Thomas Jefferson had just pulled his wife off the balcony of his Philadelphia lodgings and back into bed. Much to the discomforted astonishment of John Adams, who was standing below with Benjamin Franklin.
Adams: “In the middle of the afternoon?!?”
Franklin: “Not everybody‘s from Boston, John.”
It worked. Martha’s timely, um, visit cured Jefferson’s writer’s block and he was able to finish drafting the Declaration of Independence. So the Broadway musical “1776” could continue.
“Don’t worry, John,” said Franklin, having fun at the expense of his colleague's obvious discomfort. “The history books will clean it up.”
Indeed they did. According to the official accounts that have come down to us, Martha Jefferson never visited her husband in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress. She was far too frail and sickly to make the journey and died at age 33 in 1781. The fact that she had six children in 10 years might not have helped.
And, if you know that, as I did the first 17 times I watched the film version of the musical — in which the fable recounted above took place — it‘s actually a bit stomach-turning that the authors would take such liberties with the sad truth in order to spice up their play.
But it works. So does the historically inaccurate touch of making Caesar Rodney’s midnight ride to turn the Delaware delegation’s vote in favor of independence more dramatic by advancing him in age by a couple of decades. So does making Pennsylvania Judge John Wilson a cowardly fool, which he wasn’t. So does making John Dickenson an argumentative, status quo-supporting killjoy instead of the quiet anti-war loyalist he really was.
We tell each other stories about ourselves and our history. We write songs and put on plays and draw cartoons and imagine what it would be like if Kal-El of Krypton had fallen to earth two centuries earlier.
The ability to enjoy all that imagination and juxtaposition and tomfoolery and jump from there to an understanding of real history and science and humanity is central to life as a thinking person and a citizen of a free society. That was true long before we became inundated with so much “fake news.”
And will be true when, fortunately, students from around the state of Utah get a chance at the hottest ticket in the theater world and get to see the touring company of the smash “Hamilton: An American Musical” when it swings into town next May.
Over the absurd objections of three members of the Utah Board of Education.
Board member Lisa Cummins was almost as aghast as John Adams at the idea that school children would be dragged to a show about Alexander Hamilton, a “true politician” who favored big government and a national bank. A person who, in other words, basically invented the country we‘ve lived in for 200 years. Who had, for better or worse, much more of a lasting influence on our national character and economy than did his rival Jefferson, the agrarian idealist.
“I want to be careful that we’re promoting the history that we want,” Cummins said.
It is frankly amazing that a person who apparently has the ability to read can utter such a thought. And troubling that she has any influence over the education of the next generation.
Except she doesn’t. At least not as much as Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and original star of the musical that stormed Broadway and infected playlists across the nation with catchy rap that actually carries some meaning.
Miranda made musical theater cool again. And he has ignited popular interest in the Revolutionary period of our history by weaving a compelling story that does not bog itself down with adherence to the actual facts. But it has gotten a great many people to look things up, read books and gain an understanding, not just of dates and events, but of character and spirit and, well, revolution.
He’s like Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling. She got a new generation to read books and consider eternal matters of friendship, loyalty, bravery and right and wrong by telling a story that nobody thought was true. Except that it was.
The ability to tell stories from history, fact from illusion, fantasy from reality, and hold it all comfortably in your head ought to be central to any young person’s education.
It is important to note that at least one study suggests that children raised in religious families have a much poorer ability to distinguish fantasy from reality than do children raised in non-religious households. Which, one must wonder, might stem from the same level of intelligence and empathy that, according to another study, make children from non-religious homes more generous and altruistic than those from religious backgrounds.
Stories, often more than facts, raise our awareness, engage our emotions, build our empathy and make us human. Without ever crowding out the realities of life.
Oh, but there is one part of “Hamilton” that is objectively true.
Immigrants — like Alexander Hamilton — do get the job done.
George Pyle, the Tribune’s editorial page editor, is only doing this because he isn’t smart enough to write a compelling novel. email@example.com