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Barring an act of an understandably jealous God, come next Sunday the Tony award for absolutely everything will have been won by a history lesson. It is not, of course, the kind of history that lumbers along in American high schools dragging the ball and chain of “social studies” behind it. And it is the very opposite of the written-by-committee dinosaur-sized textbooks through which corporate publishers conspire to drain every vestige of life or passion from the past.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical Hamilton, which raps, struts and dances its way through the American Revolution, the making of a new political nation, George Washington’s Farewell Address, and the Federalist Papers has got more people of every kind — but especially the easily distracted young — to respond to the living voice of history than any ink-and-paper volume could ever hope to. Going to see the show is to experience history as call and response, whoop-and-holler enthusiasm.
Yet Hamilton hasn’t trashed scholarship for the sake of entertainment. Much, though not all, of the story sticks to the facts of the matter, even if anyone who knows anything about the melancholy, conscientious George III might have a hard time seeing him camp it up in the show-stopping “You’ll be Back”. A happy byproduct of the show’s success is that Ron Chernow’s fine 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, the original inspiration for Miranda’s project, is enjoying a second strong innings in the bestseller lists. This is no bad thing, since it suggests that a demographic not readily switched on by the past can be moved from riff to learned text.
This, in fact, is how western history got going in the first place, two-and-a-half millennia ago. If Miranda’s history is a performance, so too was that of Herodotus, whose brilliantly colourful account of the wars of the Greeks with the Persians was written to be spoken, possibly by its author, before a mass public at the Panhellenic Games. In its beginnings, European history was rock-star showy (some accounts have music being played during the recitations), and audience-driven, with the emphasis on audio. History was meant to be heard, not pored over in silence. Defying the deathly quiet of the tomb was part of its vocation. That’s what Herodotus meant in his famous opening paragraph, by introducing himself (a very Lin-Manuel touch) as the man who, through his historia, his inquiry, will preserve the great deeds of Greeks and Persians from falling into oblivion, by which he meant the expiry of first-hand witnesses.
Contrary to received wisdom about the duties of remembrance, American writer David Rieff has argued recently for the moral importance — and needful therapy — of collective forgetting. He has a point. Obsessing about ancient wounds, endlessly picking over the scars so that they bleed again, generation unto generation, can feed vendetta, victimisation and the tribal furies that still walk among us.
Even so, it’s hard for historians not to feel that the attrition of informed memory is a bigger problem right now. Only someone as historically clueless as Donald Trump could possibly have thought that “America First” would be a nifty battle-cry for his campaign, unaware of its morally contaminated past as the slogan of those American isolationists such as Charles Lindbergh who in 1940 were bent on stopping a war against fascism. It says something that once the candidate was made aware of the moral slime clinging to the phrase, he too clung to it even tighter.
Historical ignorance simplifies and excludes; historical knowledge complicates and expands the national narrative. Whichever position you take on Brexit, it helps to know which English or British institutions were truly sui generis, but also when insularity was bridged by a common European culture. Through the medieval centuries, England belonged to a largely undivided Christian universe of faith and practice. In the 17th century, it was the long Dutch-led struggle against Louis XIV that doomed homegrown Stuart absolutism and made possible the revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights we think of as characteristically British. History, as Dutch historian Pieter Geyl wrote of literature on Napoleon, is “an argument without end” — but that argument presupposes disputants sharing a common fund of knowledge.
That knowledge cannot, however, lie embalmed in a mausoleum of national reverence. Though its subject is mortality, history is sustained by vitality. And it needs to ask questions about who and what it is for: who gets to “write the story”, as the last poignant song in Hamilton has it. Its opening number begins, as all histories should, with a question: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman/ dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor/ grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
All the musical’s rap-rhyme draws its energy from Miranda’s personal epiphany when he read Chernow’s book, and realised that Hamilton’s life, by turns rackety and statesmanlike, was not to be confused with the inert portrait of him on the $10 bill; that it was, like America’s revolution, a crap shoot as well as a project in applied political philosophy. Miranda also recognised that the great scenes of the revolution — the Continental Congress that passed the resolution for independence; the mutually demonising election of 1800 — were self-consciously and rhetorically acted out. Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Lafayette all felt that they were playing parts on the stage of historical destiny.
One of the most compelling scenes in the stage show has Hamilton (as was the case) helping Washington draft a revised version of the Farewell Address of 1796. The president had originally recruited James Madison to help in 1792, when he thought he might retire after a single term, and it was this draft that Hamilton subsequently revised. The number “One Last Time” lets Washington and Hamilton, bound by personal as well as political ties, imagine how the emotive power inherent in a valediction might calm the storms of party feuding. Then the number segues seamlessly into verbatim chunks of the address itself in a kind of 18th-century chanted declamation, at once gravely poetic and prophetic, the most fatherly of the founders losing the battle to be heard amid a chorus of bickering politicians.
None of this would have had the astounding popular impact that Hamilton has enjoyed, had Miranda not jumped the bounds of convention by casting Hispanic and African-American actors in the lead roles — including himself. We have become accustomed to watching non-white and non-male Hamlets and Julius Caesars. Somehow, when the parts are the Founding Fathers, the gamble is more daring. Miranda, a Puerto Rican who recently performed another moving rap on TV on behalf of his bankrupt island home, fits the cloth of the Caribbean bastard son Hamilton as if measured for it. Having Thomas Jefferson played by the black rapper Daveed Diggs, with perfect pitch for the original’s combination of cerebral superiority and political ruthlessness, suggests the irony of the freedom-loving slave-owner without resorting to billboarding.
In contrast to the sententiousness of the textbooks, none of this seems laboriously civic. Instead it is somehow miraculously unforced, as though it were a self-evident truth that the history of the revolution might speak perennially to anyone and everyone with a stake in the fate of American democracy. Sometimes the idiom-translation is effortless. Hamilton’s The Farmer Refuted was an actual broadside in the pamphlet war of the mid-1770s between champions of armed resistance and their cautionary opponents. Miranda turns the play of pamphlets into a polemic slam, its punch and counter-punch coming immediately alive in a way unimaginable from a silent perusal of the texts.
It is Miranda’s ingenuity in finding a voice for history that the ahistorical young can make their own (Hamilton’s soundtrack has already gone platinum) that has opened up the narrative to those for whom it has been, in every way, a closed book. And this has turned a hip-hop show into an educational project. Supported by a Rockefeller Foundation grant, the impeccably scholarly Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York has developed a school curriculum on “Hamilton and the Revolution”, tying documents and arguments to numbers from the show. It has also made it possible for 20,000 school students to get to see performances for $10 a time, when the all-but-unattainable tickets are going for prices in the hundreds.
More significantly, it’s been taken up by schools where pupils are unlikely to see the show even at 10 bucks a pop. Moses Ojeda, principal of the Thomas Edison School in Jamaica, Queens, called it a game-changer, and reported a surge of interest in American history in classes where the teachers usually have a hard time in stirring any kind of enthusiasm for the subject. The enlivening effect won’t be restricted to New York. In response to the mass demand, Hamilton is spinning off multiple productions at a number of cities across the United States — and bringing the show to London some time next year.
In the same way that Herodotus was history for a world in which written books were still rare and reached a small elite, so Hamilton has appeared at a time when the nature of reading is evolving into something less silently bookish. Podcasts, audio books, live performances at literary festivals, the runaway popularity of television historical fiction — all have made the experience of consuming history significantly more theatrical.
But this has happened before. The diary of Elizabethan impresario Philip Henslowe records that on March 3 1592, Lord Strange’s Men performed the play of King Harey VI. Though arguments rage about the order in which the first tetralogy was written and performed — and just how much Shakespeare (if any) was in it — there is no doubt that the history plays were a public success. There can also be little doubt that its attraction was precisely the literary vulgarities of the plays: their endless battle scenes; the patriotic superhero “English” Talbot and his slain son; the witchy Joan of Arc and the hotly adulterous termagant Margaret were just the ticket (at a penny a head) for the groundlings unlikely to be dipping into printed histories by Edward Hall or Holinshed.
This kind of history — soaked in folklore and patriotic gore, profane, vernacular and violent — often finds its public at times of national uncertainty. Herodotus wrote partly to give Greeks a sense that whatever their local enmities, when faced with the foreign invader, they all belonged to Hellas. The Shakespearean tetralogy appeared at a time of renewed nervousness. The Armada had been frustrated but the threat from Spain had not gone away; Queen Elizabeth I was still under a papal excommunication that promised absolution to her assassin. The country was without an heir, save for the son of Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had executed. Enter Talbot and the rest of them (and not long after, as the situation deteriorated further into rebellions, Irish and domestic, came Richard II and the rest of the second tetralogy, with its unmissable message about the steep price of usurpation).
It was at another time of national anxiety that I first cottoned on to history: the 1950s, when the elation of wartime victory had given way to austerity, imperial dispossession and the terrors of the cold war. All of this seemed to shrink the magnitude of the Island Story several sizes down.
By way of compensation, there was the all-time performer Churchill, shameless plunderer of Shakespearean hyperbole; when I read the volumes of the History of the English Speaking Peoples, it was impossible not to hear the ripe rhetorician in nearly every sentence. For the most part, though, vocalised history had turned into the academic lecture, which was and is another thing entirely, obedient to those iron conventions of introductory positioning within the literature; the reckoning of causes and consequences, everything tied up neatly in summary conclusions.
There was one exception to the formulaic lecturer; the greatest virtuoso of all. It would not be quite right to think of AJP Taylor as the rapper of the 1950s but neither was he a run-of-the-mill professor. Herodotus and Thucydides would have recognised him at once as a kindred spirit: the personification of the engaged polemicist, the nonstop talking historian. And he was, as all of us who presume to do television history have constantly had pointed out, a nonpareil of the small screen: noteless, scriptless, perfect in his timing; no walks across fields; just the man and the words.
He had his chance when Lew Grade wanted something for wet Sunday afternoons and a colleague at ATV, on the strength of having been spellbound by Taylor at Oxford, made the suggestion. It was not a vote of confidence, though, that he was first presented as if on a game show. Before he came on, a hidden voice boomed “ATV presents an experiment. Can a brilliant historian . . . hold the attention of a television audience of millions for half an hour? That is the question, and the answer lies with you.” On came Taylor through an opening in a heavy set of drapes, muttered “good evening”, and began right away.
“In the last days of December 1916, a small group of Swiss university students had an evening meeting and an exiled Russian politician living in Switzerland gave them a talk on the coming revolution. He said, ‘The revolution’s bound to come. You younger people will live to see it. We older people (he was in his forties at the time), we shan’t see it.’ Ten months later this same man, his name was Lenin, was dictator of one of the greatest empires in the world.” It was magic. The story, at a time when the Russian Revolution seemed both heroic and terrifying, could not have mattered more. It made, to a greater or lesser degree, historians of everyone who watched and listened to Taylor.
Part of the pleasure was surrendering to Taylor’s conviction that the past follies had something to say to present perplexities. That unfashionable assumption, stigmatised by scholars as dangerous presentism, would have resonated with the Greek forefathers for whom history was moral instruction as well as the preservation of memory. And it also powers the beat of Hamilton, which raps about the making and breaking of a nation, the trade-off between power and freedom, the play of ambition and altruism. These things still matter. In his last sally of wicked glee, George III is incredulous that Washington is retiring of his own accord:
“Is zat true?/ I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do . . . If so who’s next? . . . Oceans rise./ Empires fall./Next to Washington, they all look small./ All alone, watch them run./ They will tear each other into pieces,/ Jesus Christ, this will be fun!”
Or maybe not.
Simon Schama is a contributing editor to the FT
Photographs: New York Times/Eyevine: Bridgeman Art Gallery; Getty Images; PA Images