Coming in 2020: 1776

1776 at the 46th Street Theatre, New York, c. 1968. Forty-seven years later, Hamilton would also open on Broadway there (the theater had been renamed the Richard Rodgers Theatre by then).

I was delighted to hear a few weeks ago that the 1968 musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, 1776, will be revived on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theater in 2020 in a production directed by Diane Paulus. I first became familiar with the show through the 1972 film version, which I saw when I was ten years old, and I’ve been an enthusiast for early American history as a result since then. It helped that I spent much of my youth and young adulthood in Philadelphia, living not far from Independence Hall (indeed, I was born only a few blocks from it, at Pennsylvania Hospital). Although the film was not shot on location, it was very hard for me to walk through that neighborhood later without remembering the musical and the story that it told. Perhaps the time has come around for 1776 again; the threat of tyranny in America, it seems, has never really gone away.

1776, as a musical about American history, has been somewhat overshadowed by the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and I’m not sure that many critics — or audiences — would agree with me in giving 1776 the edge. No matter; but I’d like to direct your attention to this conversation with Miranda and William Daniels, who played John Adams in both the Broadway premiere and the film of 1776, in which they discuss the salutary influence of 1776 on Miranda’s own work. Said Miranda: “1776 created such an iconic, indelible image of Adams that we just know who that is now. It’s also, I think, one of the best books — if not the best — ever written for musical theatre … ” There are a few interesting parallels between the shows (see the caption for the photo at the top of this post, for example), and, though you wouldn’t think it a controversial show, 1776 also ran afoul of then-President Richard Nixon, as Daniels discusses.

You can find the full interview here.

Awakening

Philadelphia, circa 1900.

New York may have had its Ric Burns, but Philadelphia has its Sam Katz. Since 2007, Katz, his son Philip, and their History Making Productions has been producing Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a multi-part history of the city, which is also accompanied by excellent educational materials. It has been a long effort, and it’s still not yet entirely complete, but recently HMP released its latest episode, “Awakening (1900-1920),” in which I’m particularly interested, primarily because this was the period in which my father’s parents arrived in Philadelphia, settling in Northern Liberties. It’s a splendid series, beautifully produced, and quite explicit about the challenges that the city and its people have faced through the more than three centuries of its existence.

This new episode — featuring segments on Shibe Park, the employment of children in textile mills, immigration, race issues, Albert Greenfield, and Marian Anderson (with an underscore of music by Scott Joplin) — can be seen below.

Trump fatigue

Two years into his administration, Mr. Trump’s ability to evade responsibility for his behavior, his rhetoric, and his authoritarian gestures has left many of us in a state of exhaustion. Even the Democratic Party — itself deeply polarized and divided between progressive and centrist blocs, between those leaning towards impeachment and those who fear it — seem unable to determine a way forward. Other authoritarian projects, such as those recently attempting to undermine abortion rights, curtail efforts to confront a near-future environmental catastrophe, and engage in isolationist economic strategies fatally incompatible with the geoeconomics of a globalized world, create new headlines each day, as the 24-hour news and social media cycle churns out material designed to stoke fear, resentment, and a sense of fatalism. So we’ve all turned fearful, resentful, and fatalist, which is precisely where authoritarians — especially those in Russia, which is strongest when its enemies are most divided — want us to be. We are rendered, if not impotent, then pessimistic about the actions we can take to alleviate our situation.

During a recent Reddit AMA, historian Timothy Snyder, whose books Bloodlands, On Tyranny, and The Road to Unfreedom may be among the most useful for understanding today’s situation, wrote in regard to how we may respond to those defending Mr. Trump, his behaviors, and his policies (if they may be so generously described):

I think one has to be passionate without being shrill, and insistent without exaggerating. It’s hard because not everyone believes those rules mean anything. I say that I am a partisan for my country, that I am a partisan for my children having a future with everyone else’s children, etc. The “partisan” idea is a way that people tempt themselves into thinking that all that’s going on is an argument between two sides about a reality that is basically fine. Part of what one has to do is talk in ways that make it clear that we’re all in the future together, regardless of the buzzwords right now. I know it’s hard.

Mr. Snyder and his wife, Marci Shore (also an exemplary historian), likely have little in common with me except that we both have two young children growing up in a particularly frightening political and social landscape. Mr. Snyder seems to be suggesting that labelling oneself a “partisan” is to contribute to a rhetorical standoff certain to lead to paralysis, but what strikes me most is his sentiment that he is speaking for his “children having a future with everyone else’s children,” a future that, importantly, is not yet determined — and a future that we, as historical actors, can influence. The obvious corollary is that we abandon our responsibility for this future when we permit ourselves to be drowned in a sea of lies, however exhausting the effort to stay afloat and however narcotic the waves may be.

So it’s our children that I have in mind when I consider that we need to continually renew our dedication to confronting Mr. Trump’s attempts to cordon himself off from responsibility for his actions. Mr. Snyder’s On Tyranny offers twenty practical suggestions as to how we can do so, perhaps the most important of which is the last:

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. [Written in 2016.] Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

And the generations to come include, most immediately, my and my wife’s children as well as those of Mr. Snyder and Ms. Shore.

Mr. Snyder’s list seems to be fairly comprehensive, and of course one needn’t limit oneself to choosing just one of his suggestions. But with apologies to Mr. Snyder I take the liberty here to offer one more, which may be labelled 20a:

20a. Learn about America’s history and the principles and ideals under which it was founded. Bear in mind that the compromises that politics makes necessary does not render these principles and ideals any less valid; those compromises say more about politicians than about ideals. The better we can live up to those principles and ideals and put them into practice in our personal and social lives, the better for us and our children, however short we may fall.

In just a few weeks, we will celebrate the 243rd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — another document of protest against an authoritarian, tyrannical ruler. My family and I will be in Philadelphia then, And I hope to revisit the fine Museum of the American Revolution, Independence Hall, and the National Constitution Center (perhaps to follow up with a meal at City Tavern, surprisingly excellent for what might be construed as a “theme” restaurant and which I highly recommend). I was born in Philadelphia and spent a great deal of my youth there; it was hard to walk the streets of that city without being reminded of its history. The past was ever-present in the architecture of the neighborhood, a past which also contained the ideals of liberty, freedom, and communal responsibility for each other in its history. I’m hoping that some of my enthusiasm for this history rubs off on my daughters. (I’m unaware that Mr. Trump has ever visited any of these places.)

Our generation is fortunate in that there is a wealth of great historical writers about the early years of the republic, all of whom remain active: Gordon S. Wood, Pauline Maier, Joseph Ellis, and many others have in recent years contributed to a fuller understanding of the philosophical and historical basis of American liberal democracy, as well as the hypocrisies that accompanied the foundation of the republic — again, hypocrisies which say more about politics than about the ideals and ideas of the American Experience. As we slide into what will surely be an even more exhausting election period, I’ll try to write here about just why these ideals and ideas remain important, and that Mr. Trump’s and his supporters’ and enablers’ undermining of these ideals and ideas constitute a threat to our children’s future lives in the United States. Mr. Snyder’s history constitutes a warning; perhaps the history of American liberal democracy can constitute a brighter possibility.

Suggested reading: Tom Carson on Huckleberry Finn

Some critics believe that Mark Twain’s work took a turn towards misanthropy and pessimism with the 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and the 1894 Pudd’nhead Wilson, but in a recent essay for The Baffler Tom Carson suggests that the darker edge of Twain’s satire had been there all along, specifically in the 1884/1885 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Writes Carson:

Huck moves us because of how tenaciously he’s working out the rudiments of becoming a grown-up, from his budding moral reckonings to his improving survival skills. With few exceptions, he’s learning that people are rotten. That’s bound to make navigating their — or even his — future rottenness the ultimate test of adulthood. …

… [Not] much about Huck’s formative life could reasonably be described as either lovable or beautiful. There was, to start with, the prolonged trauma of growing up in the care of vicious, drunken Pap Finn; then the killing of Buck Grangerford. (“I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face, for he was mighty good to me.”) Even coping with the King and the Duke’s rodomontades was an object lesson in the unreliable nature of even the most casual encounters with adults on the make. All in all, only the river and friendship with Jim qualify as genuine spurs to Huck’s youthful spirit, and the river isn’t always benign.

I’ve always been of the opinion that Tom Sawyer, Huck’s sunnier, more playful comrade, may have been among the very first and amoral con men in American literature — a quality evident not only in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but especially in the last third of Huckleberry Finn as well. It may have been this encounter with Tom’s true spirit that made Twain reluctant to run Tom and Huck through adulthood in other books, as he’d originally planned.

Carson goes on to examine the glorification of adolescence in American life through a properly jaundiced eye; you can read the entire essay here.

Remembering Scott Joplin

Joplin, who died penniless in an asylum on Wards Island, shares his grave with two others; the grave was unmarked for nearly 60 years. Credit: Adrienne Grunwald for The New York Times.

Ragtime composer Scott Joplin is buried at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens, and this Saturday, May 18, he’ll be remembered at his gravesite with a memorial concert and barbeque. The event, a 15-year tradition, begins at 2:00 p.m. and is free and open to the public. More information can be found in this flyer.

Joplin biographer Ed Berlin, who helps to organize the event, will give a pre-concert talk about the transition from ragtime to jazz in the St. Michael’s chapel on the cemetery grounds. Berlin was also present at last year’s memorial, which was covered by the New York Times.