Memory and Musicals

Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776

This American musical written by Peter Stone focuses on the American Revolution around the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This musical focuses on key figures from the revolution such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Richard Henry Lee and their contributions to the independence effort.[1] Many of the people who were fighting and supporting the war felt so strongly about independence from England that they were willing to give up their lives. One example is Richard Henry Lee of Virginia who eventually creates what is called the “Lee Resolution.”[2] In the musical, Lee believes that he is the best person to create a document declaring independence, and he says to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, “and may my blood stop running blue if I can’t deliver unto you a resolution on independency.[3] This lyric shows an example of the dedication that some have for their country, and some people believe that there is worth becoming a martyr. This idea of sacrifice during American Independence is similar to the idea of sacrifice in Ireland, and it shows that both nations had men die for freedom from England.

1776 is just a musical that tells a simple story. While the important theme of martyrdom is touched upon, the story does not go much further than basic themes and plot. There was not much of a deeper meaning that came from the musical. It told the story of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but there were no lasting effects that came about because of the story or the way it was performed.  This musical shows that America and Ireland have similar values of martyrdom because both nations wanted their freedom from England.

1776 and Historical Memory

Peter Stone’s 1776 musical generated a collective memory about the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Based on The Columbia Companion to American History on Film, Cotton Seiler argued that Stone’s musical humanizes historical figures, like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, to defend the memories of these founding fathers as heroes of the United State of America.[4] In 1972, Peter Stone composed the musical to defend the founding fathers as heroes of the United States because the culmination of Nixon’s Watergate Scandal, Vietnam War, and economic recession challenged the foundational beliefs on American values.[5] In the twentieth, the 60s and 70s civil right movement undermined the predominant, historical narrative about American values because the movement sprouted the New Left: a political group that opposed the slavish principles of the Founding Fathers, especially the amendment for slavery.[6] Stone defends the memories of the Founding Fathers as national heroes by composing a narrative that justifies American slavery. In the musical, the southern colonies refused to sign the first draft of the Declaration of Independence because the draft included a clause that eliminated colonial slavery.[7] To Stone, Jefferson removed the slavery clause because the Continental Congress needed all thirteen colonies to vote unanimously for national independence. Here, Stone creates and preserves the historical memory of the Founding Fathers as champions of American independence. Stone rejects the New Left’s alternative narrative about the Founding Father by creating a musical that paints them as heroes, instead of slave-holders. In his musical, Stone preserves the Founding Fathers as heroes of American independence as well as the protectors of inalienable rights of individual.


Hamilton is a modern American musical that was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and debuted on Broadway in 2015. Containing many of the themes commonly found in theatre about revolution, Hamilton talks about martyrdom and its importance. Alexander Hamilton, who is the focus of the musical wants to participate in the American Revolution directly on the battlefield. He believes that if he dies for his country, he will be remembered as a hero, which he, among many others, believed is the best way to die. Acknowledging that he has many other skills, specifically strategical skills, George Washington calls Hamilton in to ask him to be his “right hand man.”  Similar to the Old Woman in “Cathleen Ni Houlihan,” Washington acknowledges the ideal of masculinity of dying in battle when he says,

It’s alright, you want to fight, you’ve got a hunger
I was just like you when I was younger

Head full of Fantasies of dyin’ like a martyr?

Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.[8]

Although Washington does not say that becoming a martyr is unacceptable, he says that Hamilton would be better suited for a different job. Although Hamilton knows and understands his skills, he is still in love with the idea of his martyrdom. Washington convinces Hamilton that masculinity can be achieved through legislative means, instead of physical warfare:

I’m being honest

I’m working with a third of what our

Congress has promised

We are a powder keg about to explode

I need someone like you to lighten the load.[9]


Hamilton and Historical Memory

Not only does this musical tie in examples of memory and martyrdom, it, also, produces an alternative narrative that projects the voices of the non-white people. Miranda assembled a cast of multi-colored people to act out the characters of the musical. Moreover, this minority cast projects a third dynamic into the folds of musical as they play the roles of historically famous white people. For example, Miranda’s Puerto Rican ancestry did not prevent him from playing Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father of a predominantly white European ancestry. A journalist for Duke University, Camille Jackson, claimed that Hamilton’s composer, William Henry Curry, incorporated hip hop and rap to further complicate the predominately white narrative of Alexander Hamilton. When Jackson interviewed Curry: “Curry said it will be interesting to see whether Broadway audiences will continue to embrace contemporary music like hip hop. He also raised some of the complexities of colorblind casting.” Miranda’s Hamilton generates an alternative narrative that relies on the historical memories of: American slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and the twenty-first century killing of black lives by police brutality. This shows how Hamilton has a large impact on race relations in the United States.

In this alternative narrative, martyrdom becomes a real and prevalent theme for physical violence because a community will fight against someone who has unjustly mistreated them in the past. Like the Irish and American people, martyrdom becomes a reoccurring theme throughout this narrative because it inspires people to fight for their freedom. In Hamilton’s last act, George Washington and Company sings about who are the authors of memories and preservers of this historical narrative:

Who lives

Who dies

Who tells your story (Miranda)?

In “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” these lyrics suggest that anyone has the power to create a narrative about the past. However, it takes a theatrical performance to have these memories of the past collide with the present myths about the past. In other words, theatre is an open space for the interpretation of the past as well as a place where playwrights introduce new memories about the past. Playwrights, like Miranda, project a new, alternative narrative when actors perform historical memories on stage because the playwright takes his own individual memory of the past and repurposes it to establish a historical narrative—a narrative that relies on the collective memories created by the experiences of the playwright’s audience.

For Camille Jackson’s article:


Memory and Political Melodramas

Memory and Literary Revival


Identity and Musicals

Reception and Musicals

Hamilton and Cathleen Ni Houlihan?: Irish and American Dramatic Representations of Colonial Rebellion


[1] Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, 1776 (1969).

[2] Lee, Richard Henry, “The Lee Resolution,”

[3] Edwards and Stone.

[4] Seiler, Cotton, The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past. (Columbia University Press, New York, 2003), 153.

[5] Seiler, 154.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stone, Peter. 1776.

[8] Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton (New York:  2015).

[9] Miranda.

Memory and Literary Revival

Cathleen Ni Houlihan

This was a play written in 1902 by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory and is filled with symbolism and focuses on men sacrificing their lives for Irish independence. Cathleen Ni Houlihan represents Ireland and she goes to a home where there is about to be a marriage and convinces the future groom, Michael, to give up the wedding and go fight. When she is trying to convince Michael to choose his country over his bride, Cathleen Ni Houlihan admits that there will be many deaths saying that, “They that have red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake, and for all that, they will think they are well paid”.[1] Death is common during the time around the rising, but becoming a martyr is somethings that is admirable, so oftentimes people welcomed death so they could create themselves a heroic memory. The martyrs would be remembered forever, which is why this theme is so ingrained into this play. It would be possible to convince men to go out to fight for their country.  This play is about Irish Independence, but there are themes of martyrdom in other works, like the musical about American Independence, Hamilton and 1776.

This is such a simple play that contains many symbols and has the goal of convincing men to fight for Ireland, but it does not go as much as create a dialogue after to bring up issues of the present.  While this play was written about the rising of 1798, it was meant to inspire people for the 1916 Rising. Throughout the whole play, there is constant reference to memory and its influence on the public. This men that died while fighting for Ireland were considered heroes, which is why memory and martyrdom were such important themes that are incorporated into works about revolution. Cathleen Ni Houlihan says,

They shall be remembered for ever,

They shall be alive for ever,

They shall be speaking for ever,

The people shall hear them for ever.[2]

When people are passionate about something, they are likely to dedicate their lives to it, and in the case of revolution, it might cost them their lives. Memory is valued, and many men during times of revolution from Britain wanted to be remembered as a hero.



The Plough and the Stars

In Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, an important theme that appears throughout is martyrdom. Jack Clitheroe fights with the Irish Citizen Army, and he ultimately loses his life in pursuit of Independence from Ireland. In the play, O’Casey says that Nora’s grief “will be a joy when she realized that she has had a hero for a husband.”[3] After Jack’s death, he becomes a martyr for the Irish in their fight for freedom. O’Casey wants to show his audience this patriotic narrative in order to preserve the fight for Irish independence, as well as the Easter Rising of 1916, so future generations can be inspired by the action of the men from the Rising.

This play glorifies martyrdom from the perspective of the working-class. It shows the negative effects of martyrdom, which undermines the patriotic narrative.  Nora was too scared to tell Jack of his military promotion because she was afraid that he could possibly die in combat. Nora was pregnant and ends up losing the baby because of an altercation, and with the stress of this, Nora soon finds out that Jack has died. This patriotic narrative tells Nora that she should be proud of her martyr husband, but that is not the case.[4] O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars shows the ugly side of martyrdom that Yeats’ Cathleen Ni Houlihan does not show. O’Casey’s play creates a collective memory of death instead of national independence.


Further Links:


Memory and Political Melodramas

Memory and Musicals

Literary Revival

Identity and the Literary Revival

Reception and the Literary Revival

Hamilton and Cathleen Ni Houlihan?: Irish and American Dramatic Representations of Colonial Rebellion

[1] William Butler Yeats and Augusta Gregory, Cathleen Ni Houlihan (London: Macmillan, 1903), 8.

[2] Yeats and Gregory, 9.

[3] O’Casey, Sean. The Plough and the Stars, 231.

[4] O’Casey, 177.

Memory and Political Melodramas

Political melodramas underwent a political radicalization from the 1880s to the 1900s, represented by their transition from comedy to tragedy.  This shift can be seen in the expansive career of  playwright Dion Boucicault.  Earlier in the nineteenth century, Boucicault’s plays tended to portray reconciliation between Ireland and England.  Transforming Irish history into a comedy belies the author’s engagement with Irish nationalism.  Benefit performances of his plays were staged to raise money for families of imprisoned Fenians.[1]  Arrah-na-Pogue and The Shaughraun, plays concerning the 1798 Rebellion and the Fenian uprising respectively, both espouse an optimistic “mythology that Ireland can be unified socially, politically, and religiously.”[2]  Rather than being rejected, Boucicault’s optimism resonated with Irish audiences.  With the production of Robert Emmet in 1884, however, his work took a darker turn.  No one rescues the eponymous hero from his fate, a breach with historical fact that had been used earlier on for Michael Dwyer and Anne Devlin.  Emmet situates himself within a tradition of resistance by calling upon the nation to “march as children of Erin, as United Irishmen, whose one hope is freedom…The green flag that led our countrymen at Fontenoy under Sarsfield has never been dishonored, and it shall not be under Robert Emmet, so help me God.”[3]

Later playwrights including Whitbread and O’Grady built on this political turn.  Like contemporary American musicals dealing with historical subject matter, their melodramas celebrated individual historical figures including Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Wolfe Tone, and Henry Joy McCracken.  Though distinguished from other characters by their formal speech which points to their Ascendancy background, these martyrs become national figures.  “Bravery and self-sacrifice are conventional attributes of Whitbread’s historical Irishmen” which kindled a sense of pride among audiences.[4]


Memory and Literary Revival

Memory and Musicals

Political Melodramas

Identity and Political Melodramas

Reception and Political Melodramas

Hamilton and Cathleen Ni Houlihan?: Irish and American Dramatic Representations of Colonial Rebellion

[1] Stephen Watt, Joyce, O’Casey, and the Irish Popular Theater (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991), 72.

[2] Watt, 75.

[3] Quoted in Watt, 79.

[4] Watt, 77