Hamilton: An American Musical is arguably and by all measures the most popular theater piece of the last one hundred years.
The musical has moved beyond Broadway and entered the coveted sphere of popular culture, a rare feat for theater these days. This includes a performance on the 2016 Grammy Awards and a Rolling Stone cover story.
All elements of this show function together at the height of their forms to create a singular artistic vision. This includes, but is not limited to: the depth of the lyrics, the pitch-perfect pacing, the spare stage that seamlessly functions as multiple settings, and the choreography that tells the story in a way that the only movement can communicate.
And then there is the sociological power of having people of color taking back a piece of our country’s narrative, a history that has previously belonged exclusively to the white majority.
The fact that there are children (dubbed #Hamilkids in the currency of the internet) who are growing up seeing a portrait of George Washington as a statuesque black man makes this an art piece that impacts beyond the four walls of the theater it inhabits. Suffice it to say, the fervor is well deserved.
“There is the sociological power of having people of color taking back a piece of our country’s narrative.”
It should be noted that Hamilton: An American Musical has the record for the most lyrics ever in a Broadway musical, totaling more than 20,000 words, which equates to about 144 words per minute. Given the depth and breadth of the musical, there is so much material and so much to parse.
I will leave the historical evaluations and theater criticisms to others and will focus on one small slice of this American masterpiece: the psychological narrative of Hamilton’s alternating emotional state.
As his friend-turned-adversary, Aaron Burr asks in “Non-Stop”, backed by his signature island rhythms, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”
Here is a man, Alexander Hamilton, who writes so prolifically that he outpaces his contemporaries in creating the Federalist Papers. Of the Federalist Paper’s three writers and their collective 85 essays, Hamilton is credited with authoring 51 of them. It’s no doubt that Hamilton routinely stayed up through the night to work. Having so much of Hamilton’s writing to work with, lyricist Lin Manuel Miranda was forced to have his musicalized portrayal of the Founding Father rap. Rap is, simply put, a more efficient form of song and therefore the only way to fit in even a small portion of Hamilton’s words.
Alexander Hamilton had the first known lap desk fashioned for him so that he could continue to work throughout a boat or carriage journey while his peers were content to travel in repose. This seminal man even managed to have an affair while creating so many of the documents that laid the foundation for our country—without ever faltering in his productivity.
As psychologists, we identify the symptoms of mania to include grandiose beliefs, increased sexual activity, racing thoughts, increased energy, and decreased need for sleep. Sounds a lot like our man, Hamilton.
He also suffered from documented periods of depression.
Granted, life was hard. As a child, he lost his mother lying next to him in their shared sick bed. As a father, he lost his beloved son Philip at the age of 19 to a duel.
However, in Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, there is a delineation between his feelings of despair and his grief, a depressive state that extends beyond his losses. Chernow describes a man prone to depths of mood and “prey to depression.”
In Hamilton, we see an individual who was driven by manic energy and then encased by darkness.
Today, this is what mental health professionals categorize as Type I Bipolar Disorder, classified by manic episodes followed by periods of depression.
Although I am hesitant to make any definitive statements about the diagnosis of a historical figure, viewing Hamilton through this lens may be a helpful framework for understanding why, and how, he wrote like he was running out of time.
“In Hamilton, we see an individual who was driven by manic energy and then encased by darkness.”
Hamilton, like millions of people living with Bipolar Disorder contemporarily, lived a productive and full life. If you or someone you love is struggling with symptoms of mania or depression, please check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness for support and resources.