Through a combination of persistence and dumb luck, I had the good fortune to be in the room where it happens. While this is normally a writing blog, after seeing Hamilton I think that the play warrants some discussion. Hamilton is a work of literature. Not only are the lyrics clever and well written, but the costumes, set, and stagecraft all come together to create a powerful piece of rhetoric.
So, having seen it staged, I’m going to discuss a few of the literary highlights of the show, my own interpretation of them, and what we can take away from it as writers. In the interest of space, I’m going to focus this article on point of view and framing devices.
A Brief Note on Staging
One of the first things that struck me about the show is its relative simplicity. There is only one set, and there are very few costume changes. Many of the actors play multiple parts, keeping the cast small. And, especially early in the play, the acting and choreography are often understated. Even when the ensemble is in motion it isn’t uncommon for the person singing to simply walk around the stage or even to stand still.
Storytelling and Narrative Distance
Hamilton presents itself as an oral history, and an act of collective storytelling. One of the reasons why it’s so easy to glean the plot from the lyric is because they rely heavily on summary narration. Many of the songs are not actually meant to put the viewers in-scene, but to narrate a story to them. This puts distance between the viewers and the characters—rather than knowing the character personally, we know them through the stories that others tell about them, and through the stories that they tell about themselves.
The sense that the story is being related to the viewers is heightened by the sparseness of the set and costumes. This decision forces viewers to imagine the events and to impose their own interpretation of how things must have looked, in line with how we experience written and oral narration. It also keeps them from being fully transported to the space where things are unfolding.
The viewer isn’t meant to be fully immersed in the scene. Instead, the use of narrators and framing devices makes them aware of the medium of the play and, by extension, of how far removed they are from the events. It gives a sense that we are not getting an unmediated view of the characters—particularly of the title character, Alexander Hamilton himself—but a reconstructed and unreliable narrative containing shades of truth.
The play is concerned with sharing many different points of view. While Aaron Burr is the primary narrator, most of the main cast is given a chance to tell a part of the story. They not only bring their own sometimes contradictory spin on Hamilton, but also fight to establish themselves as the heroes of their own stories. By the end of the play there are no true villains because almost every character has gotten a chance to speak and give their side.
The choreography lends itself to the idea that each character is relating their own imperfect version of events. Oftentimes the narrating character would be relatively still as the rest of the cast moved around them. At times, this gave an impression that the act of telling the story placed the narrator outside of the events and they could only grasp at what had happened in retrospect. Other times, it seemed almost like the telling of the story shaped the way that the events were unfolded to the audience.
The fact that so many characters have a chance to speak also means that the ones who don’t get to speak are particularly striking. Most notably, Maria Reynolds does not get to narrate her own song (“Say No to This”). At the beginning of the song, Burr passes off narration to Hamilton, who relates the affair to the audience. Later on (“Hurricane”) he writes down the affair from his own perspective, further solidifying the narrative as his own. During the song, she stands over Hamilton’s shoulder, but does not speak. Maria herself disappears from the narrative after this point. Her presence haunts his story, but her voice is lost, and the viewer never learns what she thought—whether she had intentionally set him up, if her feelings were genuine. By denying her the chance to narrate, she becomes one of the most troubling and inscrutable figures in the play.
The Writing Take-Away
There are two big things going on here in terms of writing. The first is that there’s a strong synergy between the show’s thematic content and its structure. The way that the play is composed of a collection of narratives from a multitude of different perspectives comments on the themes of legacy and storytelling that appear in the lyrics, and vice versa. By building the structure of the play around its core ideas, the themes are able to resonate throughout. This also allows the nuances of the play’s structure—the audience’s distance from the characters, the inherent unreliability of each perspective, the missing voices, the struggle to be heard—to complicate the way that viewers understand the themes.
Second, this play pays a lot of attention to who gets to speak and who doesn’t. Hamilton is a perfect example of multiple points of view done correctly. Each point of view brings something different to the table, and each character’s story provides new information. What’s more, the different narrators often provide information that recontextualizes things that others have said, and that change the way that viewers understand the things that have already happened. Each narrator provides meaningful commentary on the others. The characters who do not get a chance to speak are left out intentionally, and the loss of those perspectives is felt throughout the story.
Coming Monday: An analysis of the rivalry between Hamilton and Burr, and a discussion of what made it so effective.
I couldn’t find anywhere to wedge this in, but here’s an interesting personal essay discussing the theme of storytelling in Hamilton that I would recommend checking out.