Deconstructing Hamilton, II: Spatial Priorities

By Tara Dalton

Via Variety

Just you wait.

Distance breeds disconnect. For some reason, great spans of time, space, and numbers are challenging to fully comprehend. When facing issues or events that are not immediate, it takes some amount of effort to bring out their importance and complexity. It’s human nature.

After all, distance laden concepts have stellar reputations. Long distance relationships? Easy. The plights of people a continent away? Common knowledge. A quadrillion relative to a trillion? Basic arithmetic. The author George Saunders once wrote, “In all things we are the victims of The Misconception From Afar.”

These tendencies are not new and, as with most generalizations, time and time again people prove capable of overcoming them. We sympathize. We unite to face daunting tasks. We are Stern (Or can only dream). An obstacle however, though surmountable, remains an obstacle nonetheless.

The recent discovery of bones and burial chambers by Washington Square Park brings to mind the odd effect distance can have. It’s no secret that the park was once a burial ground. Smithsonian mag notes that before becoming a public park in 1827, Washington Square Park was the resting place for over ten thousand people. It can be unsettling to compare modern cemeteries, with flowers, headstones and groundskeepers to the recently uncovered tombs. What once was someone’s loss is now a curiosity, a story for a news cycle.

Time changes perception.

Similar thoughts arise when visiting the Brooklyn museum’s mummy chamber. Helpful plaques explain the religious nature of ancient Egyptian burials, in a room putting the mummy, his sarcophagus and other belongings on display. At what point does someone become a topic of study rather than an individual with religious beliefs and burial preferences? As time can change perception, perception often determines action.

And Now Hamilton

Aaron Burr’s actions tend to not be impulsive. His mantra, “talk less, smile more” accounts for how he believes perception operates; when people don’t reveal their true opinions, their potential is limitless. Yet as the show develops, this practice proves limiting. Time and time again Burr finds himself missing his goals, outside of the “room where it happens.”

Aaron Burr seems detached from the stakes of ideas that aren’t immediate, such as the constitution, and is chained to his perception of consequence, how he believes he’ll be affected. Repeatedly, uncertainty is avoided at all costs. Though Burr supports the constitution, he asks Hamilton, “What if you’re backing the wrong horse?” He continues to explain “I’ll wait here and see which way the wind will blow.” In “Story of Tonight,” Hamilton speaks of Theodosia to Burr: “I will never understand you. If you love this woman, go get her! What are you waiting for?” In the next song, “Wait for It” Burr elaborates, “I’m not standing still, I am lying in wait.” The obvious risk in waiting too long however, is missing “your shot.”

In making choices based upon his odds of success rather than his beliefs, Burr traps himself; the irony is that his greatest moment of fervor, when he relinquishes his restraint, is his duel against Hamilton. A lifetime of practicing restraint is undermined by a moment of action, which is now his legacy. In a history course, Aaron Burr may be mentioned for killing Alexander Hamilton. Rarely is he portrayed with such depth and humanity as he appears in “Hamilton.” Through the show, we are thrown into his inner turmoil and motivations, and can nearly relate to this infamous historical figure.

Mistakes arguably come from misperceptions. Continually we aim to present history, and all things, as well as we’re able, but inevitably we fall short. Simply because all stories are a distortion on some level.

In “Hamilton,” there is dual meaning: the story itself, and the narrator. It is no coincidence that “Who lives, Who Dies, Who Tells your story?” has become the show’s marketing line. There is a written awareness in “Hamilton” of how the audience is interpreting and reimagining history, just as these historic figures lived with an awareness of their unwritten legacy.

Tara Dalton is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email her at theater@nyunews.com

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