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Booing Mike Pence at Hamilton echoes theatrical politics of the founding fathers

Last week, vice president-elect Mike Pence was booed by the audience when he attended a performance of hip-hop musical Hamilton, in New York.

It goes almost without saying that Hamilton is the hottest ticket in contemporary American musicals. Since moving to Broadway in August 2015, this story about the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton has been the subject of a staggering range of plaudits: 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy for the cast recording, the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and a MacArthur Genius Grant. But it is the passionate nature of its fan culture that has become the most dominant feature of the show’s run.

Aware of the musical’s reputation as an almost sacred work of art for American liberals, and to calm potential violence, Brandon Victor Dixon (who plays the villain of the piece, Aaron Burr) called after Pence as he was leaving the show. After Pence stopped, turned, and listened, Dixon read out a message written by the cast and crew:

There is nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen, we are sharing a story of love. Mike Pence, we welcome you here. We are the diverse Americans who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights … we hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.

Trump himself then chimed in on Twitter, saying: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” Predictably, social media exploded and the news media followed suit.

Trump the fop

The affair has a distinctly 18th century quality; a parody of the culture of display that has come to shape our modern politics.

A deeply controversial VP-elect (whose conservative platform seeks to roll back some of American women and minorities’ most hard-won rights) is challenged at a play that is highly significant to American liberals. Possibly feeling shamed by the event – or perhaps attempting to fill column inches with some other story than the $25m settlement of his fraud lawsuits – Trump then demands on social media that the cast “Apologize!” for being “rude”, showing him to have a surprisingly genteel sense of theatrical decorum and making him seem more like the offended fop in a regency drama than the leader of the free world.

To add to the ironies, Hamilton is about the battle for control over liberal and conservative versions of US history. Washington sings:

We have no control
Who lives who dies
Who tells our story.

With a diverse cast, it recounts an immigrant’s achievements in the face of mounting pressure from a group of scheming, white-supremacist populists opposed to his abolitionism, Caribbean origins, big state agenda and liberal financial policy.

The booing of Pence, and Dixon’s attempt to calm it, was a theatrical moment that revealed underlying tensions in an increasingly divided America. The debate throws up ideas of the politics of culture in the US that has distinct parallels with Alexander Hamilton’s own time. Without Dixon’s call for calm, who knows what might have happened. The precedent of Hamilton’s own time is not positive. As Hamilton himself says in the musical: “Look at where we are/ Look at where we started.”

Hamilton’s first fans

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress banned theatre-going for being a dangerously cosmopolitan and decadent diversion from the goal of nation-building. But from the 1780s, theatres in the US started to open up again. Meanwhile, factions began to appear in politics that increasingly organised themselves around their choice of entertainment at high-profile cultural institutions.

The right to appear in public, and lay claim to authority over the new American culture, was one of the most aggressive political battles of the era. 18th century politics do not map directly onto the 21st century’s distinctions between liberals and conservatives. But parallels do exist. The Democratic-Republicans were formed to defend white, male suffrage and Southern slavery through appeals to populism, while Hamilton’s Federalist Party generally supported big government, free market capitalism, cosmopolitan relations with Britain, and a professional civil service.

For history’s first Hamilton fans – the Federalists of New York City – the Tontine Coffeehouse and the John Street Theatre were the most important organisations in which to display their elite cultural choices, while the Democratic-Republicans typically patronised the more rowdy theatres and bars around Tammany Hall.

Tontine Coffee House, Francis Guy, 1797. Wikimedia Commons

In the 1790s, the new Democratic-Republican Party, empowered by Thomas Jefferson’s ascendancy, began a campaign to invade and disrupt institutions that Federalists had reserved for themselves. They would occupy seats at the illustrious John Street Theatre to heckle the players or challenge noted Federalists to fistfights outside the Tontine Coffeehouse.

Interior of the Park Theatre, Manhattan, New York City.

The battle for supremacy between political parties in the US, as Heather Nathans and Lawrence Levine have both shown, was intrinsically connected with the development of US cultural hierarchies. Regretting the presence of the hated Democratic-Republicans, Federalists began to seek subscriptions to build a new playhouse on Park Row in the north of the city. That theatre would eventually become The Park, the first major playhouse to continuously support American-authored dramatic productions. Democratic-Republicans, instead, embraced the “low-brow” – eventually favouring the minstrel shows and melodramas of the Bowery.

Like the new #HamFans, Hamiltonian Federalists were remarkably precious about their cultural spaces not being made available to Democratic-Republicans, or those that sought to challenge their most strongly-held convictions. It is no surprise that it was in the highly fraught context of an American theatre that Philip Hamilton (Alexander’s son) challenged the Democratic-Republican George Eaker to the duel in which he eventually died – poignantly depicted in Hamilton the musical. Whenever Democratic-Republicans and Federalists occupied the same spaces at the same time in the early republic the results could be frightening.

So, Americans showing their hatred for the other side in the theatre is not a new phenomenon. It is one of their longest-standing political and cultural traditions. Whether or not Pence and the Hamilton audience knew it, they were acting out an 18th century story that would not have surprised the founding fathers.

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