Hamilton and Shared Experience

A lot of people have been musing about the effusive reaction to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton (which today extended to keeping Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill) and what it says about our current politics. I don’t have any particular insight into the work (especially since I haven’t seen it or listened to the songs) but I do think it’s an interesting peak into how live theatre operates, even now that it’s in theory a pretty marginal art form.

That is, most people won’t ever shell out huge gobs of cash to go see a Broadway show, but an awful lot of Americans will have some sort of theatrical experience that means something important to them: acting or playing in the pit for a high school musical, or at least going to one in which their heart’s desire appears; taking an improv comedy class or showing up at open mikes, watching their kid in the kindergarten pageant or joining the other middle-aged has-beens in a community production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All of these experiences may be fading in popularity or universality, but they do suggest how for all art, but especially for live performance, your sense that you belong is a critical part of the experience.

I’ve seen half-a-dozen or so Broadway shows in my life, and never really liked them much (except maybe this.) But I liked every one of the ten free Shakespeare in the Park productions I went to, even the ones that got terrible reviews. You spend four or five hours sitting in the path leading to the Delacourt Theatre, waiting for tickets, reading your book or looking at the trees. By the time you see the show that night, there’s an esprit de corps between you and the other audience members and the performers, and the play feels different because of it– even if that sense of commonality is all in your head. The experience of being in a play yourself, or having your kid perform in one, is often similar but even stronger. I am this, and this is me, you say to yourself.

When Michelle Obama gushes that Hamilton “was simply, as I tell everybody, the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life,” she is saying that finally, finally, there was a piece of art that was just for her, but also made her feel a welcomed part of a larger group– both in the audience and in American history. We can laugh about how a piece of art so micro-targeted to our multi-cultural but plutocratic elite elicits such over-the-top praise, but I’m sure she’s being sincere– not dispassionately evaluating the work, but in describing how it made her feel. Hamilton presents a quadruple-threat of identification to the Diverse, Rich, and Powerful: they relate to the performers and to the hip-hop infused music (because Diverse!), to the Founding Fathers characters (because Powerful!) and to the other members of the audience (because Rich!)

That was, for example, how I felt first reading James Herndon’s books about teaching middle school. I kept pressing them into friends’ hands, and if they weren’t teachers, they would react with mild interest but mostly amusement at my enthusiasm. The feeling of being understood is one that is unmistakable but hard to communicate through words– though easier to communicate through a collective experience.

This is why I think teaching is less about “meeting the needs of each learner” than about creating shared group experiences. The part of us that school works upon, when it works at all, is not our nature as individual learners, escaping into private interests and individual development, but our desire for ritual, belonging, tribe.

Many years ago, I went with a friend to Turkey. It was winter, and when we got to Termessos, the ruined ancient Greek city in the mountains near Antalya, there was no one there at all, not at the gate, not in the several mile walk up to the necropolis of thousands of tombs, and not at the famous theatre that held several thousand spectators.* What stories were told there, in the stone amphitheater among the silent mountains, before the assembled city sitting on carved benches? What was then, to this observer or that, the greatest piece of art they had seen in their life? What spoke to them, and said it was just for them, but that they were like others, too?

The desire to be part of the group, to experience a story not by ourselves but among others who are like us and of our kind, is a very powerful one. Whether that common identity is one that is available to all of your countrymen– or only those who can shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for a ticket— depends I suppose on your place and time.


*There were, however, surveillance towers not too far away from the ruined city, and 30 minutes later the police showed up and told us that we weren’t arrested but we would have to get into an unmarked sedan right away. Translated by an obnoxious German-Turkish tour guide who had driven up with them, the police briefly questioned us. “Why did you leave your backpacks 200 meters away from where you were walking?” they asked. “Because we didn’t think anyone was up here,” we said. Eventually, the reason for their concern became clear: they had already searched our bags and found the expired Israeli passport that (unbeknownst to me) my friend had found on the ground a few years before and had (inexplicably) kept with him. The tour guide gave some hints that either he or the police thought we were Mossad agents or had murdered an Israeli friend up there in the ruined city (or both.) After a somewhat tense conversation during which we tried to demonstrate we were just dumb Americans, they handed us over to the tour guide and the silent elderly German lady he was showing around,  and he drove us back down to Antalya, continuously complaining in idiomatic English about how shitty the American music on Turkish radio was. We got off easy, I suppose.


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