BY MADELEINE THOMPSON
By 12:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, there was already a line snaking down the hall of the New York Historical Society even though the show didn’t start for another half hour. Was there a celebrity in the house? Sort of, but not a living one. Alexander Hamilton, played by Eben Kuhns, was scheduled to make an appearance in the 1 p.m. reenactment of his 1804 duel with rival Aaron Burr. And a crowd of people representing every single age group couldn’t wait to see it.
The reenactment itself, lasting fewer than 30 minutes, was bare bones, but nearly all of the 500 seats in the Robert H. Smith Auditorium were occupied. The four actors playing Hamilton, Burr (John Zak), Burr’s friend and second William P. Van Ness (David Holland) and Hamilton’s friend and second Nathaniel Pendleton (Carl Smith) stood at the front of the stage and read through several letters exchanged by Hamilton and Burr. The two duelers then met back-to-back, took 10 paces and fired at each other while Pendleton and Van Ness read out the rules of dueling and the report that was filed after Hamilton’s death. Finally, the lights dimmed and the ghostly voice of Eliza Hamilton (Kim Hanley) read Hamilton’s final letter to her, his “best of wives and best of women.”
Hanley, the executive director of the American Historical Theatre in Philadelphia, said the choice to focus on the written words that led to the duel and then comforted the mourners afterward was intentional. “The integrity of the word is there,” Hanley said, adding that the actors were limited by less than a month of rehearsal time. “The way that these were coming to these men was in the written form, so it sort of reminds the audience, too, that this wasn’t a face-to-face argument. A lot of this argument was on paper. ... The written word matters.” The language of the Hamilton/Burr letters was likely lost on the audience’s younger set, even after Hanley cut the verbiage by half. “We cut and simplified, we changed words,” she said. “Hamilton was a master equivocator ... but Burr was also indefinite.”
The kid entertainment had come earlier, during the family-friendly tour of the museum’s Hamilton exhibit. Kids in the tour were paired up and talked through their own mini-duel reenactments. Back-to-back with a partner, they decided how they would start their “duel” — at the drop of a handkerchief or at the shout of a moderator — and how they would decide who took which position. The Hamilton exhibit itself is small, but it contains treasures, including the actual pistols used in the duel and George Washington’s inaugural armchair.
In 2004, the Historical Society beat even Hamilton’s biographer Ron Chernow to the punch and put together a more comprehensive exhibit on the Founding Father, wrapping the front of their building in a huge $10 bill. Jennifer Schantz, the museum’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, likes to think the Historical Society is “on the edge of what’s going to be a big hit.”
“We’re actually kind of proud of the fact that we had the exhibit before he became so mainstream,” she said. “We’ve always thought he was a really important figure. His story is really quite remarkable because he was an immigrant, he had nothing, and he made himself into something. It’s the true, ultimate New York story.”
The museum first performed the duel over July 4 weekend, and it attracted so many visitors that they scheduled two more showings this past weekend. “We had people call and ask if they could see it, so we decided to bring it back,” Schantz said. Throughout the museum’s “Summer of Hamilton,” they have hosted lectures, singalongs and movie showings that honor the Founding Father’s life. They also have numerous artifacts and documents on display from
Passion for Hamilton’s story and legacy were palpable among attendees of the duel reenactment, several of whom were sporting T-shirts with lyrics from “Hamilton” the musical. Susan Frising, a former American history major who works for the Bank of New York (founded, incidentally, by Hamilton) had driven down from Westchester to see the show. “The clock for the dedication [of the Bank of New York] is stunning, the pistols, the reproduction, amazing,” she said. Frising is still trying to get tickets to the musical, but praised the shows she has seen at the Historical Society. “I almost don’t need to get to Broadway,” she said.
For Nicole Scholet, vice president of the 6-year-old Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, it has been an exciting year. Scholet’s organization helped connect the American Historical Theater with actors for the reenactment, and has found itself very much in demand since a certain Lin Mañuel-Miranda’s musical hit Broadway. “If people can’t understand how our country was founded, it’s easy for politicians today to just either make up things about the past or cherry pick,” Scholet said. “It’s great to see more people getting involved in history and feeling connected to it.”