‘Hamilton’ and the Great American Romance: Act 3

In the previous entry of “Hamilton and the Great American Romance,” we talked a little about the flaws of our leads. Eliza is too passive, Hamilton is too greedy, and that fundamental conflict lies at the very heart of their relationship. Eliza yearns to be enough for Hamilton, but as we learned in the first entry, he’s not a man who is easily satisfied. Now, the two have been married for some time. The war is over, they have children together, and life has settled down into a routine. Alexander is Secretary of the Treasury, fighting with Congress and working hard, while Eliza is raising their children.

Which leads directly to the first song of act three of this subplot…

In “Take A Break,” we return to the Hamilton family. Alexander has been working hard, Eliza has been raising their children seemingly alone, and with Congress out for the summer, she wants the family to spend time with her father in upstate New York. Philip, their oldest son, is coming of age

In a healthy relationship, this might lead to a compromise. Eliza could spend part of the summer with him in the city; Alexander could head north once his business is done. But as we’ve established, Eliza just wants Alexander to want to be with her, and Alexander just wants to keep gaining power and influence. It’s a fundamental disconnect in their relationship, with neither side willing to see where the other side is coming from, and this leads to the big turn in this act.

Before I delve into that, though, I wanted to take a minute to acknowledge one of my favorite little side-plots in this relationship drama. From Angelica:

In a letter I received from you two weeks ago
I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase
It changed the meaning. Did you intend this?
One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days
It says:
“My dearest Angelica”
With a comma after “dearest.” You’ve written
“My dearest, Angelica.”

Anyway, all this to say
I’m coming home this summer
At my sister’s invitation
I’ll be there with your fam’ly
If you make your way upstate

It should not surprise you to note that I’m someone who has a tendency to get caught up in my own head. Flirting is riddled with so many potential mixed signals and uncertain motivations, and, after I meet someone I’m interested in, I have a tendency to replay our conversation or text over and over and over in my head, looking for that one little clue, that one snippet of an idea that suggests she might be interested.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Renée Elise Goldsberry capture that feeling perfectly here, the hope and confusion that even something as small as a misplaced comma can engender. With even that tiny sign, all the sudden Angelica is coming to visit for a whole summer. Sure, she has zero chill, but I’ve been Angelica here, hoping against all odds that some little slip-up meant so much more than it could have, leaping at the chance.

Sadly, she’s wrong. Just like Hamilton dove back into battle while his wife was pregnant, family time and a visit from Angelica can’t keep him upstate when he has important work to do. We know that Hamilton is never satisfied, so it should be no surprise that he chooses work over his family. He pushes people away when they get in the way of his ambition. But no man is an island, and on his own in the city, Alexander is particularly vulnerable…

This old-school slow jam is about temptation and seduction. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this song is that it suggests that Burr knows Alexander better than Alexander knows himself. In “Wait For It,” Burr describes Alexander as someone who takes and takes and exhibits no restraint, while Alexander likes to think of himself as someone who is in control of himself. Which is why “Say No To This,” is an essential song to his arc, the song where all his brains and talent and connections couldn’t help paper over

I wish I could say that was the last time.
I said that last time. It became a pastime

He knows what he’s doing is wrong. He knows he should stop, that this could have awful ramifications, that it’s wrong. He wants to say know. But… well, Hamilton is never satisfied. He exhibits no restraint. He takes and he takes and he takes. Burr, for all his flaws, remains an insightful man. Alexander has gotten this far by leaping at any and every opportunity that came his way; why should he react any differently to this one, regardless of the consequences?

Well, perhaps because, in politics, nothing stays secret forever.

Hamilton’s many political enemies have gathered against him, and it didn’t take them long to discover his secret. Or, at least, what they thought his secret was. Searching for a reason to go after him politically, they think they’ve stumbled on an example of Hamilton embezzling money from the U.S. Government, abusing his position as Secretary of the Treasury. Unbeknownst to them, it was all Alexander’s own money, meant to pay off a blackmailer for his affair.

Well, unbeknownst to them until Alexander tells them. In explicit detail. Sure, telling a group of his political rivals about an affair and the subsequent blackmail is easily recognized as an awful idea, but as Hamilton himself points out: It doesn’t sully his name the way treason would. It lets him stay in the game, maintain his cabinet post

Or it would, if he played his cards right. What he does next, well…

It’s almost difficult to pick out just one fatal flaw for Alexander Hamilton. He’s greedy, lusty, angry, proud – put him in the pantheon of great modern anti-heroes with Walter White, Tony Soprano, and Rebecca Bunch. But, time and time and time again, it’s his pride that’s caused the most trouble, and in “Hurricane,” we see why.

Alexander is a great writer and a brilliant man. I’ve known a lot of very smart people and a lot of very talented writers, and some – not all, but some – of them share a specific trait: They think they can talk their way out of anything. Alexander has more evidence than most, as he discusses in “Hurricane”: Poor and on the verge of death in the Caribbean, he wrote so eloquently and powerfully that townspeople, not themselves wealthy, donated money to help him get to America and get educated. He wrote his way out. Why couldn’t he do it again? If anything, he is now a better arguer, a smarter, more experienced man with more resources. If he could write his way out of poverty, why not write his way out of this affair?

Nevermind that what he did was absolutely wrong, and a betrayal of Eliza. To Hamilton, this is a problem, and he has a talent for solving problems. He married a woman far above his station on the strength of his letters. His words pushed Congress to lend more support to George Washington, helped argue against crown loyalists in the press, helped him set up a financial system unlike anything else at the time. When he had a problem, he could always write his way out of it. But what he misses is that this isn’t a problem looking for a solution. He made a genuine mistake. He did something wrong. And there’s a limit to the amount of goodwill people have for that sort of thing.

If the first act of a five-act story introduces us to the characters and world and the second act complicates those relationships, the place of the third act is to really kick the conflict off hard. Here is where characters make the decisions based on those character traits that really kick these conflicts into high gear. It’s when Eliza’s passivity gets the best of her – she’s going to spend the summer relaxing with family regardless of what Alexander needs to do professionally. It’s when Alexander’s ambition runs roughshod over the rest of his life – deciding to spend the summer alone, he enters into an ill-advised affair… and then decides to blow everything in his personal life up in order to keep his political life viable.

The third act, then, is where the story pivots. This would be, in many ways, a fitting conclusion: Alexander, through his various flaws, destroys all his relationships because he was… well, in the words of the show, non-stop. But one reason I like the 5-act structure for storytelling is that it basically gives us two climaxes. This is a huge moment, a game-changing flaw that seriously amps up the drama. But it’s not the end. We’ve got two more acts to go….

Hamilton and the Great American Romance: Act 1
Hamilton and the Great American Romance: Act 2

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