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Historicizing, Theatre

1776 and the Perils of Historical Performance

Yesterday the federal government shut down, and in honor of the occasion I went to see a play about how our government almost failed to begin. I’m talking about 1776, a musical play about our Founding Fathers, finishing its last week at ACT. 1776 is one of those musicals you tell people you’re going to see, and they respond, “Really?” It’s not particularly noteworthy, there are no famous standalone songs, and the material seems a bit, well, unsophisticated. A musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence? Really?

But it was actually quite fun, the staging dynamic, and above all, it provides a  case study into something that merges my two main interests: historical representation onstage.

“The historical truth”

The program contains several essays. The director’s note connects the Declaration of Independence to Lincoln and Obama; another essay gives some historical background to the Second Continental Congress. But a quote from the essay on the musical itself particularly caught my eye:

Sherman Edward and Peter Stone [composer/lyricist and book author, respectively] allow that creative licenses are often taken in creating historical drama, but none of them in 1776 “has done anything to alter the historical truth of the characters, the times, or the events of American independence.”

Written by director Frank Galati, the essay goes on to list several historical details noted in the script’s afterward, such as John Adams being “obnoxious and disliked” and Jefferson being in charge of the daily weather report. Galati then points out how there narrative changes were made for “dramatic and aesthetic” reasons.

Why yes indeed I did instagram my program

Why yes indeed I did instagram my program

Note the way the director seems to define such accuracy: as the weaving in anecdotes and trivia. (I will discuss this a bit more below.) Once attention to detail is asserted, it stands to reason that the alterations merely “dramatic and aesthetic.” There is nothing wrong with dramatic and aesthetic alteration; frankly, life moves in far too sloppy and slow a fashion to be recreated beat-for-beat in any interesting form. (Except for Big Brother fans, apparently). But in claiming deviations were made only for these purposes, the creators insinuate that there is a clear, correct and definitive narrative from which to deviate. It subscribes the idea of history as “Just the facts, ma’am,” as if there were no larger debates and complexities needed to be reckoned with.

Useless men

The first line of the play was frustratingly relevant. John Adams appears in front of the curtains and quips:

I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm; and that three or more become a Congress!

The statement immediately drew cheers and groans and the San Francisco theatre community took a moment to reflect on our own company of fools. It was a moment for us all to bond with the Founders.

Our hero - a rather dour looking man

Our hero – a rather dour looking man

It may also have been inaccurate. A quote often attributed to John Adams but is classified as “Misattributed” on WikiQuote. The John Adams Heritage society lacks a specific citation for it, but asserts it to be genuine. In any case, is provides an apt example of one of the main uses of history in theatre: to comment on the present.

The most famous example of historical analogy is undoubtedly Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which uses the Salem Witch Trials to comment on McCarthyism. Every historical work, be it a play or a monument or an academic text, is a product of several era: the era it documents, the era in which it was created, and the era that views it. (Lies Across America, which I discussed in my last post, makes excellent arguments on this idea.) It may have been pure coincidence that I saw this play on a day perfectly exemplary of the opening line, but that in no way lessens the fact that history was being used in the present.

A more dramatic example of this was the discussion of slavery. In 1776,  a dramatic showdown in Act II depicts the complicated and often hypocritical relationship every colony maintained with the system. Jefferson is called out for his own slave-holding ways. This scene was not historically accurate, but it allowed for a discussion of the flaws and hypocrisy of the early American leaders. The play was written in 1969, and although I do not know much about the creators’ politics, one can only surmise they were affected by the Civil Rights movement. Clearly, the discussion of slavery differed greatly from one that would have been written pre-Martin Luther King. (Remember Gone With the Wind?)

The play also assigns certain morals and values to individuals, casting some as heroes and others as almost-villains. (Almost because they aren’t quite – more like antagonists.) The main heroes – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson – are fiercely if hypocritically anti-slavery. As the “heroes” they must abide by our current values and beliefs, where as the characters – such as the delegate from South Carolina – who do not align with contemporary values are easily recognizable as antagonists. Although these presentations may reflect characteristics of the actual men, the fact that the writers chose to highlight this fight as the climax indicates a level of historical interpretation. This debate between slavery and American ideals would resonate much more with a modern audience than would a complex and less appealing discussion of economic rights.

Forgetting the Ladies

There are two female characters in the play: Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson. Wives of two of the most famous men in history. And we never forget that.

Abigail Adams is perhaps one of the most famous first ladies. She’s known for being

Abigail disapproves

Abigail disapproves

intelligent and political; she is most remembered for her passion for women’s rights. But in 1776, she mainly functions as… John’s wife. True, she comes across as confident and strong, but the main purpose she plays is to provide some kind of anchor for her husband. When he falters near the end, she reminds him that he once preached to her about the importance of commitment; this reminder rejuvenates his vigor for the last negotiations. Note that she herself does not provide a source of strength or principles: rather, she is a reflection of his strength and his principles. All she does is reiterate to him what he already believes.

Even more of an affront: how can you put Abigail Adams onstage in a play about the founding of the United States and never once have her say, “Remember the ladies”?

At least Abigail gets a bit more personality than poor Martha Jefferson. She is mute for her entire first scene while her husband kisses her; her only speaking scene involves her singing a song about his violin playing. Basically she only serves to further her husband’s character. And it’s not even subtle: according to Wikipedia summary of the printed version of the play

The play’s authors invented the scene “to show something of the young Jefferson’s life without destroying the unity of setting.”

This belittlement of the ladies contributes to one main complication in dramatic historical narratives – the way stories shape our historical memory.


In many ways, 1776 reminded me of Lincoln. They’re both about the high level of history: the “great men” who made proclamations and wrote documents that changed the world. And they both have basis in fact. But by making them the center of the narrative, these pieces disregard the many other cogs in the history.

1776 does feature a heartbreaking solo by a soldier, considered to be the representative of the “real people” and the “real world.” His appearance sharpens the critique on the members of Congress who can’t get anything done about the real world. But he is a representation of all real men, whereas the Congressmen are representations of themselves: the play clearly emphasizes the leaders and importance of their responsibilities. The play ends with the signing of the Declaration (spoiler!) and the characters relaxing into a painting-like pose, indicating that they are the ones history remembers.

This doesn’t mean that 1776 and Lincoln should be completely scrapped. They are both very specific and unapologetic in their scope, and that is perfectly fine. But both the creators and consumers of such plays and films should remember to be skeptical and perceptive. A work of art is never objective, exhaustive or perfectly accurate; no human creation, including academic texts, ever is. It’s always an interpretation.


Congress Voting Independence, a depiction of the Second Continental Congress voting on the United States Declaration of Independence.

Image citations:

John Adams: Asher Brown Durand [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Abigail Adams: Gilbert Stuart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Congress: By “Edward Savage and/or Robert Edge Pine” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



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