More swirling thoughts on Hamilton from the recesses of my brain, this time coming to you from my dad’s hospital room, where we are waiting out serious lung complications after what should have been a pretty routine surgery. Typing with latex gloves on, so forgive the blunders and thanks for the distraction!
Much has been made of the character of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, portrayed on stage by the almost ridiculously lovely Phillipa Soo. Some even suggest that–especially given that she closes out the whole damn show with a list that’s three miles long (no doubt) of all the crap she did after everyone else died–that the arguably ambiguous title Hamilton is supposed to signal she is the hero of the story as much as Alexander is. For reasons rambled on upon at great length elsewhere, I think it’s clear almost by definition that Alexander is our hero. But regardless of how, precisely, you categorize her role, there’s no denying that Eliza’s an incredibly important character, and the one whose development is, perhaps, more quietly interesting than anyone else’s.
I hadn’t thought much about this on my first 10,000 listens to the album–I took her for granted as the virtuous foil to A. Ham as well as Angelica (if Angelica is dazzling the room, Eliza must, by contrast, be full of boring if lovely domestic virtue/nagging, yes?)–until I listened to the excellent Theater People podcast interview with Soo. When asked about the song “Burn,” which seriously still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it, Soo talks about the trajectory of Eliza as a character, saying that she’d had a “slow burn” going over the course of the whole show.
I mean, of course I’d noticed Eliza’s increasing frustration with Alexander (that desperate bum, bum, bum…Alexander… Bum, bum, bum…Alexander! In Non-Stop), which peaks with “Burn,” apparently simmers down into forgiveness in “Quiet Uptown” (though in fact she doesn’t speak in that song at all), and ultimately glows into romanticized adoration in the finale.
But what I had not noticed until I started listening just for her was the subtle tension between how we assume she is, how the people surrounding her tell us she is, maybe even how she thinks she is…and what her words tell us about her.
In “Satisfied,” older sister Angelica spins Alexander and Eliza’s romance as basically a tale of her own sacrifice: “And I know she’ll be happy as his bride / And I know he will never be satisfied, I will never be satisfied.” But you know? Actually, ambitious as they are, Alexander and Angelica both get more or less exactly what they want, or, failing that, at least more or less exactly what they expect. Their life goes according to their own plan–even down to Alexander’s sense from the very beginning that he’s destined to die young. If to be satisfied is to experience the alignment of one’s expectations with one’s reality, they’ve got it. By that definition, it’s Eliza, in fact, who will never (ever, ever, ever) be satisfied.
Take “That Would be Enough.” Rap Genius tells us that in this song “we see contrast between Hamilton, who “will never be Satisfied,” despite his spectacular political accomplishments, and his wife Eliza, who is content with the love of her family.” Yeah, that is what I assumed, too. For months. But now look–really look! Every time Eliza says, “that would be enough,” she raises the stakes–because actually the thing she just said won’t cut it:
- Just stay alive
- If this child shares a fraction of your smile or a fragment of your mind, look out world!
- As long as you come home at the end of the day
- If I could grant you peace of mind, if you could let me inside your heart
- Oh let me be a part of the narrative…
- I could be enough
- We could be enough
She starts by placing herself on the sidelines: it’s all about (1) Alexander’s safety. And then about (2) her dreams for a healthy, beautiful, brilliant child. But, it seems, that’s actually not enough. She doesn’t just want Alexander alive, (3) she wants him home, present, in her life on a daily basis. And (4) she wants to be the one to help him be his best and happiest self, wait, not just that, (5) she also wants to be a real part of his work building America, too, oh wait, forget the work altogether, and the kid too, actually (6) SHE alone wants to be enough for him, full stop. But that, perhaps, is a bridge too far, and she knows it, so she pulls back. (7) Ok, we could be enough, she concedes, and that would be enough–she’s reassuring herself here, perhaps, as much as she is him.
For months I saw her part in this song as more or less repetitive–a dance between Alexander being pulled away and Eliza anchoring him at home. And there is that. But theres also this arc inside the song, where she is negotiating with him and with herself: what would, actually, be enough? She’s not sure. Unlike her counterparts, she doesn’t really have a plan for he life–“Angelica, remind me what we’re looking for?” She kind of goes with the flow and responds to what happens, as it happens. What’s interesting, then, is how we see her shifting and shaping and feeling her way as she goes. She knows what she thinks she should want, what should be enough for her–safe husband, healthy child–but it’s not. She’s told us already that’s she’s never been the one to try to grab the spotlight–that she does her thing from the side of the ballroom. But she’s not, in fact, happy there. Even if she can’t quite admit it to herself, she really wants to be at heart of the story.
In Non-Stop, then, when she asks, frantically, “isn’t this enough?” she may well be asking herself, as well as asking Alexander: he lived. The baby thrives. The war is done. Her husband is a brilliant success. So: why isn’t this all enough for him? But also, why is this all not enough for her?
The second act is basically the systematic undoing of the itemized list of things she said she wanted in the first act:
- We (she, Philip, their family) will not be enough for him (“Take a Break”)
- She (his wife) will not be enough for him (“Say No to This”).
- No, he will not let her be a part of the narrative: in “Schuyler Defeated,” she finds out what’s going on in the Senate via the newspaper–she doesn’t hear it from him (“I’m sure he already knows”). In “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” Alexander turns his own life inside out without regard for the impact it will have on her. And of course, in “Burn,” as she tells us, she takes herself out of it altogether.
- She cannot grant him peace of mind–only he can write his way out (“Hurricane”)
- Even if he comes home at the end of the day, he’s not really there. And he most certainly will not join them upstate (“Take a Break”)
- The fact that their child does share “a fraction of his smile and a fragment of his mind” will turn out to be his undoing. (“Stay Alive,” reprise)
- And of course, A.Ham himself will very much not stay alive.
She goes silent for a long time after Philip’s death (“Alexander did you know?”), not popping back up again until “Best of Wives.” This is a touching moment, revealing the comfortable marriage that A and E have ultimately settled into, but also this: Eliza has spent most of her time onstage asking Alexander to do things, negotiating with him. And this song is no exception–except for the ending: “Well, I’m going back to bed.” It’s quiet, it’s loving, but she’s done now with waiting around to see what he’ll do.
And it all comes together in Who Lives Who Dies…. The company brings her to the forefront, but she won’t consciously place herself there yet. She still puts everything she does in the context of what she thinks Alexander would have wanted. She’s still playing the role of “best of wives,” even as she does, at this point, pretty much whatever the hell she wants. Finally though–as Soo describes in that interview above, really, go listen!–she caves with…”Oh-can I show you what I’m proudest of?” THE ORRRRRPHANAGE! (Cue mad weeping.)
And then? At last! We hear her admit what she really wants: “Will they tell MY story?”
Angelica and Alexander seem to know the end of their own stories from the start. They’re glittery, clever, and charismatic, and they each comfortably slip into the lead role in their own lives, playing everything out as planned. Eliza, though, is writing the story as she goes–she erases herself from the narrative, then she puts herself back in again. She changes the game. And that’s what makes her so great.