And (What About) Peggy!
In theatre, the term doubling refers to a stage convention where one actor plays more than one role for a single performance. Sometimes directors and writers employ this device for sheer logistical reasons: “Joe has been offstage for the last hour, so let’s have him play this role in Act II scene iii!” However, when done with the right show and a healthy dose of care, the implementation of doubling can help pull out resonant themes and draw connections between the doubled characters. Perhaps some of the most fascinating and well-conceived theatrical doubling can be seen by turning on Disney+ and watching the Broadway production of Hamilton.
With music and lyrics by a Lin-Manuel Miranda at the very top of his game and directed with precision by Thomas Kail, Hamilton tells the story of one of America’s founding fathers and asks big questions about our identity as a nation and the legacies we leave behind us. Spanning nearly fifty years of Alexander Hamilton’s action-packed life, the story as portrayed in the musical introduces a score of supporting historical figures, several of which are doubled by actors. Namely, the roles of John Laurens and Phillip Hamilton, Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, and Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds are all doubled with a different actor inhabiting each of the two roles at different points during the production. Addressing his reasoning for the doubling on Twitter, Miranda wrote, “I realized early that characters that were important early in his life fade away while others appear later. The double casting was so that we’d be INSTANTLY invested.” So, yes, there is indeed a utility and symmetry to the doubling choices. However, Miranda’s talking of being “invested” hints at his interests in drawing emotional connections between the doubled characters, hoping audiences to subtly (or even subconsciously) pick up on some of its show’s major themes. John Laurens, Hamilton’s friend and brotherly confidant is linked with his son Phillip to draw out Hamilton’s feelings of affection, as well as his personal history with dueling (Laurens’ successful duel in 1778 and Philip Hamilton’s death by duel in 1801 help foreshadow his own infamous demise in 1804). In the course of the story, these are the only other characters we see die. In the opening number of the show, the actors doubling the Lafayette/Jefferson and Mulligan/Madison roles utter the line, “We fought with him,” evoking a brilliant double meaning – while Lafayette and Mulligan fought alongside Hamilton while Jefferson and Madison fought against him in later years. Different sides of what is essentially the same coin, the Lafayette/Jefferson track is linked by the characters’ connection to France; Lafayette embodying the French spirit of revolution and Jefferson portrayed as a man drawn to stereotypical French decadence (often for the sake of humor). Similarly, the Mulligan/Madison track speaks to two men from two ends of a socio-political spectrum: Mulligan, an immigrant, tailor’s apprentice, and abolitionist is foiled with the Virginia-born, affluent, slave-owner James Madison. However, when initially looking to the potential reasons for doubling Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds, I admit I was a little stumped. Both characters (played by Jasmine Cephas Jones) have only a few moments to shine before essentially disappearing into the background of the story. Unlike all of the other principal characters, neither has a strongly established point of view or followable through-line during the play. In fact, after doing a little research, both historical figures the characters are based on remain shrouded in mystery all these years later – much of what has been written about them has been informed by varying accounts and American legend. And then I thought, perhaps that is the point.
With a piece so preoccupied with the power and potency of legacy, is it possible that the creators of Hamilton are commenting on the tragedy of lives and perspectives lost to the time? And given that Jones is the only principal female-presenting actor to double roles during the entire production, could this artistic choice serve as a metaphor for all the women who lived during such a crucial time in our nation’s history and were ultimately forgotten? We so often speak of our Founding Fathers but are the stories of the women who witnessed the birth of our nation somehow less valid to historians? Researching the life of Peggy Schuyler, for example, is challenging as details and anecdotes from her life are hard to come by. While she and her family were very much a part of the revolution, the Peggy’s only substantial story involves an incident involving outrunning a tomahawk when a group Torres and Native Americans invaded their home in Albany with the hopes of capturing her father – the incident and Peggy’s involvement has been largely dismissed as a piece of American Urban Legend. There is a bit more to learn about Maria Reynolds, but even that information is full of gaps. We know that she was married multiple times, but records of exactly why (and in some cases, for how long the marriages lasted) have been lost. As far as her affair with Hamilton is concerned, her perspective and motives have been something of a mystery. Some say she had deep romantic feelings for Hamilton, while some say she willingly helped extort money from him with her husband James Reynolds. In his biography of Eliza Hamilton, cultural historian Tilar J. Mazzeo has even suggested that no affair took place at all. Just as the show fails to take the time to check in with Maria in the “Reynold’s Pamphlet” – a song literally named for her - and hear what she has to say, so is the reality of the woman on whom the character is based. However, one close-up of Jones’ expression tells us all that we need to know: this is a woman who will spend the rest of her remaining years tragically hidden away and kept quiet, under the thumb of either her violent partner or the historians who will fail to account for her side of the story.
The relative silence of real-life Peggy and Maria mirrors the narrative treatment of both characters within the confines of the musical. Peggy’s iconic (and very meme-able) line “…and Peggy!” comes off as a laughable and, musically, written to be an anti-climactic afterthought; not unlike Peggy Schuyler, herself, at least as far as our history books go. She herself is an afterthought; a footnote. Beyond her inclusion in the song “The Schuyler Sisters,” Peggy is given no additional solo lines and soon, unceremoniously fades into the Greek Chorus. Her own perspective is never truly explored like that of the other named characters in Act I. While the song may just need a third singer to be similar to the of material of popular female trios (i.e. Destiny’s Child, The Shirelles, TLC, etc.), there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for Peggy to exist within the show, especially when all of the other Schuyler siblings are omitted from the plot. However, when watching Act II on Disney+ and we see a glance of Jones’ face as she portrays an ashamed, yet silent Maria Reynolds in “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” it is hard to not feel a sense of sadness for her. The idea of being an afterthought, once laughable with Peggy in Act I, is suddenly not so funny. We find ourselves complicit in the act of robbing Maria the right to tell her story in her own words, just as American culture has for the last two hundred years.
Peggy and Maria are not the only female characters in the story who exist with a level of ambiguity not experienced by their male counterparts. While given more stage time, Angelica primarily exists as a potential romantic interest to Hamilton, a foil for her more docile and attentive sister – it should be mentioned that, while some of Angelica’s surviving letters to Hamilton could be read as flirtatious, there is no substantial evidence that she had anything other than platonic affection for her brother-in-law. In Act II, after she is married to Thomas Church offstage, she makes very few appearances until in her final feature “Quiet Uptown,” where she fully assumes her place in the Greek Chorus, just as Peggy and Maria had before her. She is no longer relevant to Hamilton’s story, just as her own recorded biography is limited outside of her connection to the man. On the other hand, after the affair Eliza literally “erases herself from the narrative” in “Burn,” bringing attention to just how little we know of her perspective during that time. In truth, if Eliza – the real Eliza – had tried to share her story, would we even know about it? If we look to Maria Reynolds and the prominence of the female perspective, probably not. Yet, in the show’s final number “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” Eliza and her actions resurface after her husband’s death in 1804. “I put myself back in the narrative,” she says, and goes on to detail her contributions to the country and her husband’s legacy, but also her own. After two and a half hours of following Hamilton, in the show’s final moments, we recount no his achievements, but Eliza’s. Despite the fact that Hamilton himself is introduced as a man forgotten by America (“His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him!”), we see that he wasn’t the only one; indeed, his own fall to obscurity is nothing compared to the legions of strong women surrounding him. Eliza’s ending in the play celebrates the reclamation of agency and choosing to be heard; her final gasp reflective of a person who, after many years of silence, can finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing that she has left an undeniable contribution to the country she and her family helped to build. And in brilliant piece of meta-theatrics, the show Hamilton has only spread her story further than ever before.
Hamilton exists at the intersection of our own American history and our current obsessions with our own legacies. In the twenty-first century, we are constantly updating and sharing our stories, constantly curating them for public consumption via social media. With the ability to share and record every thought, memory, and experience with the push of a “Share” button, the thought of the historical figures in Hamilton, so influential to the birth of our nation, fading away speaks to us in an unsettling and primal way. With their stories and parallel falls out of the narrative, the Peggy Schuyler’s and Maria Reynolds’ of our world are not uncommon. By casting the same actor to play both roles, Hamilton’s creators certainly establish an instant investment for an audience and, in so doing, highlight our own fears of being misrepresented and forgotten when we are gone. When I watch Hamilton, between belting out the songs along with the original cast, I can’t help but think about all of the other voices stifled by history. Of course, with a majority of cast the cast POC, many of whom I’d imagine have family histories that wouldn’t be traceable back to Hamilton’s lifetime, this is no coincidence on the creators’ parts. On the stage, Manuel’s Hamilton shows a diverse America where voices of every race, gender, and sexuality come together and tell a fragment of our collective story. It shows a beautiful place where we are all welcome to share in the pain and the joy of the American Experiment and hope that in its new phase, we will hear more from more voices; a place where we are all invited to contribute to our country’s narrative. Perhaps, with the digital age upon us and the ability to share so readily at hand, the new story and national identity we forge will reflect the lives and experiences of everyone. Hamilton’s story matters, of course. So does Eliza’s. But let’s not forget about Maria…and Peggy!