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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

July 5, 2017: Representing the Revolution: 1776 and Burr

[For this year’s July 4th series, I’ll be AmericanStudying cultural representations of the Revolution and its era. Leading up to a special post on Hamilton!]
On two complementary but also contrasting efforts to humanize the Revolution’s Framers.
I don’t think it’d be an even vaguely controversial position to argue that 1776 (1969, although that hyperlinked film adaptation was released in 1972) is no longer the most popular musical about the American Revolution. But we shouldn’t let the record-breaking, award-winning, and history-eclipsing smash that is Hamilton overshadow what was strikingly new and original about 1776 when it stormed onto Broadway (winning its own collection of awards in the process) half a century ago. That musical’s first scene immediately presented its most striking element, its commitment to humanizing the Continental Congress delegates, in two key ways: first using two competing songs (“Sit Down, John” and “Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve”) to frame John Adams and other delegates as bickering, exhausted, emotional people (rather than simply Founding Fathers); and then moving into John’s imagination for an even more intimate and emotional song, as he and his distant wife Abigail (working the family farm in Braintree) squabble but then reiterate their commitment to each other in the moving love song “Till Then.” These are not, this first scene announces clearly, going to be the two-dimensional Framers we’ve come to know through Great Men of History kinds of narratives and images.
Or are they? I don’t want to suggest that 1776 doesn’t succeed in adding human qualities, emotions, and relationships to its portrait of the Framers, as it certainly does (to my mind it was those human elements, along with the inarguably catchy songs, that made the musical the enduring hit it was). Yet while the musical does highlight various debates and differences of opinion among the delegates—particularly over the issue of slavery, which it largely reduces to a North-South debate in the all-too-common way that obscures the legal reality of slavery in all thirteen colonies as of the Revolution—it nonetheless frames all of the delegates, at the end of the day (or rather the end of the show), as the idealized heroes that the Founding Father narrative had helped create for a century and a half. Of course no 1960s Broadway musical was going to portray the Framers as villains or anything close to it, nor am I asking for (nor, indeed, would I agree with) such a portrayal. But it’s possible to humanize historical figures and yet still mostly mask their imperfections and failings (which could be included without rendering characters villains in any sense), and I believe that 1776 does steer almost entirely clear of that sort of “warts and all” portrayal of its subjects.
A few years later, Gore Vidal published Burr (1973), the first in his American Chronicles (or Narratives of Empire, as they have come to be known in recent years) series of seven historical novels. Burr likewise seeks to add human qualities and depth to the Framers and the Revolutionary period, but Vidal makes two narrative choices that significantly shift the tone of his portrayal of the past: using a fictional first-person narrator, Charlie Schuyler, a young New York lawyer who knows the elderly Aaron Burr and has no reverence of any kind for him, his generation, and the founders; and then having Charlie serve as Burr’s amanuensis, helping the elderly Burr write his memoirs, which allows Vidal to create a fictional version of Burr’s largely cynical and wicked perspective on his fellow founders and every aspect of the Revolution and Founding period. Vidal’s Burr hates Hamilton (obviously) and Jefferson (only slightly less obviously, since Jefferson brought him up on charges of treason while Burr was serving as his Vice President); but even for those peers for whom his feelings are less negative, Burr is all too willing and happy to highlight their flaws and foibles (a lens, to be fair, which he likewise applies to himself throughout the novel). Vidal’s novel is perhaps too sarcastic and even satirical toward the Revolution’s figures and events, but it offers an important counter-point to 1776 (and to Hamilton, for that matter), and would be an important Revolutionary representation to keep in the conversation for that reason (among many others).
Next Revolutionary representation tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Revolutionary representations you’d highlight?

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