Karin Wulf (Director, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Professor of History, College of William & Mary)
As we consider the range and depth of materials emerging from the Georgian Papers Programme it’s clear that any number of historical subjects will be newly framed or newly illuminated. And it’s likely that a more subtle perspective on King George III will be among the project’s outcomes. Historians have interpreted eighteenth-century attitudes to the English king who last ruled North America differently, with some arguing for a more benign view of the monarch and a harsh view of his ministers, and others finding an intensity of opposition to the monarch himself as well as monarchical rule. And though he ruled Britain for a long time, one way or another Americans usually encounter George III in the context of the prelude to, war for, and conclusion of the Revolution. In this context it’s useful to think about how and why the monarch Americans most closely associate with the American Revolution is imagined in popular culture.
Americans have a trove of popular images of King George III on which to draw, but some are more accessible than others. A key cultural text is an import: The Madness of King George, the film adaptation of Allan Bennett’s play starring Nigel Hawthorne and featuring Helen Mirren and Rupert Everett. The film advances the (now-discounted) theory that the king suffered from porphyria, and grapples at times sensitively with his increasingly fragile mental health. The film was well reviewed, with Hawthorne and Mirren’s performances as King George and Queen Charlotte particularly praised. Despite the central theme (the king’s madness and his relationship with the Prince of Wales), the New York Times reviewer focused on American independence. In the review titled “Going Mad without Being a Sore Loser,” Janet Maslin pulls out a key reference to the American problem: “We must get used to it,” King George eventually sighs about the nation formed from his American colonies. “I have known stranger things. I once saw a sheep with five legs.”
But Americans also have a large fund of home-grown images of King George. The king is often a key figure in brief children’s histories of the American Revolution. For example, prize-winning children’s author Jean Fritz’s marvelous book, Can’t You Make them Behave King George? originally published in 1977 and illustrated by the prolific Tomie dePaola, is a favorite. Fritz has written a host of quaisi-political histories of early America for young readers, including And then What Happened Paul Revere (1973) and Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution (1987). Her biography of America’s last king begins with his childhood and ends just after the Revolution. A sympathetic reading of the king’s rule, Fritz emphasizes his (well-documented) desire for order and sense of responsibility. The Revolution arrives, then, as an affront to both. In dePaola’s emblematic cover illustration the king slumps in resignation.
All of these and more have been overwhelmed in the last year by the brilliant, cheeky, counterpoint character of George III in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster hip-hop musical, Hamilton. Plenty of Americans have been exposed to Hamilton in any number of online venues including a live performance at the 2016 Tony awards, a clip of Miranda performing the first song at the White House in 2009 back when he was still developing what would become Hamilton, and the ever-popular Ham4Ham shows, a short burst of performance held weekly outside the Broadway theater and posted on Youtube. On October 21 a PBS documentary about the musical, “Hamilton’s America,” will air, the musical opened in Chicago last month, and will arrive in London’s West End next fall.
Played originally on Broadway and on the cast album by Jonathan Groff, the role of King George III draws a sharp contrast between the inheritor of a kingdom and the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,” Alexander Hamilton. Miranda’s lyrics especially, but also the music and staging, urge Hamilton’s audience to think about how history is made in the moment but more significantly in the later telling. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is one of the key refrains.
By means of affect, accent and posture Groff offered a modest variation on Fritz’s more gentle children’s story. The king feels entitled, in every sense of the word, and his values and goals are diametrical to those of the young revolutionaries–but he’s also a canny judge of people and circumstances. Although he’s on stage for fewer than 10 minutes, and singing for not quite 7, King George has some of the musicals’ best lines. In essentially the same melody, in a style evoking an early Beatles ditty, his three songs trace the arc of the revolutionary conflict. In the first, what Miranda has described as a sort of creepy break-up song, the king reminds the colonies that “Oceans rise/ empires fall/ We have seen each other through it all.” and that “when push/ comes to shove/I will send a fully armed battalion/ to remind you of my love! Da da da da dat…”
Unlike other musical numbers, King George always sings alone. His second appearance takes place after the Battle of Yorktown when he wonders how the new nation, now decisively independent, will function. “You’re on your own,” he sings in his faux posh accent, shifting then to interject a stylized American “Awesome, Wow!” before querying “do you have a clue what happens now?” In Hamilton the Revolution (2016), the book that Miranda authored with Jeremy Carter offering an inside look at the origins and making of the musical, he suggests that the third song was unplanned. Some characters insist on their place on stage. This third song jumps ahead fifteen years to contemplate transitions in American leadership: “They say/ George Washigton’s yielding his power and stepping away/ ‘Zat true?/ I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.” And then he relishes the notion of John Adams as Washington’s successor: “Oceans rise/ Empires fall/ Next to Washington, they all look small/ All alone/ Watch them run/ They will tear each other into pieces/ Jesus Christ this will be fun. Da da da dat…”
Groff was nominated for a Tony for his performance, one of three from Hamilton nominated in the same category; the award went to Daveed Diggs, who originated the dual roles of the Marquis de LaFayette and Thomas Jefferson. When Groff and two actors who played King George off Broadway or as stand-ins lip-synched “the Schulyer Sisters” in Hamilton’s famous pre-show, Ham4Ham, as “the Schulyer Georges” the subversion wasn’t just in the gender-bending. This song is a bit of Destiny’s Child era Beyonce on Broadway—three sisters of the wealthy Schuyler family play a key role in the musical. One of them marries Hamilton, and another is his intellectual soulmate.
Having Groff appear as the senior sister, the brainy Angelica Schuyler, makes an even more compelling counterpoint for George III than Hamilton himself. Schuyler’s lines invoke revolution beyond the aims of the revolutionaries: “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine/ So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane/ You want a revolution? I want a revelation!” It’s not only a revolution against monarchy, but patriarchy she’s aiming for. Groff’s King George/ Angelica: “So listen to my declaration/ We hold these truths to be self-evident/ That all men are created equal/ And when I meet Thomas Jefferson/ I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!” This is a King George that American millennials –and maybe their British counterparts, too–can love.
The Georgian Papers Programme will likely bring a more nuanced view of George III into view. Though he, too, loved an intellectual woman, and fresh perspectives about Queen Charlotte are likely to be a key aspect of new research in the Georgian Papers, it’s unlikely we’ll see a version of the king that approximates either the role Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote or the one Jonathan Groff has performed (on stage and on Youtube). Still, it’s important to appreciate the distinctive place of America’s last king in its popular culture.
This post and others also appear on our sibling GPP site at the Omohundro Institute.