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Hamilton, Tragedy, and the age of “Non-Stop” Inspirational Clickbait

I was fortunate to be able to watch the musical in person for the first time in early 2020, pre-COVID, after years of being a fan of the soundtrack. While watching it on stage as well as during the official streamed version on Disney+, I was struck by how…tragic of a story it is, and not just because of the death of its titular character.  Both the character of Hamilton and the musical of Hamilton as a whole are saddled with a constant underlying anxiety surrounding mortality and fleeting existence. The main plot explores how Alexander deals with that anxiety and insecurity surrounding his lowly and purportedly shameful background (“bastard, immigrant, whoreson”) through striving to optimize his skills, taking advantage of the situations around him, overall chasing the American Dream of working hard in pursuit of establishing an idealized concept of timeless legacy and honor for himself and his name. It also explores the consequences and limitations of such individualistic pursuit, but in the very end the framing of the story circles all the way back around to becoming a praise and celebration for the very things that lead to his downfall in the first place. To me, Hamilton is a compelling tragedy that frames itself as inspirational, the way awful clickbait articles are written to be “inspirational” and “heartwarming” even as their very existence reveals something grievously wrong with the world.

Can we get back to politics

For my specific analysis, I’m interested less in analyzing the story of Hamilton from a historical perspective, and more interested in dissecting the compelling internal mythology that the musical presents to us as shown.I feel like most of the historical and political aspects of Hamilton, as well as its controversies and problematic elements, have already been extensively discussed, so I will not be diving into that in great depth. However, the show being what it is, it is impossible to discuss without talking about its political context and reception. 

Hamilton, when it comes to its own internal focus and continuity, focuses more on characters and individual motivations rather than on any historical-political context. The American Revolutionary War is less a solid event on its own, with various complex sociological and historical factors both leading up to it and afterwards, and serves more as an emotional and motivational, and aesthetic backdrop serving the story of Miranda’s character and portrayal of the fictionalized Alexander Hamilton. The relative placelessness and mythologized feeling of the American Revolution allows the story to coast on the strength of its characters and emotions in a way that has resonated strongly with both American and non-American fans, and in a way that both conservative and liberal audiences could comfortably fit and interpret into their worldview without seeing much conflict. Hamilton’s message, as it stands within its own text, is a piece of media that is politically lukewarm in that sense, although the external elements surrounding its distribution and presence as being now part of mainstream pop culture lends extra layers of complicated context. In short, I and others would definitely place it as something that very much represents post-2008, late Obama-era liberal “representation” politics, that values the visual presence and cultural trappings of BIPOC but which does not particularly challenge the status quo. All of this does not, in my opinion, take away from its quality or value as an interesting and sincere character story, but it certainly is telling how this is the type of story that was easily accepted and incorporated into the mainstream. 

As a character, I find it notable that Alex’s drive within the story is less about any specific overarching ideology or worldview, and more centered around personal success and ambition. His opening number focuses on his individual deeds and talents, as well as his hopeful boast of “There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait.” When the story starts properly in “Aaron Burr, Sir” one of the first things he says is “I wish there was a war! / Then we could prove that we’re worth more / Than anyone bargained for.” The Revolution and impending war is his chance, his “shot,” to gain social advancement and become somebody in the world, and he is not going to waste the opportunities it offers him. Alexander becomes involved in politics and debate as shown in “Farmer Refuted” and the cabinet rap battles, but the politics are less for their own sake and more an opportunity to boost Alex’s skills and forthcoming nature as he acts boldly and is praised and backed up by the others around him for it. 

Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan also speak excitedly about their hopes and dreams, which are a mixture of personal and political–Lafayette wanting to see the end of the monarchy, Laurens advocating against slavery, and Mulligan, similar to Alexander, hopeful that the Revolution can help him advance his social position. During “The Story of Tonight,” there is talk of freedom, but “freedom” is notably nebulous and undefined, and the main part of the song instead focuses more on the hope of being remembered for their deeds rather than on the deeds and ideals themselves. Alexander’s disdain for Burr “standing for nothing” is ironic since in the end both men have the same goals–wanting to establish a legacy of honor and become historically accomplished–but coming from very different places, Burr from a place of caution and preservation of what he has already, and Alex from a place of risk and reward. 

“Write like you need it to survive”

In my personal experience in the early Hamilton fandom around 2015 or so, I remember that “Non-Stop” was a song jokingly popular amongst busy students trying to motivate ourselves to finish  work during finals. From our perspective, Alexander’s fast writing pace and aggressive work ethic as portrayed in the musical was something aspirational. “Be a Hamilton, not a Burr” was a refrain I remember being exchanged between friends to encourage each other to be bold and go for opportunities we were maybe feeling hesitant about. This is interesting in retrospect given that Hamilton plays out as a cautionary tale about the destructiveness of doggedly chasing the promise of legendary accomplishment while sacrificing one’s meaningful relationships in the process. 

Alexander’s response to the in-story assumed trauma of witnessing destruction and loss in his childhood is to find value in himself solely through his work and the things he produces–through becoming the best student, the best soldier, best treasury secretary.  It is a survival tactic that serves him well throughout the majority of the musical, as the audience is greeted to scene after scene of Alex’s victories, first in war and then in politics. In “Non-Stop,” a song full of frenetic energy that starts fast and continues to up its intensity up until the end, Burr expresses amazement at the rate of Alexander’s rise and attributes it to his seemingly superhuman work ethic, including his style of writing “like you’re running out of time,” with another variant of the verse going “why do you write like you need it to survive.” Alexander’s viewing of his continued writing and work as his sole key to survival and glory is explored repeatedly throughout Hamilton, and especially so during the pivotal moment in “Hurricane.”

“Hurricane” is one of the few times Alexander’s character takes pause to reflect rather than jumping immediately into fast-paced action and swagger. It delves into his background from a more emotional and vulnerable perspective than the celebratory tone given in the opening number. In it, he thinks about the different hardships and trials he’s faced from his childhood to the present, and considers the ways he acted within those situations. At the conclusion of “Hurricane”  Alexander reminds himself of all the times he took control of the situation, asserting how he “wrote his own deliverance” through his own gumption and skills again and again. “Writing his way out” and taking control of his story has always worked out for him in the past–why wouldn’t it work again this time? 

An element that stands out to me about “Hurricane” is how, while Alexander’s conclusion is how he can only rely on himself, the earlier part of the song emphasizes that he did indeed rely on community support. The lines of “they passed a plate around / total strangers moved to kindness by my story” show that while Alexander has skill, he is also in his position specifically because of the care and sacrifice of people around him. When he boasts about having written “his way out of Hell” and writing “to Revolution” he talks about it through the lens of his own successes, even though the victory scenes in “Yorktown” are shown to have come about through the combined efforts of Alexander and his friends as fellow soldiers. He is someone who is competent and talented, but who views his past and future worth through a lens of individualistic ambition, one where he equates his political, military, and personal achievements the same as his personal ones. His defense of the Constitution is a “win” on par with writing Eliza “letters until she fell,” treating it as a result of his own actions rather than a personal decision and process on her part. “Hurricane” encapsulates Alexander’s most personal philosophy and go-to method for surviving things that come his way. It is also the moment right before that method fails him spectacularly, and proceeds to fall apart for himself and his family for the rest of the second act. 

“Pride is not the word I’m looking for”

To back it up a little, Phillip’s character in the story, alongside the symbolism of his birth with the birth of the United States as a nation, is one that also plays into the theme of tragedy and the hollowness of valuing worth centered solely around individual legacy and ambition. Phillip’s birth is preceded with hope and excitement and directly juxtaposed with the American colonist’s victory over the British forces at Yorktown, and the end of the war is presented as a chance for something new both in the greater terms of the nation–Philip represents America and the embodiment of Hamilton’s legacy as his firstborn descendant as well. 

 In “Dear Theodosia,” Alexander, usually the clever and snappy wordsmith, is momentarily humbled in his abilities as he grasps for the right language to fully express the affection he feels towards his child. As someone for whom pride in his work is a key part of how he defines himself, his expression of “pride is not the word I’m looking for / There is so much more inside me now” speaks to the extra dimension that this relationship has for Alex. Despite this desire for a fulfilling relationship in contrast with their own nonexistent father relationships, the way in which Alexander and Burr resolve to do right by their children once again manifests in the form of building a historical legacy of external importance. “We’ll bleed and fight for you,” they promise, echoing the grand deeds and victories that they’ve participated in in the first act during wartime. “We’ll bleed and fight for you” is the first thing these two men can conceive of when it comes to expressing love for their children, the second being building a “strong enough foundation,” to pass onto them. Once again, even in the context of affection and love, the focus is on a very traditionally masculine idea of what matters when it comes to legacy, victory, and historical accomplishment. 

If Phillip represents an optimism and hope for the promise of advancement and American legacy-building, then his death is meaningful specifically because he dies as a direct result of Alexander’s actions taken in an attempt to preserve that legacy. Alexander’s pursuit has a personal consequence, and Philip dies in defense of his father’s “tainted” honor.

The refrain of “If we build a strong enough foundation, we’ll pass it onto you” is sweet and well-intentioned, but the foundation that Hamilton, and Burr as well, end up passing onto their children and family ends up being a foundation that is fundamentally flawed from the beginning. It is a foundation and philosophy that promises an individual glory, but the pursuit of which only brings grief and destruction in the end. Phillip’s death is a situation that Alexander can not write his way out of, and it is only then that he can begin to reconnect with his wife and family, and approach their relationship from a point of humility–singing in Eliza’s tune and pace, rather than his sacrificing her emotional needs for his idea of a grand legacy. 

The World Was Wide Enough

The ending is the tragic culmination of everything that happened before, with the pride of Burr and Alex coming to a head and resulting in them destroying each other. Their destruction is the result of their ambition and desperate pursuit of honor and legacy, to the detriment of their familial relationships. 

Burr’s ending line, “the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me” is a tragic glimpse and realization at the possibilities that were available to him, that he could have grasped and made a reality if they had both not been preoccupied with pride and aggression. It’s very much a downer ending, and in my mind, and my delusion, it’s the true thematic ending of the show itself. It’s a song and a moment that allows both Burr as a character, and the audience by extension, to mourn and feel the consequence of the decisions that led up to the moment. It also allows us to imagine, as Burr does, what could have been, what could have been prioritized instead. I’ve written before about how I find certain tragic stories with doomed endings encouraging because we know they are doomed, but also they can encourage by allowing the audience to imagine what a better alternative can be.

But because this is a musical, and Broadway, and this is America, we need some sort of happy, or if not happy, triumphal and meaningful ending to our stories. Eliza’s eulogy in the end is genuinely passionate and touching, and it’s lovely indeed to see the turn of the story being about Eliza taking control of the narrative and becoming the narrator of the story in the very end, taking the role of narrator from Burr, who has given it up in his grief. However there is something very…desperate in the last number–it feels sincere, but it also feels like the way people who have endured great tragedy and loss construct narratives around that loss to either create a story of heroism or great, overarching meaning, in order to stave off the horror that is a preventable loss. Eliza’s song basically asks – how do we cope with great grief and loss? For Eliza, it’s to “stop wasting time on tears” and to follow in Alex’s legacy of staying on the grind. There’s a desperation in the way she sings, about her accomplishments and work after his death being “not enough,” her attempts to be the one to frame the story and bring meaning to violence and loss. There is something sweet about that, and I do know it is meant to engage with the historical Eliza, who did indeed choose to honor her husband’s legacy in that manner. However, to me in regards to the story and themes that were presented, there is something very ironic in that hustling, working intensely out of deep seated anxiety around death and the idea of personal value and honor, was what drove Alex, and by extension, Phillip, to their deaths. And it is in that anxious chasing after work and legacy, to make sure that the story is told,  that Eliza attempts to connect with him after his death as well. The presentation is heartwarming and positive and triumphant, but there is something very sad about the whole thing to me as well–that in the end, the values have not changed, and the mechanism by which Hamilton and Burr destroyed each other is still very much in place. 

Maybe it’s because those values, and those anxieties, are things that are already deeply embedded already into American culture. Perhaps that desperation is relatable to anyone who has studied US history and been overwhelmed by the amount of senseless violence and cruelty endemic to it. There’s a desire to frame tragedy in a positive light, the desire to turn around and find something to celebrate within it–we see this very grimly in our present day, with the hostile reactionary response to the sheer idea of “critical race theory” and incorporating information about American atrocity into education. The questions raised (by mostly white people, lets be real) in protest to this discomfort is “Why should we dwell on such terrible things? Why should we be made to to feel bad?” Hence, Alexander Hamilton, in this story, goes from being a figure of tragedy to a figure of heroism. It makes sense then, that this is a story that became interpreted by myself, and other students in the 2015 era, as a rousing “inspirational” anthem, that praises the efforts of the work itself while obscuring the reasons why this work is valuable in the first place. Is the work in service of ourselves? Or in the nebulous, purposefully vague concept of “freedom” that the story expresses?  Is this another reflection of a capitalist American culture in which the only “freedom” that seems to matter is whether or not you can continue to work (and even then)? 

Like most musicals, Hamilton is adept at spinning the audience’s emotions and taking us all on a ride, and it’s an artistic experience that I indeed find very exciting and pleasant. I enjoy how the story is a framework for great talent and drama, and I enjoy the cleverness and lyricism of it all. However I definitely sense that the tragic, reflective power that the story holds is tempered by its desire to tie it into a greater, more “heartwarming” story that seeks to celebrate and obfuscate the source of its own tragedy.

Author: maiden theory

I'm just a Bird whose intentions are good

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