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“Helpless”: Whatever Happened to Maria Reynolds?

Ben Jureidini brings light to the character of Maria Reynolds and the problematic narratives surrounding her.

Fear not, those of us who were unable to afford tickets to Hamilton on Broadway – for the mere cost of selling your soul to Disney+ you can watch the original cast perform the Pulitzer-winning musical from the comfort of the very living room you’ve spent the last three months stewing in. Other than allowing us to watch Lin Manuel-Miranda’s ground-breaking piece in ultra-HD, with close-ups showing us just how talented these performers are, Disney’s decision to stream Hamilton has led to a resurgence of various think-pieces on its undeniable cultural impact, with articles from 2016 being republished in a similar fashion to BBC iPlayer streaming episodes of Eastenders from the golden era of 2008. 

One such article, written by Constance Grady for Vox, discusses ‘How the Women of Hamilton are changing Broadway’. The article gives us an interesting take on how the Hamilton/Eliza/Angelica love triangle deviates from the usual formula seen just about everywhere, and how the musical refuses to designate one woman as ‘good’, and the other as ‘bad’. “It operates”, Grady writes, “on the assumption that both of these characters are important, that the different ways they perform femininity are valid, and that their contributions to history are valuable.” This is, of course, completely true. The complexity of the characterisation of these two women refuses neat categorisation. ‘Satisfied’ and ‘Burn’ are showstopping numbers, and Manuel-Miranda rightfully ends the musical not with Alexander, but Eliza Hamilton, without whom the story would remain untold. 

Indeed, Hamilton, as a text, is deeply concerned with the metanarratives of history: whose story gets to be told, and who tells it? Legacy, the desire to “build something that’s gonna outlive me”, haunts the characters throughout the piece. Hamilton, Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens are keenly aware that the history books will tell “the story of tonight”, that “history has its eyes on you”. One thing that the original Broadway production conveys so well is the irony of having Lin Manuel-Miranda play the Hamilton he himself has written. Hamilton, the man who writes like he’s running out of time, the man who writes his way out of poverty, and Lin Manuel-Miranda, the man who has very much written “the story of tonight” for theatre goers, become one and the same. The narrative of Hamilton and the narrative of Hamilton become intertwined. 

Nowhere is this interest in the narrative of history explored with more depth and heart-wrenching subtlety than the story of Eliza Hamilton. “Oh, let me be part of the narrative”, she pleads with her husband, longing for her and her child to be written into the history books alongside Alexander, for their names to be interwoven on the record for the rest of time. That is all the legacy she requires. That would be enough. Of course, this is not how the story gets told. In a stroke of genius from Manuel-Miranda, the sparsity of historical sources related to Eliza following the publication of the Reynolds Pamphlet is transformed into a deliberate act, into Eliza reclaiming her agency from the narrative of history and protecting herself from the judgement of future generations:

I’m erasing myself from the narrative / Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted / When you broke her heart.

The woman who longed to be part of the narrative now refuses for her private life to become a source of public mockery, refuses to allow her heartache to be dissected by history classes and put on display like General Mercer’s street name: the world, Eliza tells us in an emphatic rejection of her husband’s obsession with outliving himself, “has no right to my heart”. The final song, the summation of Hamilton‘s profound engagement with storytelling, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’, reveals to us that Eliza not only put herself back in the narrative, but that without her none of these stories, including the one we are watching tonight, would ever have been told. Eliza dedicates her life to telling the story of her husband and his comrades. Where her refrain had once been “that would be enough”, she now longs to know “have I done enough – will they tell your story?” At the end of the play, as she looks up into the gods and gasps, she may well be seeing her family on the other side, but one cannot help but feel as though she is seeing us, the audience, finally realising that she has succeeded. Their stories have been told, and told beautifully. 

So, for a musical that revolves around narratives, around who gets to tell the stories of history, for a musical that supposedly reframes the traditional love-triangle narrative, affirming the modes of femininity of both Eliza and Angelica, the only loose end seems to be Maria Reynolds. For all the talk of the Eliza/Angelica/Hamilton love triangle, Grady’s article seems to ignore the third, perhaps the most influential, of the ‘women of Hamilton’. A dual role, both Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds fade into the background of the show. Whilst her sisters are probably the highlight of the piece, Peggy’s role never extends beyond completing the Schuyler sisters trio with comedic “and Peggy!”, as if to say, “I’m here too!” and Maria Reynolds is, if only in narrative function, the pivot of the show. For all the comparisons Manuel-Miranda makes between Hamilton and a certain unnamed Scottish tragedy, ambition is not actually Hamilton’s folly. He could have happily stayed in New York whilst Eliza and Angelica went to stay with their father, gotten his plan through Congress, and happily continued to write grammatically ambiguous love letters to his sister-in-law. No, it is not ambition that unravels Hamilton, but the (I would argue) entirely avoidable decision to cheat on his wife. ‘Say No To This’, the song in which we realise Jasmine Cephas-Jones, the actress confined to an occasional interjection of “I’m also a sister!”, is actually a wonderfully talented vocalist, is also one of the musical’s most problematic moments. 

My God she looks so helpless / And her body’s saying Hell yes.

Now, we’ve all been to JCR-mandated consent workshops in Freshers’ Week, and it doesn’t take a genius to be somewhat concerned that ‘helplessness’ is seemingly equated with sexual availability, or at the very least seen as something particularly attractive. If she looks helpless, Alexander, then, perhaps, help her? The sexually charged use of ‘helpless’ here is a perverse inversion of Eliza’s own solo, in which she is helplessly smitten with Hamilton. The maternal, healthy love of Eliza is morphed into the lustful, toxic sexuality of the apparently ‘helpless’ Maria Reynolds. This is a woman clearly being used by her husband as a tool for extortion: she is aware of the letter before Hamilton informs her of it. Other than the scene in which she hands Hamilton the quill that writes his undoing, the last we see of her is a woman dutifully following the beck and call of her abusive husband offstage. There is, it seems, no place for Maria Reynolds in the narrative. 

Hamilton, therefore, may be ground-breaking in its affirmation that both Eliza and Angelica perform femininity in ‘valid’ ways, but the piece seems to repress the invalid sexuality of Maria Reynolds, the “whore wife” to Eliza’s Madonna. Maria’s sexuality is presented as a clear antagonist in a play so concerned with reminding us that the history books can make villains out of characters as complicated as Aaron Burr. The text, however, does not tell us what becomes of Maria; she merely fades into the background, her function as a sexually perverse, abused plot device complete. Who tells her story? A quick Wikipedia search, or at least the two sentences not dedicated to Hamilton (and Hamilton), suggests that she lived a long, pious life, and that she “enjoyed…the love and goodwill of all who knew her.” This redemption, however, does not fit within a narrative that uses Mariah as a perverse double to Eliza, used solely to advance the plot, sing an intensely problematic sexy song, then crawl off after her husband. Hamilton does not, it seems, accept that the sexualised woman can be a “valid” form of femininity, nor does it permit Mariah’s life to be a part of the narrative; her “contributions to history” it seems, are not “considered valuable.” 

Eliza’s exclusion from the narrative of history is an act of reclaiming autonomy. It highlights how aware we have to be of narratives that are excluded by historians. The exclusion of Maria Reynolds, on the other hand, is yet another example of history – and playwrights – suppressing the stories of women who do not conform to “valid” standards of femininity. Eliza, the storyteller, the best of wives and the best of women, and Angelica, the wittiest woman in New York City, embody representations of femininity that are, if not traditional, conform to contemporary ideas of acceptable feminine rebellion. 

Of course, there is no time to give such in-depth plot room to every character in the musical: I am sure Samuel Seabury did more than modulate the key and refuse to debate. But for a play so concerned with the marginalised, it is somewhat disappointing that there is no room in the narrative of Hamilton, nor history, for the “helpless” “whore wife” Maria Reynolds.

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