I wrote last week about the dangers of overly-humanizing Thomas Jefferson -- a historical figure who is usually seen as a hero. By sweeping the unpleasant aspects of someone under the rug, it becomes difficult to think critically about their role in history as either a personal figure or a national leader. There are, of course, issues in the contrast; danger lies in humanizing the villains of history as well.
Yes, they are people and should be treated as such within art - a medium that exists to communicate different facets of what it means to be human. But making an audience sympathize with assassins to the point where you can understand why they killed (or tried to kill) presidents is perilous. Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical Assassins tells the story of John Wilkes Booth, Charles J. Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, and Lee Harvey Oswald (as well as a handful of other would-be assassins).
The narrator, the Balladeer, describes Booth (and the other assassins) as madmen early in the show, “Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along,” but the majority of the musical is told from the point of view of the people set out to kill various leaders of the nation. It’s a fascinating premise, and one that is wonderfully told at that. In fact, the risk comes from the talented storytelling; the characters are so convinced of their convictions and speak of them so genuinely that the audience understands where these murderers are coming from; they may even feel more than just empathy.
At the climactic moment of the show, the assassins gather around Lee Harvey Oswald to convince him to pull the trigger of his Carcano rifle and murder the thirty-fifth president of the United States. Throughout the show, the audience has grown to understand the plights of these killers. At this moment, when all of their arguments cluster around one indecisive man, there is a voice in the back of the head of every person watching: do it.
And, as we all know, he does. Oswald pulls the trigger; he kills President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The audience wanted him to do so. Even before the audience gets a chance to reconcile their emotions; to find a way to explain to themselves that it is okay that they were rooting for it, the song Something Just Broke begins.
This piece is heart-wrenching. It is an intimate portrait of how the country reacted to the assassination of their leader. Throughout the musical, the audience has become privy to the darkest and most personal aspects of the people history labels as monsters. At this moment in the show, the audience hears from the people history forgets.
The show shirks the timeline given to us in history class; it leaves behind the mythic and the monstrous of the past; without the names and dates that prop up our understanding of events, there is no hiding from the jarring and personal. If the humanity given to the assassins seems excessive, it is met in the number Something Just Broke. The everyday people of the past, while getting less stage time, gets the same chance to be just as human as the titular characters. If the humanity of Sondheim and Weidman seems to go too far, it is only because it manages to capture so much of the human experience -- the disgusting and the heartbreaking and everything in between -- in such a short time.
(Photo credit Ben Krantz)