[Marxism] Did ‘Hamilton’ Get the Story Wrong? One Playwright Thinks So

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 14 08:10:32 MST 2019

NY Times, Jan. 14, 2019
Did ‘Hamilton’ Get the Story Wrong? One Playwright Thinks So
By James Barron

The 15 or 20 minutes before the performance ticked by the same way they 
do on nights when Rome Neal presides over jazz at the Nuyorican Poets 
Cafe on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But this time Mr. Neal was 
directing a reading of a play. It takes aim at the sensation that is the 
theatrical juggernaut “Hamilton” and its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

So this was different from the jazz nights. There was no music, in 
contrast to the rap-infused lyrics of “Hamilton,” one of the biggest 
critical and commercial successes in Broadway history.

The play, “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” was written by Ishmael 
Reed, 80, a prolific and often satirical writer who, as a critic 
reviewing one of his books once said, “has made members of every 
constituency angry” during his long career.

Mr. Reed’s most recent work should prove to be no exception.

“The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” targets “Hamilton,” the play, and 
“Hamilton,” the best-selling biography by Ron Chernow, which inspired 
Mr. Miranda. The program handed out at the reading said, “The Haunting 
of Lin-Manuel Miranda” was “about a playwright who is misled by a 
historian of white history into believing that Alexander Hamilton was an 

“He takes no prisoners,” Mr. Neal said of Mr. Reed, who was awarded a 
MacArthur fellowship in 1998. Mr. Miranda also received a MacArthur, in 
2015. (The fellowships are often referred to as genius grants.)

In “The Haunting,” there is a character named Lin-Manuel Miranda who is 
visited by ghosts. They help Mr. Reed accomplish his main goal, which he 
said in an interview was “to give the voices that were left out of the 
musical some speaking lines.”

But Mr. Reed also wrote in some digs at Mr. Miranda. Midway through “The 
Haunting,” a character says he expected Mr. Miranda to be “busy 
rehearsing for his role in ‘Mary Poppins.’” (Mr. Miranda plays a London 
lamplighter in “Mary Poppins Returns,” the Disney sequel to the beloved 
1964 movie-musical.)

“By directing it, I was standing up for Ishmael Reed’s work,” said Mr. 
Neal, who has directed eight of Mr. Reed’s plays. “He rights wrongs with 
his plays. He brings light or understanding to the situation that’s 
going on.”

Mr. Miranda was in Puerto Rico last week for a three-week run of 
“Hamilton,” and a publicist for the show said he was unavailable to talk 
about “The Haunting.” Another publicist connected with “Hamilton” said 
that Mr. Chernow would not answer questions that had been sent by email.

But Mr. Neal said he believed that Mr. Miranda was aware of the reading, 
because he had sent Mr. Miranda a direct tweet and also a flier. Mr. 
Neal said he had not received a reply from Mr. Miranda.

The issues raised in “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” involve 
questions that scholars have debated about “Hamilton” — “Ishmael Reed 
revives an old debate” was part of the headline on an article about the 
reading on The New Yorker’s website. Among some historians, the 
discussion has touched on whether Mr. Miranda’s play — which moved from 
the Public Theater to Broadway in 2015 — overstated Alexander Hamilton’s 
opposition to slavery and whether it devoted enough attention to other, 
less appealing elements of Hamilton’s legacy, such as arguing that the 
president should be more like a monarch and that senators should serve 
life terms.

Last year, for example, Rutgers University Press published “Historians 
on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical Is Restaging America’s Past,” 
with chapters by 15 scholars who look at how Mr. Miranda’s play has 
changed the general public’s perspective about colonial history.

Mr. Chernow’s book was widely praised for its portrayal of one of the 
Founding Fathers when it was published. The historian Edmund S. Morgan 
called it “a superb study” of someone who had a voice in the new nation 
but “who was himself uncertain of who he was and of what he and his 
colleagues did.”

Toward the end of the book, Mr. Chernow called Hamilton “a fervent 
abolitionist.” Earlier, he wrote, “Few, if any, other founding fathers 
opposed slavery more consistently or toiled harder to eradicate it than 
Hamilton — a fact that belies the historical stereotype that he cared 
only for the rich and privileged.”

“The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” treats Hamilton and slavery far 

“Probably Ishmael is right. ‘Hamilton’ has been given a free pass or 
there’s been an exaggeration of Hamilton’s antislavery,” said Eric 
Foner, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University. “It’s a 
legitimate outlook that he has. It’s not the only outlook, but it’s 
within the realm of legitimacy.”

Alexander Hamilton “did not like slavery, there is no question about 
that,” Professor Foner said. But he added that antislavery “was low down 
on Hamilton’s list of priorities compared to other things,” including 
“uniting this nation, which required compromise on slavery.”

Economic development, another Hamilton priority, was also complicated by 
slavery. “He wasn’t interested in disrupting the plantation economy of 
the South, which was producing a lot of the wealth of the country.”

Professor Foner, who said he had seen “Hamilton” but did not attend one 
of the readings of “The Haunting,” also mentioned Hamilton’s own 
ambitions. “He married into a slave-owning family,” he said. “That’s 
where the money was, people who owned slaves.”

Lyra D. Monteiro, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers 
University, Newark, who wrote one of the chapters in “Historians on 
Hamilton,” said “The Haunting” was “entirely correct to bring attention” 
to Hamilton and slavery.

“The Haunting” also imagined conversations between Mr. Miranda and 
Native Americans — “Chernow doesn’t even mention us,” a Native American 
character declares. Professor Monteiro said the history of Native 
Americans was “even more erased in our imagination than slavery is.”

When the time came for the reading, Mr. Reed was in the cast, playing 
the role of Mr. Miranda’s agent in imagined conversations about 
celebrity endorsements and, in Act 2, an offer to write a musical about 
Christopher Columbus, a heroic figure discredited in recent decades by 
those who say his voyages opened the way to the destruction of native 
culture and the importation of slaves.

Mr. Neal said he had not seen “Hamilton” or read Mr. Chernow’s book. He 
said he had not gone to “Hamilton” even though Jasmine Cephas Jones, the 
actress who originated the roles of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds, 
had appeared at one of his jazz shows at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

“I didn’t see it at the Public Theater,” he said of “Hamilton.” And when 
it went to Broadway, he said, “I just didn’t want to spend that kind of 
money. I try to get people to come into the Nuyorican Poets Cafe for 
$15, $20. I admire Broadway productions, but not out of my pocket at 
this point.”

Money for the reading came from Mr. Reed — $5,000, he said. “That’s like 
lunch money for the investors in ‘Hamilton.’ This is a 
David-against-Goliath effort.”

Now Mr. Reed and Mr. Neal are trying to raise $50,000 (Mr. Reed said 
they already had $20,000) toward a staged version at the Nuyorican Poets 
Cafe in May. “It’s going to be marvtastic,” Mr. Neal said. “It’s going 
to be marvelous and fantastic.”

“The Haunting” ends with the Miranda character promising to give away 
money he made from “Hamilton” in the future to organizations in New York 
like Medgar Evers College. (The production in Puerto Rico is a 
fund-raiser for a Miranda family effort to support Puerto Rican artists 
as the island continues to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.)

“That’s not likely at all, but he could have remorse,” Mr. Neal said. 
“But it’s water under the bridge. Now it’s time for Ishmael Reed to have 
his say.”

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