary Beth Fisher and Harris Yulin played Mr. and Mrs. Tyrone. If you attended, your 3.5 hours was well spent theater time.
In a Little World of Our Own by Irish Theatre
The Gary Mitchell script is a political thriller, a day and night in the life of a Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The play is set in the late 1990s, just before the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, when an uneasy peace reigned in Belfast. Behind the family drama of three brothers is the political story of the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) fighters against the advocates of nonviolence. Matthew Isler gave an outstanding performance as a UDA hard man, always ready for a fight.
A Loss of Roses at Raven Theatre
William Inge’s play is not as sensually exciting as Picnic or as emotionally riveting as Come Back, Little Sheba, but the playwright does have a way of writing about solitary female characters. Raven’s production was well acted and directed, a quiet story of small town America in the 1930s, as my review said.
All photos courtesy of the respective theater companies.
Huge sigh of relief. I finally finished the 800+ page biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It’s the book that Lin-Manuel Miranda took on a beach vacation to Mexico. It inspired him, first of all, to write a song about our first Treasury secretary and perform it at the White House, and second, to create the Broadway extravaganza known as Hamilton: An American Musical.
In my original review of Hamilton, I predicted that Miranda would be named a MacArthur Fellow (better known as the MacArthur Genius Grant) and he was. Predicting that Hamilton will sweep the Tonys in June isn’t a very big bet.
I saw Hamilton when it opened on Broadway last September and fell madly in love with the show, with Miranda and with our ten-dollar Founding Father. Evidence of my madness?
- I’ve been listening to the cast album almost daily since it was released. I’m waiting impatiently for the script to be released.
- I’m looking forward to seeing Hamilton again, surely more than once, when it opens here in September. (At the dreadful Shubert/LaSalleBank/BankofAmerica/Private Bank Theatre.)
- I find myself hoarding $10 bills.
- I don’t want to hear about replacing A. Hamilton on the tenner. Replace that unsavory president Jackson on the $20 with a deserving female figure.
- His birthday and death date are six months apart on the 11th of January and July. They’re both in my calendar.
I have a pretty good background in American history and political science, but when I saw and thought more about Hamilton, I realized that I had been living with the Jeffersonian concept of American government. Journalism students (Mizzou J-School grad here) are educated to admire Jefferson in particular because of his views of the importance of press freedom and freedom of expression, and his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I knew he owned slaves and I knew about the Sally Hemings thing, etc., but never mind. Reading the Hamilton/Federalist Party side of the story, you learn that Jefferson was a vicious opponent of Hamilton’s goals and fought for the agrarian way of life he preferred rather than the urban/mercantilist/manifacturing society that Hamilton fought for. (As an aside, Daveed Diggs is terrific as Jefferson in the Broadway cast.)
Reading Alexander Hamilton gave me a different perspective on American history and the founding decades of our country. Ron Chernow’s book, by the way, is highly readable and fascinating. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have read every last word and even devoured the 100 pages of notes. And Miranda’s hiphop operetta does not skimp on the details of Hamilton’s life, his brilliance and his foibles, and the controversies surrounding him. It is a full and complete lesson in American history, delivered with charm and infectious rhythm. The thing about hiphop that makes it work, Miranda says, is that it’s very dense, has more words per measure than most other forms of music. (Sort of Dylan and early Springsteen.)
Here are a few reasons why I’m a fangirl of A-dot-Hamilton.
- Hamilton is the avatar of the cliché known as the American dream; he rose from poverty and orphanhood to become an accomplished and powerful leader. Unlike most of the other Founding Fathers, he did not come from the moneyed, landed class.
He was born on a small island in the Caribbean, of unmarried parents, an absent father and a mother of questionable virtue. He came to the US as a teenager and made his way through college (Kings College, now Columbia University), to George Washington’s staff, to leadership on the battlefield in the Revolutionary War, and to Washington’s cabinet.
2. He produced all kinds of firsts in the early era of this country (despite opposition at every step of the way).
He was the first Secretary of the Treasury, stabilized the economy, designed our financial system, including the National Bank, the gold-based dollar, and the Mint; he established the principle that Congress had the constitutional powers to issue currency, regulate interstate commerce, tax luxury goods such as whiskey, and enact any other laws needed to support the provisions of the Constitution.
Basically, he fought for the concept and principles of the federal government. He created the Coast Guard, the Federalist Party and its newspaper, the New York Post. He used his incredible energy and persuasive abilities to work for the passage of the US Constitution, ensuring our country became a federal government, instead of a bunch of independent states. He was firm in his abolitionist views while his southern colleagues all owned slaves.
3. He was a brilliant thinker, speaker, opinionated and prolific writer, who turned out hundreds of letters, opinion pieces and essays and wrote 51 of the 85 articles in the Federalist Papers. And he was writing by hand with a quill pen and a bottle of ink, my friends. In case you think tapping a few tweets on your smartphone is work.
He often wrote political essays under pen names such as Cato, Publius and Phocion. He was probably the first blogger. (His handle today? @publiusny.)
He founded the New York Post, a Federalist newspaper, in the days when political parties specialized in publishing diatribes against the opposition in their own newspapers.
- Jefferson and Madison and their Republican party fought Hamilton and the Federalists at every step and President Adams banished him from the White House because he suspected him of conspiring with some of Adams’ cabinet officers. (He probably was.)
Chernow’s description of the bitterly fought election of 1800, by the way, is insightful to read and compare with the 2016 campaign. And they didn’t even have Twitter.
By the time Hamilton reached his late 40s, he was no longer a public persona (and he missed the limelight) but was a successful and sought-after lawyer in New York.
He had always had a tenuous relationship with Aaron Burr (who advised him, according to Miranda, to “speak less and smile more”), even though they occasionally appeared to be on friendly terms. Hamilton said negative things about Burr in private on a few occasions and these eventually brought Burr to challenge him to a duel. (An affair of honor, it was called. “Demanding satisfaction” was another way to put it.)
Hamilton, at age 49, was killed by Burr in the duel on July 11, 1804, in the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey. (The same place where Hamilton’s son Philip was killed in a duel three years earlier, upholding his father’s honor.) Burr shot directly at Hamilton and Hamilton either shot in the air or his gun went off by accident when Burr’s bullet hit Hamilton in the hip, destroying his internal organs.
“I’m not throwing away my shot,” Hamilton sings early in Act 1. “But yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / and I’m not throwing away my shot.” At the end, he did.
I’m not the only one who is bingeing on Hamilton. There’s new interest in historical sites such as the Grange, the Hamilton home north of Manhattan, and in the Hamilton burial site at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan.
Charlie Rose has featured members of the Hamilton crew several times, including this recent full-hour interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda filmed at his childhood home.
Finally, since March is Women’s History Month, I’ll close by noting that Hamilton’s exemplary wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, who stuck with him through all his battles and infidelities, lived 50 years after her husband’s death and died at age 97 in 1854. She worked for causes such as the establishment of orphanages and helped her friend Dolley Madison raise funds to construct the Washington Monument. She visited the White House and never gave up trying to salvage her husband’s reputation, which was attacked by his enemies after his death. Chernow devotes the first and last chapters of his book to Eliza Hamilton.
In 2009, Miranda performed the lead song about Hamilton at the White House. He said at the time he was working on a Hamilton “concept album.”