Who Tells Your Story–Hamilton

img_0785In case you’ve been in a coma, you’ve heard about Hamilton: An American Musical by now. It’s a Broadway show that’s become a cultural phenomenon. First, let me get one important thing off my chest: it’s bloody brilliant. It is a work of genius that approaches a historical subject with real wisdom and insight, with humor and pathos (I think it’s impossible to have the one without the other). And yes, I am as obsessed as the next person with Hamilton. In fact, I have a rather possessive feeling about it, because it’s a piece of historical fiction and, well, I’m a historical fiction writer. Getting people psyched and enthusiastic about American history? Jesus Christ, yes please!

I saw Hamilton yesterday, and I was blown away (see what I did there?). I wasn’t fortunate enough to see Lin-Manuel Miranda or much of the original cast, but the entire show was spectacular. The audience was alive with shared enjoyment. It felt like everyone was holding their breaths, awaiting every moment they knew was coming, almost disbelieving that they were really there. A special once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I thought I’d write up a blog because writing is what I do (albeit not with Hamiltonian prolificness).

The Subtext

As a writer and consumer of historical fiction in every medium, as soon as I decided that Hamilton was genius (for the record, that happened when I first heard King George informing his colonists that they’d be back), I started pondering why. Not why I was drawn to it, in spite of the fact that I’m not really a fan of musicals or hip-hop. That was pretty clear: it was about American history, and I do like music, and everyone was raving about how wonderful it was. No, what I was wondering was why it was so effective. What made it tick? What made it, as historical fiction, connect so profoundly with so many people?

A short answer was the language, which I mean to talk about later. But that wasn’t all of it, because the language and music are entirely anachronistic, with a few notable exceptions. Yet, in spite of the words being from the wrong era, they feel right. They seem to paint each historical person with an accurate light, according to what we know of their character. Why?

It took me a while to puzzle out the exact mechanism here, but I finally came up with this: subtext. Obviously, Jefferson didn’t run around chanting, “Never gonna be president now!”, but one imagines that that’s what he thought. And Washington almost certainly never said, “Can I be real a second, for just a milisecond?”, but one suspects that it was simmering in his mind. That’s the beauty of it: although the characters are singing to us aloud, what we’re hearing is the workings of their minds, the messages that were passed back and forth through body language, through shared history, through the subtle texture of diction and grammar that, at the remove of two hundred forty years, would elude most of us if it remained in its original form. Yet for the living, breathing people being represented, it was clear as day: there was much more going on than just spoken or written words.

That’s where music comes in. What’s being expressed is the subtle interplay that was never put into words. It functioned at a level below verbal language. So by bringing this to the surface, you can use whatever language can best express it to you audience, which is what music does best. For Lin-Manuel Miranda, this was the language of hip-hop and Broadway musicals.

Perhaps most telling as regards this particular theory: there are a few (mildly altered) direct quotations from the primary sources here. And if you pay attention, you notice that almost all these quotations are spoken, not sung. Think of the Reynolds Pamphlet, or Washington’s Farewell address, or when Washington says, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” These are spoken, or at most said in a singsong. We’re pulled out of the melody, setting these bits apart, which of course delineates what was said from what was thought (which in this case is sung).

Also, the most glaring “subtext” is the giddily bitchy King George, who struts in and reminds us that running through and above and below everything the Founding Fathers said and did was the real possibility of failure, and the reality that they were treading new ground.

The Text

Of course, Hamilton is genius for using the subtext to illuminate historical figures’ conflicts. But the actual use of language is genius as well. Miranda uses idiomatic English to perfection, brilliantly mixing touches of 18th century formality with the no-holds-barred language of a rap battle. It’s pretty extraordinary, to dip in and out of such disparate registers and dialects so freely and effectively.

As a historical novelist, I envy Miranda. Not only does he get to use music–which gives emotional cues and amplifies the meaning of the words–but he also is free to–or rather, freed himself to–use whatever words he wants, historical accuracy be damned. Because we’re being presented with subtext, and because frankly this is a musical, he can really let loose with all the linguistic skills at his fingertips (to great effect). The audience sees a stage and hears music and knows this is an interpretation.

Novel-writing is a different beast. You set down words on a page in a book, and people assume and expect it to be literally accurate. There’s no stage or music to draw attention to the fact that it is staged. There’s less leeway for novelists because, except for certain genres, your audience is expecting an accurate depiction of the world as it is–or was. Historical fiction in particular carries the expectation that the authors is presenting the real world, not a version of it. Take one look at the stage or cast for Hamilton, on the other hand, and you know that what we’re seeing is a version of the story.

So, yeah, I kind of wish I could get away with having an eighteenth-century character say “okay”, but then again . . . there are a million ways to say the same thing. A modern vernacular is effective, but it’s only one way to get that subtext across.

Pulls no punches.

One of the most striking things I noticed when watching the play last night was that the characters pull no punches. A disadvantage of having a great control of language is that you can lacerate other people with it. (I’m thinking of a story about Abraham Lincoln cutting down his political opponent so ruthlessly as a young man that he had to apologize for it later; not a naturally cruel man, he couldn’t really control his tongue at that point in his life.)

And here, Miranda is able to use language viciously. “Daddy’s calling.” “Call me son one more time!” “I’m not here for you.” These are cutting, cringe-inducing phrases. They work precisely because they’re so cutting. It feels like a lot of television and movies these days are afraid to use language as a tool, to really show how cruel people can be to one another with words. It takes a lot of wit to be that brutal, and a lot of wisdom to use it in the right places. One imagines that Miranda has to contain a lot of smart-ass remarks in real life.

The History

There’s a hell of a lot of historical fiction out there, and a lot of it’s about the Revolutionary War. But the Federal period has been given short shrift. I’ve thought for a long time that it was a fascinating time, particularly the period around the creation of the Constitution. What these men were doing, and what they accomplished, is truly remarkable. From where we stand, it seems inevitable and immutable, but for them it must have felt like they were bumbling through a thicket in the dark.

It’s refreshing to have a piece of popular historical fiction address such a fraught time period with such thoughtfulness and devotion to historical accuracy. No, not everything is accurate, but within the framework of a Broadway musical, that would be impossible. What is shown is faithful to the historical record, and especially to the spirit of the record. No major events were changed or greatly rearranged. What was changed had particular narrative purposes. It’s clear Miranda respected the history and wanted to do his best to represent it onstage.

The Historiography

The most interesting and important part of Hamilton, though, isn’t even the history it gets right; it’s the approach it takes to history, the historiography. Anyone who studies history knows that how we understand the past alters with the present. Thomas Jefferson is a case in point. He’s undergone a lot of ups and downs in the eyes of the American public; currently, he seems to be on something of a downswing. It’s also important to recognize that there is a lot that we will simply never know, which Miranda clearly recognizes. Hell, there’s a whole song about how “no one else was in the room where it happened.” We’re reminded that, like Burr, we are on the outside looking in, that not even the people of the time necessarily knew all the details.

Then there’s the recurring theme of legacy: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story. Hamilton died relatively young, and his rivals ended up telling much of his story for him. Again, those familiar with history will know the importance of sources. Here on this blog, I’ve talked about Jeanne de La Motte’s memoirs. She’s not exactly a reliable source. She tended to make up stories from whole cloth. What’s interesting is that in her own time, she was listened to and believed, while the queen, who never directly addressed the suspicions that she stole the diamond necklace in question, was widely believed to be culpable. Yet, today, the reverse is believed.

What we leave to future generations will be interpreted and reinterpreted, and we have no control over any of it. That’s a caveat for consumers of history, as well as for those who believe they themselves are making history.

“Lafayette’s a smart man; he’ll be fine”; or Minor Miscues

While Miranda’s faithfulness to history is laudable, and his clear message about the nature of history itself is remarkably astute, there are a few historical inaccuracies that I would like to point out. There are others, but bear with me:

-Jefferson’s personality. Now, I enjoy the character of Jefferson, and I can see why he was written as he was. But, Thomas Jefferson considered himself a man of the people, and though he picked up some French habits while minister there, he didn’t dress flamboyantly, and he certainly wasn’t the type to strut around a cabinet meeting. He was a soft-spoken man who did not give public speeches and avoided conflict like the plague. He was unfailingly polite and charming. Rather a far cry from how he’s presented in the musical.

-Jefferson in France. This one really gets to me. In the musical, Hamilton calls out Jefferson for not fighting in the war because he was off in France. But Jefferson became minister to France after the war. During the war, it was John Adams and Ben Franklin who were in Paris. If you recall, Jefferson penned a little thing called the Declaration of Independence in 1776, so he was in the new United States during the thick of things. In fact, he narrowly escaped being taken prisoner when Redcoats arrived and drove him and his family from Monticello in the middle of the night. He was governor of Virginia during the war. So while he didn’t command troops in the field like Hamilton did, he was very much a part of the war. He wasn’t off getting high with the French (and if he were, so what? someone had to wine and dine them to keep their support).

-“Lafayette’s a smart man, he’ll be fine.” Sigh. No, not really, unless you count being imprisoned for many years to be “fine.” Lafayette was caught up in the madness of the France’s own Revolution after he returned home from the American one, and though he tried to roll with the ever-changing tide, it eventually caught up to him. He was frankly lucky to survive.

Those are the ones that really bug me. There are smaller ones (like the fact that Alexander and Eliza Hamilton had eight children), but often there are clear narrative reasons for them (what on earth would one do with all those children?).

Everything else about Hamilton is basically pure magic. The show was amazing, and if I had another pile of cash to throw down, you bet I’d go see it again. If you are the oddball who hasn’t listened to Hamilton yet, please do so. Now.

Vigée Le Brun at the Met

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So, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is an exhibit going on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City highlighting the work of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. She was one of the most sought-after and talented portrait painters of her time, and as this previous post explains, one of her paintings played a part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Vigée Le Brun painted Queen Marie-Antoinette multiple times, and her paintings were prominent in the public mind: in addition to the portrait of the

la reine en gaulle

Marie Antoinette en Chemise [or “en gaulle”], 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Queen “en chemise” that caused a minor scandal in 1783, there was the painting of the queen with her children which didn’t entirely succeed in softening the queen’s reputation.

 

But Vigée Le Brun painted many more people than just Marie-Antoinette. She began painting as a young woman, was sought after among the elite of French society, escaped the French Revolution just before it exploded, moved from capital to capital painting prominent people, and continued to paint late into her life (she died at 86).

The exhibit at The Met includes 80 paintings, some of them of familiar figures to those of us familiar with late-18th-century France: Madame du Barry, the Duchesse de Polginac, Calonne, and Mesdames Adelaide and Victoire. There are also less familiar figures, some of them important men’s mistresses, some of them princes and princesses from across Europe, some of them noted intellectuals. What they all have in common, at least in Vigée Le Brun’s portraits, is a vibrancy and movement that you don’t see in many portraits. There are expressions on their faces, and they all look like they’re about to do or say something. They portraits are engaging. The commentary I listened to during my walk-through of the exhibit (I spent

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Portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

two hours there) suggested that this was because Vigée Le Brun herself was engaging and personable, and she drew out her subjects’ personality. It’s hard to say–one suspects that a large part of it was simply her skill as an artist.

The paintings are also visually stunning. I’ve seen images of the paintings, via the Internet, but they simply don’t do justice to the originals. There is an exquisite delicacy to the way  Vigée Le Brun handled fabrics, especially sheer fabrics like muslin fichus or wraps in ladies’ hair. The white dress worn by the Comtesse de La Châtre in her portrait, for instance, has delicate matte-white dots spread across the white satin fabric below. It’s a subtle but beautiful detail.

In fact, I’d say that “beauty” more or less characterizes all of Vigée Le Brun’s work. Everything she painted has a heightened elegance to it–it’s very much like arranged flowers. This wasn’t an artist interested in capturing people “warts and all”; she was interested in aesthetically beautiful paintings.

And that is more than alright by me. I’m not fond of modern art because it feels so self-indulgent; instead of creating something pleasurable, art is supposed to make us “think” (usually about humanity’s failings). I admit to just wanting a pretty picture. And boy does Vigée Le Brun deliver those!

I should also make a note of the colors: Vigée Le Brun used the most remarkable colors. They’re bright and bold and perfectly chosen. There are blues paired with golds, dramatic reds with black and white, a punch of pastel-colored flowers amid more somber grays and blues, and forest greens paired with royals blue and vibrant whites.

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Comtesse de la Châtre. 1789. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Did I mention that I adored this exhibition?

It was definitely worth the five-hour drive in the pouring rain, worth braving the streets of New York City, worth the $35 for parking and the $40 in tolls (yeah . . . the I-95 corridor is expensive!). And it was definitely worth the two hours that I spent there, drooling over the beauty of it all.

I was definitely intensely pleased when I got to see Marie Antoinette en Chemise and Marie Antoinette avec une Rose side-by-side. As the audio guide explained, it’s the first time the two have been exhibited side-by-side.

Why was I so excited? Well, again, I refer you to this post, but to give a quick overview of the story behind these paintings: Vigée Le Brun painted the portrait of Marie-Antoinette “en chemise” and presented it in public at a salon in 1783. “En chemise” means that Marie was in a white muslin or “chemise” dress. Now, a chemise was an undergarment that went beneath everything else, stays (“corset”) included. It was scandalous to show the queen in a portrait in what looked like her underclothing. It was too informal, too suggestive. So Vigée Le Brun took down that painting and quickly dashed off another one, with the queen in the same pose but wearing a more appropriate/regal blue satin gown.

In both portraits, you’ll notice, the queen is holding the same thing in her left hand: a rose. Not long after this painting was displayed, in 1785, a young adventuress named Jeanne de La Motte-Valois convinced a credulous Cardinal that she was friends with the Queen (she did it to steal a very expensive necklace). To win him over, she hired a prostitute (Nicole d’Oliva) to play the part of the queen (oh dear!), dressed her  in a white muslin dress and gave her a rose to hand to the Cardinal. Sound familiar? It seems pretty likely that Jeanne got the idea from the portrait of the Queen en chemise. In fact, one of Jeanne’s friends, Jacques Claude Beugnot, remembered that Jeanne had a candy box with a copy of Marie Antoinette en chemise painted on the inside of its lid!

And of course, the reason I started this blog way back when was to tell more of this story. I’d written an entire novel about it, but I wasn’t nearly done. Yes, this blog has shifted focus, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an abiding interest in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and everything related to it. I was even willing to make a harrowing trip into New York City to see this exhibition, just to get a glimpse of the originals of these two paintings. I was rewarded by more beauty than I’d even imagined. I went for the pair of paintings of Marie-Antoinette, but I stayed for the 78 other exquisite pieces of art.

(I would be lying if I said I didn’t sneak a few pictures while inside the exhibit, but I don’t want to share them on principle, and they aren’t very good anyway!)

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Vigée Le Brun at the Met

Every once in a while, there’s something to post regarding the 18th century in France. This happens to be one of those times. After all, the original intent of this blog was to write about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and ancien-regime France.

Just yesterday, I came across an exhibit on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC that is so directly related to the Diamond Necklace Affair that it hurts:

http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2016/vigee-le-brun

The Met is putting on an exhibit of a very large number of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s portraits. She was one of the most prominent portraitists of her age (and her art is absolutely beautiful; her style is just my taste). This is even more remarkable, of course, given that she was a woman. She happened to be one of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s favorite painters. In 1783, she painted the queen in a filmy white muslin dress, a style that was sometimes referred to as “en gaulle” or a “chemise” dress, since it so resembled the chemise, an under-dress. And therein lay the problem: it looked like the queen had been painted in her underclothes! When people saw it hanging in the salon, they were shocked. The resultant scandal did the queen’s already-spotty reputation no favors. Vigée Le Brun quickly painted a replacement with the queen in the same pose and still holding a rose, but this time clad in a dress of blue silk and with an elaborate coiffure.

All of this, of course, was part of the milieu in which Jeanne de La Motte-Valois plotted her jewel theft. Specifically, though, the portrait seems to have been the inspiration for a little bit of play-acting in the gardens of Versailles: Jeanne hired a young prostitute (Nicole Leguay D’Oliva) to play the part of the queen. She dressed Nicole in a white muslin dress and gave her a rose to hold. Sound familiar? It’s exactly the image from the scandalous portrait. This performance was meant to trick a Cardinal into believing he was back in the queen’s favor, which was part of Jeanne’s plan to get said Cardinal to act as guarantor for a very expensive diamond necklace. The necklace went missing, and a massive scandal ensued, one that Marie-Antoinette never recovered from.

You can click OVER HERE for a blog post all about the painting.

Now, the exhibit is only at the Met until May 15, so there isn’t much time to go see it. I know I’m going to do my best to get up there while I can!

Mercy Street-Episode 6

So, I’m finally getting around to putting down some thoughts about the final episode of season 1 of Mercy Street, the PBS drama about a Civil War hospital in Alexandria (I already recapped episode 1, episodes 2-3, and episodes 4-5).

We left off with the hospital preparing itself for a visit from the president and First Lady. The Knights of the Golden Circle are preparing for the visit, too, but they don’t want to welcome the Lincolns. They want to blow them and the entire hospital to Kingdom Come.

We start with a bit of drama about Doctor Foster being promoted. Doctor Hale and Nurse Hastings have been conniving all along to get rid of that terrible, no good, very bad, clearly-more-talented-and-therefore-unbearable Doctor Foster. I found it all a bit unnecessary. Also unnecessary was the scene a bit later where Nurse Hastings gets so drunk that she’s literally falling all over herself. It seemed pretty far from the conniving, fake-it-’til-you-make-it-even-if-you-are-less-skilled attitude she’s shown previously. Continue reading

Mercy Street Episodes 4-5

I am more than a little behind in my recap/review of Mercy Street, but I’ll make an effort to get to the end of this season (there were six episodes) by the end of this week. Time will tell if that actually happens.

And there will be spoilers. You are hereby warned.

Episode 4 picks up on and runs with a thread that was only hinted at earlier: the efforts of the ladies of the Green family to help the Confederate effort in whatever way they can. It’s easy to forget the role that women played in wars throughout history, and I don’t just mean on the home-front waving their flags. There were simple efforts like sewing socks and shirts for the boys, but when organized (by such groups as the United States Christian Commission and the United States Sanitary Commission), these efforts proved to be of no small importance to the war overall. First of all, notice the “United States” in the name of both organizations. There was certainly organization in the South, but it wasn’t at quite the same level as in the North. Second, these organizations rallied incredible amounts of supplies, medical and otherwise, for the troops. The armies in general were much better-provisioned than in previous wars (thanks to railroads, industrialized production, and a more mature government than, say, the Continental Congress, which had to beg for money from the colonies to feed the Continental Army). Third, think about the word “sanitary” and what that means in a military context. During the Civil War, disease was still by far the biggest killer of soldiers, but following Florence Nightingale’s efforts during the Crimean War in the 1850’s, people were beginning to wake up to the necessity of good sanitation and cleanliness.

(As an aside, I quite like Nurse Mary’s repeated, half-goading references to Miss Nightingale when she’s speaking with Nurse Hastings, who made such a big deal of having trained under Miss Nightingale.) Continue reading

Mercy Street–Episodes 2-3

I’m a little behind with my recaps/reviews of Mercy Street, so I’ll catch up on two episodes at once. I don’t want to recount everything that happened in these two episodes or critique the episodes. Instead, I want to touch on some historical points from each episode, though I’ll get into some storytelling aspects, too.

These two episodes, I’m happy to say, really expanded on what I thought was best about the first episode: an examination of the Civil War era that considers more than the slavery question and delves into some of the sticky moral quandries of Confederates, Yankees, enslaved blacks, and free blacks. There’s an acknowledgement that actual experiences were extremely varied, even in the same place at the same time.

In episode 2, we see more of Silas Bullen, the nasty piece of work who’s apparently in charge of the hospital’s kitchens. Not only is he lying to and raping Aurelia (the black laundress who took her own freedom by running away to Washington City); he’s also profiteering off of the food he’s meant to be preparing for the wounded men. When Mary intervenes with the intention of getting the men a proper meal, Bullen is violent with her. What I liked about this was that we see a little of the dirty underside of war–on the Yankee side. We also see a little of this when Mr. Green, the owner of the hotel that is now a hospital, deals with the Union army officers in charge of the city of Alexandria. What he does isn’t dishonest per se, but it’s a pretty good illustration of the kind of uneasy existence between occupier and occupied: the Union Army took over his hotel as a hospital, and now he’s started a coffin business to bury the dead men coming out of the hospital.

It’s important to remember that Northerners had friends in the South (and vice versa) and that they oftentimes sympathized with Southerners (and many Southerners were Unionists; look at Andrew Johnson). Copperheads (peace Democrats) were prepared to make peace on the basis of the Union “as it was”, i.e., with slavery intact. Loyalties were divided, interests overlapped, and it wasn’t always possible to delineate who was for what.

Later, we a disagreement between Aurelia and Belinda (the Greens’ former slave). They argue over the meaning of freedom now that they’re both free. In many stories, it’s assumed that freedom itself is the end-point, and what comes afterwards in some happily-ever-after. It was all too easy for the social structure of slavery to continue on under a different name. Add to that the fact that freed blacks often lacked education and experience, and it could be difficult for freed people to establish new lives. Aurelia is taken advantage of by Mr. Bullen in one sense, and Belinda is taken advantage of in a different way by the Greens (she isn’t being paid wages). Samuel Diggs, an attendant at the hospital, has been able to create a life for himself, though it’s circumscribed. He has the talent to be a doctor, but, being black, that isn’t an option for him. It’s interesting to see these three characters clash over their views of what it means to be free–because then, as now, it oftentimes means different things to different people. This all comes to a head when a boy visits the hospital with his mistress (Dr. Foster’s mother), and Aurelia encourages him to run, to just walk away from his mistress and take his freedom for himself. He hesitates, but eventually, he does it.

The boy’s mistress, Mrs. Foster, is Dr. Foster’s mother, and she’s a Southerner. She has brought her son, Dr. Foster’s brother Ezra, to be treated. He’s been wounded in the leg, and she hopes Dr. Foster can save the limb (he can’t). In the meantime, she’s very hard on Dr. Foster for being a traitor, and she blames him when he says the only way to save Ezra’s life is to amputate. To her, he’s a traitor to the South who doesn’t care enough about his brother to try to save his brother’s leg. Families, especially in border states, were torn apart. Friends ended up on different sides of the war, too (look up Lewis Armistead and Winfield Scott Hancock). One couldn’t simply draw a line on a map and say that everyone above this line was for the Union and everyone below it was for the Confederacy.

But maybe the most interesting part for me was the medical side of things (this show is set in a hospital, after all). First, we have the harrowing amputation scene. I’m glad they showed the use of anesthetic; contrary to popular perception, anesthetics were used during most operations during the Civil War. They spent quite a gruesome amount of time on the operation, but luckily I have a strong stomach. The detail they went into with the operation itself was great–with slicing through the skin and folding it back and tying off the veins and sawing through the bone and all. It was ugly, but it was mesmerizing to watch. We also see Dr. Foster under the influence of morphine, administered using a hypodermic needle. We got a hint of this in the first episode, but it was more front-and-center here. Now, opium abuse had been known in Europe for a long time at this point (see Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an Opium Eater), but morphine and the needle were new, and the scope for recreational use and abuse was exponentially increased. We also get to see another kind of medical issue: “soldier’s heart”. Tom, the young Confederate we first met in episode one, is suffering from the after effects of battle. He says (it may have been episode one) that he’s “seen the elephant”. That was a phrase used about and by those who had seen battle and been traumatized by it. Tom, sadly, seems to have a bad case of it. He lashes out at his fiancee, Alice Green, and seems unable to focus or reconcile himself to life after battle. I mentioned this in my last post, but this kind of affliction was only beginning to be recognized as “a thing”. Either earlier wars didn’t elicit this kind of reaction in soldiers (the Civil War was much bloodier and death was more mechanized than in any previous war), or people were just beginning to give it a name. (I think it’s probably both.)

All in all, I’m enjoying the view we’re getting of life during the Civil War in Alexandria. I said I wouldn’t critique, but I will say Mercy Street has it’s moments of melodrama and that it’s view is slightly myopic in that our characters’ lives aren’t interwoven with the events of the war, which are mentioned mostly in passing only. The first is more problematic than the second, but neither keeps me from enjoying the miniseries. I’ll recap episode 4 at some point; episode 5 is this weekend.

Mercy Street, Episode 1

I might not blog about every episode of the new PBS drama Mercy Street, but I’ll at least blog the first episode, which aired a week ago today. As background, Mercy Street is set (sometime) in 1862 in a hotel converted to a military hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. Our protagonist (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is Mary Phinney, a young widow who has come to volunteer as a nurse at the hospital. We in short order meet Dr. Jedediah Foster, who is slightly abrasive but willing to take risks and who comes from a slave-holding background in spite of being a Union doctor. We also meet Dr. Byron Hale, a more by-the-books doctor who clashes with Dr. Foster. The owners of the converted hotel are also hanging around town, though most every other Southern sympathizer has fled and/or joined the war effort. Most prominently, we meet Emma Green, a young woman who, in spite of being quite inexperienced with, well, everything, seems intelligent enough and has a desire to help where she can.

I’ll start with a few notes on historical stuff. I won’t be critiquing the costuming, which looks fine to me but which I’ve seen some real hard-core enthusiasts pick apart. I’ll just comment on things that a casual viewer might have missed.

First, we open with Mary Phinney waiting to be seen by Dorothea Dix. Miss Dix, a real person, is known largely for her advocacy for the mentally ill but was also Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War. And, as depicted, she had certain standards. She would only appoint women who were over 35 years old and rather plain-looking (which would preclude our heroine, Mary Phinney, on both counts). This was, as is implied in Mercy Street, to keep eligible young women from the potential hazards of being surrounded by so many young men (and perhaps the men from being tempted by pretty young women). By hiring and firing nurses for her own reasons, Miss Dix irritated Army doctors, who would have preferred to choose their own staff. She did great work, but because she was so inflexible in pushing her own people and point of view, her work was eventually eclipsed and superseded by other organizations.

Also, a note on the first scene: we are told we are in “Washington City, 1862”. (Mary meets Miss Dix in the city before being assigned to the Mansion House hospital across the Potomac River in Alexandria.) This is correct: in the early-to-mid 19th century, the usual term was Washington City. The District of Columbia was still fairly sparsely populated (the war would transform the city practically overnight), and Washington City itself only filled a small part of the federal District. Georgetown filled another sector of it, and the rest was mostly empty. (Alexandria had been part of the original 10-miles-square diamond that comprised the District, but the Virginia section of the District retroceded back to Virginia in 1847, leaving the half-complete square shape we know and love today.) At the time of the Civil War, the federal city was called “Washington City” almost exclusively.

Mary and Miss Dix then have an exchange about whether slavery is a moral or political issue (I believe Miss Dix is trying to draw Mary out, but it isn’t exactly clear). It’s an interesting discussion, because it illuminates the Victorian notion that women weren’t supposed to discuss politics, but if they couched their arguments in moral terms, then they might be able to make themselves heard. Slavery was one of those issues where it was, if not desirable, sometimes grudgingly admitted that women might comment, but only on a moral basis.

The one thing I didn’t like about this discussion (and the point comes up again later in the show) is Mary’s insistence that “emancipation is upon us”. Well. Not really. It’s quite a stretch to say that in mid-1862 the end of slavery seemed nigh. Sure, many people were hopeful and working for the end of slavery, and, yes, Abraham Lincoln would soon write the Emancipation Proclamation (and issue it in September). However. The implication of Mary’s words is that the public and political opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of the abolition of slavery, and it simply wasn’t. Even when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, it met with some heavy resistance, and it didn’t really do much effective good. At this stage in the war, it wasn’t clear to many people that the war was entwined with slavery, no less that slavery was effectively done. For Mary to state that slavery was clearly on its way out at this point is either something of a misunderstanding of how attitudes changed during the war or an indication that Mary is woefully misinformed about things.

Alexandria, when Mary gets there, is depicted as almost a Wild West town. This is fairly accurate, actually; the Union Army had moved in, so thousands of ill-behaved young men descended on the city. It didn’t help that they knew the town was full of Southerners and Southern sympathizers. They didn’t have much patience to spare on the enemy. There are some pretty wild tales of the lawlessness of the place at this time.

Now, as we get further in the episode, we see some great examples of Civil War medicine, which is pretty fun. We see a plaster cast being placed on a broken leg, we see a hypodermic needle (with morphine!), and we see an artery being tied off (by a former slave–cool in itself). I liked that after the artery was tied off, the former slave who did the operation, Samuel Diggs, comments that the doctor should tug on the silk thread that would protrude from the healing wound. The thread would rot and come away when the wound was healed. This is called a ligature (as Samuel tells us), and it’s something I learned about at the Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD. We also see a case of “soldier’s heart”, which is portrayed as something like heart palpitations. I know that soldiers’ heart COULD manifest itself in the form of heart problems, but “soldier’s heart” was mainly used as an early term for what appears to have been PTSD–that is, for soldiers who were overwhelmed by the horrors they’d seen.

One of the best parts of the episode, I think, is the wounded soldier who claims he’s eighteen but eventually admits to being fifteen. He’s in a battered uniform, and his father was killed beside him in battle. The American flag he’s holding was glued to his hands by dried blood. (Why did no one try to soften the dried blood to take away the flag?) He’s badly wounded, and Mary starts to write a letter for him back to his family. I liked this sequence mostly for the letter, which was a bit intense. Luckily, the writers wisely had the characters comment on the intensity of the letter, breaking the tension a bit. The poor boy dies before the end of the episode, his letter unfinished. (A bit confusingly, Mary goes back to finish the letter, though it actually wasn’t clear earlier that she hadn’t finished it and it’s unclear how she could possibly recall the boy’s every word.)

As Mary’s first day at the hospital comes to an end, she has a conversation with Dr. Foster by the light of a lamp. The discussion opened up the world a bit by giving it some depth. Most Civil War-era stories are very dualistic: the good North, the evil South, or evil slave-holders, victimized slaves/valiant abolitionists. Sometimes, there’s a dash of the romance of the “lost” culture of the “gracious” Antebellum South (you know, the Gone with the Wind vision). But in most stories, the intricacies of the inter-sectional ties are ignored. Families and friends were divided in loyalties in ways that simply aren’t acknowledged. And, as the disagreement over treatment of Confederate soldiers demonstrates, there was more than one way for a person to demonstrate moral failure. In this exchange, Mary challenges Dr. Foster for having racist views, and he challenges her for not wanting to treat wounded soldiers just because they’re Confederates. They both have a blind spot, and that’s interesting.

This episode had some great moments, and the fact that they’re tackling this setting and subject is a major point in the show’s favor with me. I would have liked to see a bit more life to the episode. It felt a bit like they were hitting particular marks, and though the acting was decent, it also felt by-the-book. While we are introduced to a cadre of characters (maybe one or two too many) and are efficiently informed of their situations, the characters themselves didn’t necessarily emerge quite yet from the cocoon of their situations. Mary, for instance is “the spunky nurse who’s recently widowed”, but I didn’t get much sense of her beyond that.

My first thought is that a bit of humor would go a long way. It’s the surest way to let your audience connect with a character. I know that Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches was source material for the writers. I wish they had taken note of the gentle humor Alcott used to get her readers closer to herself and the men she tended. (On a side note, I also recently finished reading the memoirs of a WW1 nurse, Olive Dent, and she, too, made liberal use of humor to help introduce us to the sometimes-grizzly world of a wartime nurse.)

Overall, though, a wonderful start to a really exciting series. I’m looking forward to tonight’s episode, too.