Monday, October 26, 2009

"A Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and Aaron Burr

I was in Troy Saturday night for a performance of A Legend of Sleepy Hollow with the New York State Theatre Institute (NYSTI). My son is an intern there and is learning about building, welding, and making theatre sets. He is also painting. If anyone saw the production he is responsible for the Dutch tiles around the stage. (Yes, I am proud!)

I have recently read The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr by Judith St. George. I am very interested in NYS history, and Alexander Hamilton because of his connection to the Schuyler family here in Albany. Hamilton was married to Eliza Schuyler and lived for a short time in Schuyler Mansion. What does this have to do with A Legend of Sleepy Hollow? The Duel was an eye opener not only about Alexander Hamilton, but Aaron Burr. And Aaron Burr was a major "character" in the new NYSTI production. If I hadn't read The Duel I would have been completely lost watching the play! I was very surprised that there were no background historical notes for this play.

What I learned from The Duel was how vilified Burr was after the duel that ended Hamilton's life; Burr was Thomas Jefferson's first Vice President (this is the election that ended with a tie between Burr and Jefferson and sent the election to the House of Representatives to break the tie); while Vice President, Burr ran for New York Governor as an Independent, which was an insult to his own Republican party. After he lost that election, he finished his term as vice president, but his political life was over. He continued making mischief. After the duel (1804) he was indicted for the murder of Alexander Hamilton in New Jersey. To avoid arrest he fled. Eventually he concocted a scheme to organize an expedition to conquer Louisiana and form a new empire that would include all of the western states. Eventually he was tried for treason, but the guidelines in the Constitution could not be met for a treasonous act, therefore he was acquitted and set free. He died in 1836.

I think Aaron Burr's story, especially how intertwined he and Hamilton were throughout the course of history and their lives, is more interesting than the character (Burr) that was inserted in A Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It is important to get history right, especially when young people have such a poor grasp of their own country's history. I hope that NYSTI will add notes to their programs to explain the background stories.

Lastly, I highly recommend The Duel as well as a picture book on the same subject, Duel!: Burr and Hamilton's Deadly War of Words by Dennis Brindell Fradin. I can't get enough of it!

~Joyce Laiosa

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