Hamilton and Bipolar Disorder – Why He Wrote Like He Was Running Out of Time
September 13, 2017
Hamilton: An American Musical is arguably and by all measures the most popular theater piece of the last one hundred years. The secondary market ticket prices are unprecedented (into the thousands of dollars for the best seats) and the show is sold-out well into 2018. The musical moved beyond Broadway and entered the coveted sphere of popular culture. The cast performed on the 2016 Grammy Awards and was the Rolling Stone cover story that same year. The cast album went triple platinum, an almost impossible task for even a pop music record to achieve these days.
Sometimes when a piece of popular art is fawned over so unequivocally, the actual experience of the thing falls well short of the lofty expectations. I can attest from in the room where it happens to see the show several times, It IS that good. The depth of the lyrics, the pitch perfect pacing, the spare stage that seamlessly functions as multiple settings, the choreography that tells the story in a way that only movement can communicate. The sociological power of having black and brown men and women taking back a piece of our country’s narrative, a history that has previously belonged exclusively to the white majority. The fact that there are children (dubbed #Hamilkids in the currency of the internet) who are growing up seeing a portrait of George Washington as a statuesque black man. The fervor is well deserved.
There is so much material and so much to parse (notable that this show has the record for the most lyrics ever in a Broadway musical, more than 20,000 words, which equates to about 144 words per minute). I will leave the historical evaluations and theater criticisms to others and will focus on one small slice of this American masterpiece, the psychological narrative of Hamilton’s alternating emotional state.
As his friend turned adversary Aaron Burr asks, backed by his signature island rhythms in “Non-Stop”, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”. Here is a man, Hamilton, who writes so prolifically that he outpaces his contemporaries in creating the Federalist Papers (he wrote 51 of the 85 essays among three men), routinely stayed up through the night to work, and created so much written material that in order to fit in even a small portion of his words the lyricist (and star, Lin Manuel Miranda) had no choice but to have his musicalized Hamilton rap (a more efficient form of song and therefore the only way to fit in all of those words). Alexander Hamilton had the first known lap desk fashioned for him so that he could continue to work throughout a boat or carriage journey while his peers were content to travel in repose. This seminal man even managed to have an affair while creating so many of the documents that laid the foundation for our country without ever faltering in his productivity.
As psychologists, we identify the symptoms of mania to include grandiose beliefs, increased sexual activity, racing thoughts, increased energy, and decreased need for sleep. Sounds a lot like our man, Hamilton.
He also suffered from documented periods of depression. Granted, life was hard. He lost his mother laying next to him in their shared sick bed as a child and his beloved son Philip at the age of 19 to a duel. But his biography, by Ron Chernow, delineates feelings of despair beyond his grief. Chernow describes a man prone to depths of mood and “prey to depression”.
In Hamilton, we see an individual who was driven by manic energy and then encased by darkness. This is today we categorize as Bipolar Disorder, manic episodes followed by periods of depression. Others in the field have likewise made this observation, even outside of the renewed interest in this historical figure due to the popularity of the musical. (For a more in depth discussion of this topic, you can read noted psychiatrist John Gartner’s book The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot) of Success in America in 2005.
Hamilton, like millions of people living with Bipolar Disorder contemporarily, lived a productive and full life. If you or someone you love is struggling with symptoms of mania or depression, please check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness for support and resources.