It, perhaps surprised no one, but the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album went to “Hamilton.” However, it gives me another opportunity to repeat what a wonderful show it is. At the award ceremony, the cast of the show, who all appear to be the same people who were in the show when I saw it on Broadway a few months ago, performed the opening number, “Alexander Hamilton.” It tells of Hamilton’s early life prior to his arrival in New York. Born in “a forgotten spot in the middle of the Caribbean,” abandoned by his father, his mother died of a fever when he was less than thirteen years of age, leaving Hamilton impoverished. Hamilton was then taken in by a cousin who committed suicide. He found employment as a clerk with an import export company. “A hurricane came and devastation reigned.” The self-educated seventeen-year-old wrote an article about the storm for a Danish-American newspaper which drew attention for its style. Community leaders “took up a collection just to send him to the mainland” to get an education. The play starts as Hamilton arrives in New York.

I’m embedding this version because WordPress doesn’t seem to accommodate videos from sources other than YouTube. You can really get the sense of how well the “rap” style works in the play. It doesn’t come across as gimmicky at all.

The new play, China Doll, “is the story of a man of means, ready to walk away from it all to start a new life with his young fiancée.” This sounds like exactly the sort of story I would normally avoid. The title doesn’t help any, either. However, it was written by David Mamet and starring Al Pacino, so I thought it was worth giving it a chance.

Since the play is still in previews and over a week from the opening, this shouldn’t really be taken as a “review.” I’ve been trying to get tickets for plays as close to the opening as possible, that wasn’t a choice for this one. Sometimes, you go to a preview and it feels like everything is set and other times it feels like it could develop a bit since. This could get better.

On the other hand, the play is hobbled by the writing. Unless there are some major changes to the script, there’s a ceiling on how much better it could get.

Al Pacino is being savaged in the press. Most of it seems to be based on the same October 29th piece from The New York Post which reports that Pacino can’t remember his lines. I didn’t, myself, notice this during the play. In a piece of the usual internet garbage, in which website writers don’t bother to learning anything new but just repeat what they’ve read on the internet, Maxim turns The Post’s report that Pacino can’t remember his lines to Pacino won’t remember his lines. As someone who has directed plays, that is a tremendously different statement to make about an actor, especially when the play is essentially one long monologue and still in previews. Furthermore, Maxim’s writer Killoran says, “Let this be a lesson to Broadway casting directors that maybe it’s better to hire actual theater actors than movie stars.” I, for one, am far more sick of writers that don’t know what they’re writing about than of movie stars on Broadway. Pacino started as a theatre actor and has a pretty solid theatre resume. The play’s bad, but Pacino doesn’t quite deserve this level of criticism. It’s probably because a lot of people will go to see this because Pacino’s in it and that makes it feel natural to direct your annoyance at him.

It’s the writing.

It’s always the fucking writing. Years ago, I came to the conclusion that if you have a weak script all the good acting and good directing is just a matter of throwing good money after bad. I had the distinct impression that Mamet had a core idea, a character, a basic scenario, but was not able to develop it into a fully realized play. The macho rhythm that comes off almost as poetry that Mamet is known for is only there in spurts. The lines, frankly, are not memorable. Thematically, it’s about how men use politics and business as a form of fighting to establish dominance.

It is staged as a two person play. In the beginning of the play, the main character, Mickey Ross, is upset about the possibility of paying tax on a new plane he has just purchased and is trying to figure a way to get out of it. This goes on for a while, with Ross alternately yelling into the phone and yelling at his assistant. At one point, he gives the assistant a speech about how business is a form of fighting between men and how it is conducted. At one point, I was wondering if it was going to get more interesting than being a play about a rich man who doesn’t want to pay tax. It did. The stakes get much higher and by intermission I was interested how it would develop.

The second act entirely dropped the ball. The ending was ill-fitting and hard to swallow. On the way out of the door, I could hear many of the other theatre goers saying that the ending was awful.

Although it’s clearly a vehicle for Pacino, Mamet says he wrote it for him, the assistant character should have been more clearly developed. I don’t know whether to blame the writer, director or the actor. Probably all three are at fault. A better development of the assistant character might have made the ending seem less hapless. The whole thing feels as if Mamet got himself into a particular position and didn’t quite know what to do.

Mamet has an interesting take on human nature. As a cynic, I can be very sympathetic to his point of view. But in China Doll, his insights only get us a scenario and a character. His lack of emotional depth keeps us from really giving a damn about the character. I don’t want to give away the ending, but, ironically, it feels like Mamet didn’t have the balls to do what he had to do to make his script work. In the dog eat dog world of male dominance that Mamet explores, older men eventually must lose to the younger men. That’s just how the life goes. It felt that Mamet, an older, successful man himself, lacks the courage to look death in the eye. He blinks and loses.

Theatre reviewing is turning out to be a lot harder than I thought. Originally, I was hoping to see the show and write up a review immediately afterward like a bona fide make-believe reviewer. Dawn came up and I was still writing so I had to break it into parts one and two.

Some people have called Hamilton a “rap opera.” That is not quite accurate since hip hop is only one of several musical styles that the writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, utilizes. As for the opera half of the phrase “rap opera,” if you accept Anthony Tommasini’s distinction, “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first,” then it would seem that Hamilton might fall on the musical theatre side of the line. While there are few, if any, lines of spoken prose, and recurring musical themes permeate the score to make if feel more musically unified than a typical musical, the words remain paramount. Both the book and the score were written by Miranda, and they form an integrated whole. Ultimately, the line is thin and the distinction is academic, but to my mind it fits comfortably in the tradition of Broadway musicals.

The musical was inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Miranda says that while he was reading the book he felt that songs were just coming off the page and the finished product still retains the excitement of that initial inspiration. Scores have always been written using the musical forms of their time no matter what the era of the subject might be, and we should be no more surprised to find elements of hip hop in a musical about a founder of the United States than we should to find elements of 1970s pop accompanying a story about Pepin the Hunchback or Jesus Christ. The rap form does give Miranda a wonderful advantage at many points. The point is made throughout the musical that Alexander Hamilton wrote a torrent of words throughout his life. A line that repeats is “why do you write like you’re running out of time?” Hip hop allows Miranda to give musical form to this torrent of words. The conceit of staging the opposing viewpoints of Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson as a “rap battle” during a meeting of George Washington’s cabinet works very well and allow us to hear the substance of the argument in a way that is in keeping with the musical and remains entertaining.

Besides writing the words and music, Miranda also plays the lead role of Alexander Hamilton. This could have felt too much like one man’s show if it hadn’t been for the prominence of the character of Aaron Burr.

Leslie Odom Jr., along with the ensemble, opens the show with the song “Alexander Hamilton” which summarizes Hamilton’s beginnings, “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman.” At the end of the song he says, “And I’m the fool who shot him.” (I’m quoting from memory, so please forgive inaccuracies.) It was momentarily jarring to see what a prominent place Burr had been given in the story. However, Odom’s dynamic, but smooth and polished, Burr proves a necessary ballast for Miranda’s impetuous Hamilton. Odom delivers what may become the classic lines for a politician:

Talk less.
Smile more.
Don’t let them know
what you’re against
or what you’re for.

Miranda is far from the first to see Hamilton and Burr as a study in contrasts. In most retellings of the story, Burr suffers from the comparison. Although this is Hamilton’s story and he gets by far the largest share of our sympathy, by giving Burr such a prominent place he keeps him from becoming a cardboard villain. (An interesting titbit I recently learned: Aaron Burr was the grandson of the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards.)

Telling an historical story is inevitably an act of interpretation. In recent years, conservatives have been especially active in promoting an interpretation of the founding years of the United States in a way that supportive of their current goals. While Miranda’s play does not make any overt references to the positions of current political parties, it most certainly has a point of view, and not one that the extreme right will find useful. Miranda makes much out of the fact that Hamilton was an immigrant, including an embarrassing high-five with the Marquis de Lafayette, whom I had never heard called an immigrant before since he was only here temporarily.

Another point that is highlighted in Miranda’s version is the importance of the orderly transfer of power that occurs when Washington steps aside. Perhaps it stood out to me because I’ve many times thought that an under-appreciated moment in U.S. history was when, at the close of the Revolution, “some political factions wanted Washington to become the new nation’s king. His modesty in declining the offer and resigning his military post at the end of the war fortified the republican foundations of the new nation.” (Source.) Miranda does not cover that moment, but he does include the fact that George Washington declined to run for a third term. Hamilton is credited by Miranda with being the principal author of Washington’s Farewell Address and, as Washington tells Hamilton some of the points he would like to make, many in the audience will recognize points like a warning against foreign entanglements from high school.

I haven’t taken the opportunity to check the historical accuracy on most points. One that did make me wonder was the prominence of Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry. I couldn’t help wondering if he had exaggerated her importance in order to have some balance between the sexes. According to Wikipedia, it seems that he may have actually downplayed it.

Angelica never failed to enchant the famous, intelligent men she met; and in Paris she soon befriended the venerable Benjamin Franklin, U.S. Ambassador to France. She also developed lasting friendships with Franklin’s successor, Thomas Jefferson, and with the Marquis de Lafayette.

Besides her extensive correspondence with Hamilton which is mentioned in the play, she also had an ongoing correspondence with Jefferson. Goldsberry brings to the role, along with a stunning voice, a necessary intelligence and charm.

Many news articles on the show have fixated on the hip hop musical elements and the multiracial cast which I think is a shame. I’ve already mentioned that musicals have always reflected the music of the times in which they were written. In 2015, I would hope that open casting would no longer be an interesting topic. Back sometime around 1988 a friend once said to me that the worst thing about being a black actor was knowing that he could never play Iago. I thought of him a few months ago when I read that the Royal Shakespeare Company had cast Lucian Msamati as Iago in this year’s production of Othello. Can we stop raising our eyebrows now? The fixation on these two elements makes the show sound gimmicky, and that is a very wrong impression to have. It feels fresh and original, but it is a not simply a novelty.

The ensemble is notably tight. The choreography is highly competent.

The direction, the costuming and the scenic design all worked very well to support the story. I thought the lighting design was excellent.

It’s really no surprise that this is the hot new play.

The second biographical musical I’ve seen within a month, Hamilton is a new musical which has recently moved to Broadway from the Public Theater. Its official opening is on August 6th. I know I have quite a few visitors who are not from the United States and who therefore might not be familiar with Alexander Hamilton. The first secretary of the treasury hardly sounds like an inspiring title. However discussions of the early years of the U.S. government and differing factions that fought to shape the nation are often labeled “Jeffersonian”, after the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, and “Hamiltonian.” U.S. students are a generally require to read The Federalist Papers, in order to understand the ideas that lay behind the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The Federalist Papers consist of 85 short articles, two-thirds of which were written by Hamilton.

Hamilton was born out-of-wedlock on the island of Nevis in the West Indies. When his mother died, he was left without any money or property with the exception of her books. Later, while working as a clerk on the island of Saint Croix, local community leaders who were impressed with his writing ability raised money to send him to the colonies on the North American mainland to be educated. He attended King’s College in New York which is now Columbia University, where he took up the revolutionary cause, writing in its favor.

Keeping the story brief, he joined the Revolutionary Army and became General Washington’s aide. He also fought and was considered a hero.

On July 31, 1781, Washington… assigned Hamilton as commander of a New York light infantry battalion. In the planning for the assault on Yorktown, Hamilton was given command of three battalions, which were to fight in conjunction with the allied French troops in taking Redoubts No. 9 and No. 10 of the British fortifications at Yorktown. Hamilton and his battalions fought bravely and took Redoubt No. 10 with bayonets in a nighttime action, as planned. The French also fought bravely, suffered heavy casualties, and took Redoubt No. 9. These actions forced the British surrender of an entire army at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively ending their major British military operations in North America.

He was a founding member of the New York Manumission Society.

During the war, the colonies had operated under an agreement known as The Articles of Confederation. After the war, it continued to serve as a constitution, but it failed because the central government was too weak. (Here, again, I’m trying to be brief. A full discussion of the pros and cons of the Articles of Confederation is beyond a blog post, let alone a theatre review.) Hamilton was among those who argued for a new constitution and was a delegate from New York for the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

The constitution needed to be ratified by the states and gaining support of the state of New York was key. It was to persuade New Yorkers to support the new constitution that Hamilton, along with James Madison and John Jay, wrote the Federalist Papers.

George Washington became president in 1789 and later that year appointed Hamilton as secretary of the treasury. According to Ron Chernow who wrote the biography which inspired the musical,

In 1789, George Washington tapped the thirty-four-year-old Hamilton as the first Treasury secretary. With its tax collectors and customs inspectors, Hamilton’s Treasury Department eclipsed in size the rest of the federal government combined, making him something akin to a prime minister. Drawing on a blank slate, Hamilton arose as the visionary architect of the executive branch, forming from scratch the first fiscal, monetary, tax, and accounting systems. In quick succession, he assembled the Coast Guard, the customs service, and the Bank of the United States—the first central bank and the forerunner of the Federal Reserve System. Most significantly, he took a country bankrupted by revolutionary war debt and restored American credit. All the while, he articulated an expansive vision of the Constitution, converting it into an elastic document that could grow with a dynamic young country.

Various scandals, most notably a sex scandal, hampered his career.

He is credited with by some as the author of Washington’s “Farewell Address,” as speech which is covered in U.S. high schools. At the very least he aided Washington in its composition.

The election of 1800 resulted in a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The decision was then turned over to the U.S. House of Representatives and Hamilton was instrumental in Jefferson becoming president.

Quoting Chernow again:

One reason Hamilton was vilified by his enemies is that they feared him as an agent of modernity at a time when his Jeffersonian opponents espoused an American future that stressed traditional agriculture and small towns. In a stupendous leap, Hamilton argued for a thriving nation populated by cities, banks, corporations, and stock exchanges as well as traditional agriculture. In his famous Report on Manufactures, he enumerated how government could foster manufacturing and provide employment for immigrants. He shaped, in a virtuoso performance, America’s financial infrastructure in its entirety. On the Wall Street of the early 1790s, only five securities were traded: three issues of Treasury securities, the stock of the Bank of the United States, and the stock of the private Bank of New York—all created by Alexander Hamilton.

Well, I hope I answered the question, “Who the heck is Alexander Hamilton and why would anyone make a play about him?”

I’m going to have to invoke my right as a blogger to be unprofessional. I was hoping to see the play and write a review immediately afterward. I see, as usual, I’ve gotten a little sidetracked and I’m going to have to finish it tomorrow because I’m sleepy after staying up all night trying to write this. So, two quick things before I try to get a little nap…

Historical accuracy –

Off the top of my head, drawing on previous knowledge, it passes the smell test. I haven’t done any research to double-check, but it seemed to jive with what I already know. Two minor quibbles. Gouverneur Morris was not included as a character. Morris was one of the principal authors of the U.S. Constitution and a close friend of Hamilton. Also, the play seems to imply a closer relationship between Burr and Hamilton than I was aware of. Certainly, they were both lawyers in New York City, which had a population of less than 24,000 in 1786, they were both involved in politics and their paths must have crossed regularly, but were they as familiar as they appear to be in the play. Also, I was under the impression that New York City was a Loyalist stronghold during the Revolution. Although the play doesn’t explicitly say otherwise, it leaves one with that impression.

I don’t see those quibbles as marring the play and I still think it can be considered historically accurate.

Thumbs up/ Thumbs down –

I hope to get to a little more description of the production tomorrow, but it is definitely a good play. Very good. Do go see it if you get the chance.

I announced a few weeks ago that I was going to make a more concerted effort to see and review plays. I figured that since there are only 40 Broadway theaters, and most of them won’t see a new production in a given year, it wouldn’t be too ambitious to set out to see every show that opens on Broadway. I see that seven shows opened this last April, so if there’s a flurry like that I might have to skip a production here or there on account of my wallet. While I did think about the money factor, I’d forgotten about the simple matter of trying to score tickets for popular shows. However, availability is reason, and really the only reason, I won’t be going on opening night.

So, this idea popped in my head a few weeks ago. I’d seen a few shows in the past couple of years but I didn’t write about them. I might be too nice to really be a reviewer. In fact, I’d say to anyone in New York, and this would mean smaller productions, that I’d be glad to write about your show in exchange for free tickets, but then if I didn’t like it I’d feel so bad. I don’t think I have enough readers to get free tickets anyway, but still…. If you’re in New York and you’re super confident about your off-off-off-Broadway show and you’re desperate for any kind of mention you can get… there’s a contact form on my about page.

Oddly, I’m not entirely unqualified to write about theatre. Believe it or not, this particular little introvert went to a performing arts high school and started college as a drama major. Although I’ve been on stage, I mainly enjoyed working backstage. I was drawn to the theatre because as a little bookworm getting tortured by other kids, the theatre buffs were nice to me. In short, I like actors.

When I got this idea in my head that theatre would be a good thing for me to write about, I looked to see what play would be the next to open on Broadway, which is how I wound up at the most unlikely show for me to go see, “Amazing Grace.” I was actually a little bit disappointed, because I saw that the next production to open would be “Hamilton”, a play I actually wanted to see.

Then, I forgot.

Well, I was reminded of the play in a comment by John Zande. Big oops. They are selling tickets through March 27. The vice-president of the United States saw the show last night based on a recommendation from the president. I probably wouldn’t be seeing it at all except for the fact that I’m an introverted blogger that goes to see shows alone and single seats are always easier to get. Even still, twice I tried to buy tickets online and the tickets were sold before I could click “continue to checkout.” I was getting worried that all my good intentions were about to be thwarted. Now I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the play is accurate enough that I don’t need to read the 700 page biography which inspired the show.

While I was poking around the internet for information about the show, I came across this video:

“A Chorus Line” was not my first Broadway show. That was “The Wiz.” People might forget how innovative Broadway was in the 1970s: “Pippin”, “A Little Night Music”, “Equus”, “Chicago”, “for colored girls…”, “Dancin'”, “Runaways.” There is definitely more since I was too young to be aware of what was going on.

40 year, that seems like so long ago. Admittedly, it may have been already open for a year or so when my family went to go see it. Still, I remember playing the original cast recording, along with saving the playbill I always had to buy one, or rather persuade my parents to buy one for me. If they balked at the price, after all that was Broadway tickets for four, plus parking in Manhattan and probably dinner out, I reminded them how they went to go see “Hair” the day after opening night and bought the record in the lobby and had to mention that fact every time anyone played it. That reminder didn’t work every time, but it usually worked.

Looking towards the future, it seems that September will be a slow month, but there’s a cluster of plays in October and I might need to make some choices. They are all revivals which is always less exciting. We have “Dames at Sea,” Sam Sheppard’s “Fool for Love”, Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” and “The Gin Game” starring Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones. I last saw James Earl Jones on Broadway in 1982 when he played Othello opposite Christopher Plummer.

I promised everyone a theater review, didn’t I?

I’ve been putting it off because I feel so conflicted. How much should I consider information that I found out about the story after I saw the show rather than taking the show at face value? The show is about a British trader who, after surviving a storm at sea, becomes more religious, becomes heavily involved in the slave trade, becomes an abolitionist and writes the lyrics to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” The order of these events, as we will see, matters.

Many years ago, I used to feel annoyed if basic facts in “true stories” were changed too much. However, over the years, I’ve gotten inured to the falsehoods “inspired by a true story” often implies. I try my best to enjoy them as stories, much the way I would a story inspired by anything else. Taken in this way, “Amazing Grace” is a wonderful play. The story is eventful, the performances are excellent, the staging is professional and polished, the singing is fabulous. It’s touching. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry – well, cry more than laugh, after all it’s about slavery. But, in the end, he gets the girl, and you leave the theater feeling elated.

My only puzzle, initially, was whether or not to address the fact that it is clearly religious propaganda. As I mentioned the other day, I picked the play because it was opening, without much foreknowledge. I knew it was about the man who wrote the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” and I assumed that the religious angle was probably part of what attracted the people who created the play to the story. I felt while watching the play that it was not simply a play that happened to have the religious feelings of the main character as part of its theme, but it did in fact rise to the level of propaganda. For instance, we are told repeatedly that the woman with whom the main character, John Newton, is in love is “Christian.” Since the play takes place in mid-eighteenth century England, that is rather redundant. We can safely assume that everyone is Christian unless they are specified as being something else. However, I enjoyed the play so much, I was thinking of just letting it go. After all, if that’s the story, that’s the story.

I first went digging because there was one sour note in the play that bugged me, even taking everything presented at face value. The character of Thomas did not ring true. He seemed more of an anachronism, also, a cliche, the wise and proud servant who speaks back to his master and is generally right. Frankly, free people rarely speak so tartly to their employers. So, I first started looking into John Newton’s actual life feeling that if Thomas was at least based on a real person I would feel better about the character. While I was at it, I also did some reading about slavery in England at that time. I know a little bit about slavery as it was practiced in the North American colonies and a little less about it in Canada and Caribbean however next to nothing about how it was practiced in England itself. I was under the mistaken impression that slavery was not legal in England despite being promoted by the British in their colonies. The situation seems to have been somewhat more complicated.

So, I decided to read John Newton’s own account about the events related in the play. What I discovered has very much affected my opinion. They did not simply take liberties to heighten the drama. To steal one of my favorite put downs, “every word is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

In the play, John Newton is a the son of a prosperous captain of a slave ship who has a prominent position with Royal African Company. The real father was a shipmaster in the Mediterranean. It is hard to be sure, but while he appears to have been prosperous, he doesn’t seem to be as important as the father in the play seems. However, in his own account of his story, he does mention that his father had “air of distance and severity in his carriage.” His mother, in real life as in the play, was a religious woman who died of tuberculosis when Newton was young.

When the play begins, he already has a relationship with his childhood sweetheart. Like the father being more important and more severe the he was in real life, this is the sort of exaggeration of reality to heighten the drama that I normally expect. However, when you consider the play’s function as Christian propaganda, the changes take on an insidious cast. In the play, Mary is a highly devout woman, described several times in the play as a “Christian.” She repeatedly exhorts John to be a better person. In real life, John and Mary’s mothers were close friends but John did not see her family much after the death of his mother. By chance, he is invited to visit and he falls in love with Mary who is then fourteen.

All intercourse between the families had been long broken off; I was going into a foreign country, and only called to pay a hasty risk; and this I should not have thought of, but for a message received just at that crisis (for I had not been invited at any time before). Thus the circumstances were precarious in the highest degree, and the event was as extraordinary. Almost at the first sight of this girl (for she was then under fourteen) I was impressed with an affection for her, which never abated or lost its influence a single moment in my heart from that hour. In degree, it actually equaled all that the writers of romance have imagined; in duration, it was unalterable.

It’s still a very charming story and his own account is filled with repeated references to how much he loves his wife and how important she is to him. Towards the end of the his narrative, Newton writes:

A life of ease, in the midst of my friends, and the full satisfaction of my wishes, was not favourable to the progress of grace, and afforded cause of daily humiliation. Yet, upon the whole, I gained ground. I became acquainted with books, which gave me a farther view of Christian doctrine and experience, particularly, Scougal’s Life of God in the Soul of Man, Herve’s Meditations, and The Life of Colonel Gairdner. As to preaching, I heard none but the common sort, and had hardly an idea of any better; neither had I the advantage of Christian acquaintance. I was like-wise greatly hindered by a cowardly reserved spirit; I was afraid of being thought precise, and though I could not live without prayer, I durst not propose it even to my wife, till she herself first put me upon it; so far was I from, those expressions of zeal and love, which seem so suitable to the case of one who has had much forgiven.

So, while Newton does love his wife, and thoughts of her console him at his darkest moments, she seems not to be as religiously motivated as Mary in the play.

The character of Mary is very exciting and there were moments that I wondered why no one had made a play about her before. I could not find any confirmation that any of the information about Mary is true. Early in the play, she witnesses an auction of slaves conducted by John at the port in Chatham. Although such auctions took place throughout the British Empire, I could not find any confirmation that they took place in England itself. The auction is disrupted by abolitionists. A woman is spirited away by the abolitionists and, impulsively, Mary gives her her cloak to disguise her. This act triggers Mary’s involvement with a group of abolitionists.

I didn’t do much reading beyond Wikipedia, so I can’t be entirely sure, but the play opens in 1744.

In 1783, an anti-slavery movement began among the British population. That year a group of Quakers founded the first British abolitionist organization. The Quakers continued to be influential throughout the lifetime of the movement, in many ways leading the campaign.

There were the beginnings of an abolitionist movement in the British Colonies, but I couldn’t find information about any organized, active groups operating in England at that time, breaking up slave auctions with force and dramatically spiriting people away.

Now, we have moved beyond slight exaggerations into a falsification of history. As it happens, a major is in love with Mary. She encourages his interest so she can get information on the actions of the military and pass it on to the abolitionists, who seem more like a revolutionary group than a group petitioning for legislative change.

The major, as it happens, is cousins with the German born Crown Prince Frederick. Frederick will be visiting Chatham and the Major wishes to present Mary to him as his fiancee. Mary decides to take this opportunity to deliver a speech on slavery before the Prince. The choirmaster of the church finds a draft of the speech in her pocket and reports this to the major. The major arrests Mary’s Nanna, the African nurse who raised her, and threatens to throw her Nanna in jail. Nanna insists that she should deliver the speech even if that means she is jailed. Mary does just that.

I don’t know how much of this extremely dramatic subplot is true, but I suspect none of it. I ate it up while I was watching it and now I feel embarrassed by my gullibility.

I mentioned that the play is propaganda. There is a clear connection drawn between Mary’s Christian beliefs, her moral clarity and her willingness to act on her beliefs even at a detriment to herself. However, if Mary was not especially devout in an evangelical vein, if the last regular slave auctions in Chatham were held by the Romans, if abolitionist groups were not yet active in England, if Mary did not act as a spy, if she was not engaged to the Crown Prince’s cousin, if she did not deliver an anti-slavery speech to him, if she wasn’t raised by an African woman whom she adored, then what do we have left?

While watching the play, I thought Mary was an incredibly exciting character. Too bad she’s fake.

You may say that the main thrust of the play is about John, but I’m afraid we only fare slightly better there.

He is pressed into service in the British navy. So, they got that much right. In the play, the British ship is attacked by the French and sunk off the coast of Africa. He is saved from drowning by Thomas, who bizarrely is pressed into service with him. (I hope I’m getting this right. I did only see the play once.) They are the only two survivors.

In reality, it is not the Navy ship that goes to Africa. After a brief attempt at desertion, Newton sets sail. While at Madeira, en route to India, the naval ship encounters a merchant vessel. Newton begs the captain to allow him to be exchanged with the merchant vessel. The captain, to Newton’s evident surprise, agrees and Newton is now headed to Sierra Leone and “the adjacent parts of what is called the wind-ward coast of Africa.”

Besides, I had a little of that unlucky wit, which can do little more than multiply troubles and enemies to its possessor; and, upon some imagined affront, I made a song, in which I ridiculed his ship, his designs, and his person, and soon taught it to the whole ship’s company. Such was the ungrateful return I made for his offers of friendship and protection.

On board the ship was an Englishman who had been successful in Africa. Newton becomes his servant hoping to have similar success in Africa. He accompanied the Englishman to an island he calls Benanoes. After way too much time scouring maps, I have concluded that it is probably the Banana Islands. If that is the case, the successful Englishman was possibly William Cleveland. Before I relate that interesting bit of history, let’s return to the play to see what the fictional John Newton was doing.

So, they are both on the coast of Africa, on the Banana Islands and Plantain Island, which were at that time run by the same Eurafrican family.

I didn’t have time to ascertain if the character Princess Peyai is fictional or if there was someone by that name.

The play: Princess Peyai has a working relationship selling her own people as slaves to the French. She seems to have a vaguely sexual relationship with every European man on stage with her at the same time. At first she treats John miserably, but eventually, as he becomes more submissive, he starts helping her with the business. Meanwhile, she writes a ransom note to John’s father. Princess Peyai is one of the most colorful characters in the play. She’s better than a bond villain.

In real life:

I had now some desire to retrieve my lost time, and to exert diligence in what was before me; and he was a man with whom I might have lived tolerably well, if he had not been soon influenced against me: but he was much under the direction of a black woman, who lived with him as a wife, She was a person of some consequence in -her own country, and he owed his first rise to her interest. This woman (I know not for what reason) was strangely prejudiced against me from the first and what made it still worse for me, was a severe fit of illness, which attacked me very soon, before I had opportunity to shew what I could… do in his service. I was sick when he sailed in a shallop to Rio Nuna, and he left me in her hands. At first I was taken some care of, but as I did not recover very soon, she grew weary, and entirely neglected me.

His life does seem very miserable and the Eurafrican couple were engaged in the slave trade, however John Newton is nothing more than a low-level servant, clearly doesn’t have a dramatic, flirtatious relationship with woman and doesn’t run her business. Also, he’s not held for ransom.

In the play, John’s father arrives with the ransom. Princess Peyai decides to hold him hostage, too. The elder Newton whips out a gun. There is a fight. Princess Peyai is killed and John leaves on board his father’s boat.

In real life, Newton sends a letter to his father who finds some friends sailing to Africa to bring him home. Meanwhile, he gets a position with another trader and, working for him heads for the mainland.

Now, I confess I’m forgetting the sequence of events in the play. There’s a storm at sea and John’s father dies. I forget which one comes first.

The storm is the central part of the real life narrative and is a point the two stories have in common, because it is in the storm when he nearly dies that he truly finds god and has his heart permanently changed. In the play, having inherited his father’s ship and heads towards Barbados to pick up Thomas, the incident that started me wondering how much was true. They return to England in time for John to harangue the Crown Prince along with his true love.

Meanwhile, we’re only partway through John Newton’s own narrative of events. Newton becomes concerned with how to maintain and nurture his new-found religious feeling, which he had found and lost several times in his life already, while at sea. He is offered command of a ship, but declines feeling that he would be better off learning as a first mate before accepting his own command. Eventually, he gets his own ship and returns to Africa to start dealing in slaves in earnest. He continues until 1754 when he has what seems to have been some sort of seizure. He retires from the sea, becomes a clergyman and then eventually turns against slavery and becomes an abolitionist.

It is clear that John Newton had a fascinating, eventful life. It is clear that he was highly religious. However, the thrust of the play is that faith gives Mary and John a  moral clarity to distinguish right from wrong and the strength to act on it. The power of the story lies in it being “true.” When I realized the extent of the deviation from the true story, I felt betrayed, duped. I left the theater feeling elated and now I feel vaguely dirty. However, if you don’t know the truth, it’s a very effective play. I suspect we will be hearing many lies about John Newton in the future as I think the entire audience was as deceived as I was.


On an amusing note: Google has rendered the title of one of the books Newton read as “Lift of Cod in the Soul of Man.” In fact, at several junctures Newton searches for Cod. I couldn’t help thinking that if he had sailed west to Canada instead of south to Africa, he might have found Cod sooner.