An odd tension exists in the term ‘historical memory.’  Memories reflect an individual’s subjective personal experiences.  They construct a narrative from the events of a person’s life which define their identity and direct their actions.  For instance, George Washington in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton laments his first military blunder to Alexander Hamilton in the song “History Has Its Eyes on You.” Why does the memory of his fallen soldiers trouble him years later?  That failure not only challenged his early ‘dreams of glory’ but contradicted his own self-importance, revealed by his identifying with Hamilton and projecting “greatness” onto the younger man.  Washington’s military career becomes a personal narrative of redemption culminating with his victory at Yorktown.  That victory confirms how Washington always viewed himself: exceptional.

Washington and Hamilton’s awareness that “history has its eyes on [them]” introduces the notion of historical memory.  That line suggests history can construct a narrative about their lives over which they can exercise little influence: “You have no control:/ Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”  But broadening the notion of memory beyond an individual’s experiences leads to an obvious question: who or what remembers?  How can a non-corporal entity such as a nation have memories? In his article “Finding Meaning in Memory”, Wulf Kansteiner draws a distinction between collected memories and collective memories.  Collected memories consist of an aggregation of individual memories which cannot form the basis of collective memories.  Ignoring this distinction presents a “potentially grave methodological error” since perceiving and conceptualizing “collective memory exclusively in terms of the psychological and emotional dynamics of individual remembering” reverses their influence.[1]  Individuals do not create collective memories.  They respond to them.  Conflating the two concepts also disregards the metaphorical nature historical memory.  A nation’s ‘memory’ does not function the same way as a person’s.

Where then does historical memory reside?  It can be found in what Jan Assmann calls ‘objectivized culture’: “texts images, rites, buildings, monuments, cities, or even landscapes.”[2]  Recognizing the importance of these objects forms the basis of a group’s identity.  Assmann further elaborates his notion of cultural memory as the “body of reusable texts, images, and rituals specific to each society in each epoch, whose ‘cultivation’ serves to stabilize and convey that society’s self-image.”[3]  Returning to the example of George Washington illustrates this point.  His defeat as a young man during the Seven Years’ War plays a minor role in America’s collective memory compared to his victory at Yorktown.  Hamilton echoes this appraisal.  “[The] American experiment begins” with the “world turned upside down.”  Both phrases belong to the American collective memory.  ‘The American experiment’ refers to establishment of popular democracy and the new nation’s commitment to individual liberties, equality, and opportunity.  ‘The world turned upside down’ reminds the audience that these qualities did not exist, supposedly, in the old world order before the creation of the United States.  Hamilton propagates an image of the past which most Americans already believe.  And by the very act of recitation it ensures the US will continue to define itself according to those principles allegedly enshrined at its very beginning.

All three genres employ preexisting clichés or memes to affirm a constructed national identity.  Clichés are part and parcel with historical memory: “Memory studies presuppose a rarely acknowledged but not particularly surprising desire for cultural homogeneity, consistency, and predictability.”[4]  Melodramas depict one Ireland, one nation, united against an English enemy.  Literary Revival dramas use the poor as an embodiment of a national essence.  And Hamilton could only succeed in a land of opportunity.  Often these national myths come at the expense of history.  Their repeated use reflects not only collective desires about what the nation should be but establishes their reality.  Setting these plays during a time of upheaval does not suggest that national characteristics derived from the experience of rebellion.  Instead, these clichés reflect innate qualities.  Ireland does not become united by rebellion.  It always has been, just as peasants have always reflected the essence of the island.  Similarly, social and economic freedom is not a construct of the Founders.  They just realize it.  Drama as a literary form is particularly suited for the propagation of national myths.  Compared to other modes, it reaches a wider audience and allows that audience to register their reactions to its message.

Identity and Political Melodramas

Identity and the Literary Revival

Identity and Musicals

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

[1] Wulf Kansteiner, “Finding Meaning in Memory: A Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies,” Theory and History 41, no. 2 (May 2002): 185.

[2] Jan Assmann and John Czaplicka, “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity,” New German Critique, no. 65 (1995): 128.

[3] Assmann, 132.

[4] Kansteiner, 193.