Antony and Cleopatra’s history, man (again)

OK, so some scattered thoughts for this Saturday morning, re: Antony and Cleopatra, history, theater, and–believe it or not–Alexander Hamilton…

If you’ve been reading this blog over the past three months (or really all the way back to the beginnings and when I started covering Shakespeare’s “histories” [and it’s a term to be used–shall we say?–loosely]), you know I’ve struggled with the concept of real-world history in the theatrical world of the play.

Last night, I watched PBS’s Great Performance episode on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

So, why do I mention this?

Not just because Oskar Eustus, the Artistic Director of The Public Theater, said,

I have more than once compared Lin to Shakespeare, and I do it without blushing or apologizing. Lin, in Hamilton, is doing exactly what Shakespeare did in his history plays. He’s taking the voice of the common people, elevating it to poetry–in Shakespeare’s case, iambic pentameter; in Lin’s case, rap, rhyme, hip-hop, R & B–and by elevating it to poetry, ennobling the people themselves. He’s bringing out what is noble about the common tongue. And that is something that nobody else has done as effectively as Lin since Shakespeare. Yeah, I said it.

And while that’s all nice and good (and something that I do NOT have any issue with), what really got me was the discussion of the idea of theatrical history. Miranda, on the subject of how certain historical inconsistencies are addressed, says, “Hamilton didn’t really meet Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan all at once in the same bar, but we’re gonna meet them all at once because we got to go. We’ve got a lot of story to tell, and we want to get you out before Les Mis gets out next door.”

More importantly, in a discussion with Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman (who have collaborated on Pacific Overtures, Assassins, and Road Show), this whole theatrical-history or historical-theatre concept is addressed:

Why do we go to history? Why is real life more interesting than whole cloth?
It’s interesting, because what happens is, when you live through history, you don’t know it’s history, you know?

In all the shows that Steve and I have written together, including Assassins, you reach a point, I think, where the research is over, and you then invent the character who actually existed in history and —
–But they’re still partly defined by what they did. That’s the event.
–Absolutely, and that’s what the audience will bring into the theater with them, so you have to be aware of that. But they live in a kind of penumbral area where they are who they were, but they’re also who you want them to be.
Well, that leads me to a really good bit of advice you gave me early when I was writing Hamilton. I was drowning in research. And what you told me was “Just write the parts you think are a musical.” And that forms its own spine.

None of the shows we’re talking about are documentaries. None of them are book reports with songs added. I mean, ultimately, they’re artists inventions.

So all this worry over the play’s chronology jumping, all this ethno-hand-wringing that I’m doing over the historical Cleopatra versus the myth we all agree on, it all needs to be subtext, but not the text. The text is Shakespeare’s.

I’ve known this all along.

But sometimes we all need a reminder.

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