Theater: Jim Kelly, sci-fi writer and alternate historian
New Hampshire writer plays “what if” with American history
By Robert Greene
James Patrick Kelly is a trench soldier in the science-fiction wars. He’s not one of the big guns — like William Gibson, Issac Asimov or Robert Silverberg. He’s a little guy who ventures into the unknown future with a small-caliber rifle full of well-crafted bullets (short stories). In 1996, Kelley won a Hugo Award (a very nice honor for a sci-fi writer) for his short story Think Like a Dinosaur. Along the way he has penned essays, planetarium shows, reviews and plays. His latest play, The Duel, is an exploration of what might have happened had Aaron Burr not killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel back in 1804. The Duel will premier at the West End Studio Theatre in Portsmouth Jan. 13 through 22, before hopping over to the Palace Theatre in Manchester for a one-shot show Jan. 26. [Burr, by the way, came within one Electoral College vote of being the third U.S. president. In those days, the election’s winner took the presidency while the runner-up, often of a different party, became the VP.]
Tell me about this play.
It’s a play that is a weird mixture of history and not history. The first act is all historical, about the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Of course, Aaron Burr at the time was the sitting vice president of the United States [under Thomas Jefferson]. And Alexander Hamilton was the leader of the opposition party. They had a long-standing personal animosity. One of the things that was interesting about this is, as famous as the duel is, how little is known about the motives of the two principles. One theory is for the reason why Hamilton did not back off — Burr gave him many, many opportunities to say “Oh, I was misunderstood. No harm, no foul” and back off. But he never did and he, in fact, was more and more defiant. One theory is that he was quite concerned that Burr had connected with people in Hamilton’s own party with the idea of convincing them to move New York out of the Union over slavery. It’s sort of like dry history but in some ways it’s actually very sexy when you think about the possibility of Civil War being fought 50 years earlier.
The second half of the play is about what would have happened if Burr had not shot and killed Hamilton.
What put this idea into your head?
One reason why I wrote this is: we hear a lot these days about the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and how, in this country, it seems inevitable that we would spread liberal, democratic ideals across the world. The fact of the matter is the Framers and the Founders were making it up as they went along. The ironic thing here is: Burr was the sitting vice president and Jefferson was the President but, in the election that put them there, they tied in the Electoral College. They did 33 rounds of voting in the Electoral College before Jefferson made a political deal to break the deadlock. Both of them could have been president, but Jefferson cut a deal. And thereafter, Jefferson had absolutely no use for Burr and absolutely cut him out of the administration. In fact, at the time of the duel, Jefferson had picked a new vice president. Burr, realizing that he was dead politically with the Republicans (the party of the day that eventually became the Democrats), ran for governor of New York, seeking the help of the Federalists, which is one of the things that got up Hamilton’s nose. So Hamilton worked very hard to defeat Burr [the two were once friends and partners in a law firm] and, indeed, did defeat Burr. And in the process of that, one night he was up in Albany with some political supporters and he said, “Well, Burr is basically an awful person and he has done some even more despicable things. And I could tell you something even more despicable but I blush to say it.” This got into the newspaper and when Burr read this he went ballistic. What is even more despicable than despicable? Killing puppies? Tearing the Pope’s picture in half on national television? And this is where the challenge came from. Once again, to talk about how fuzzy history is: We don’t know what that “despicable” thing was, the thing that was more than despicable. We do know that Hamilton was saying that Burr had no party loyalty, that he would switch parties at the drop of a dime, that he was a spendthrift ...
Dueling was legal at this time, or do I remember something about Burr being charged with murder?
Dueling was not legal at this time. He was charged with murder. Dueling was illegal in New York but for some reason it was less illegal in New Jersey. These two fellows lived in Manhattan and rowed across the Hudson to New Jersey on the other side.
There was also some talk that Hamilton missed Burr on purpose, right?
There is a whole school of thought about that, too. After Burr came back and Hamilton died, the press was all over his case. They did bring charges against him but they were eventually dismissed on grounds of self defense. Hamilton said, in his final letter, which I used in the play — both these guys spent the night before the duel writing out their thoughts about what was about to happen and their thoughts for their families — Hamilton said that he would “waste his shot” and in fact, after the duel, even though both the seconds reported that both guns had been fired, Hamilton wakes up on the boat as he was being rowed back and said “Watch out for that pistol, it hasn’t been fired yet.” So, what’s that about?
And that’s all in the first act?
That’s all in the first act. And then the only non-historical thing happens — they miss. Hamilton shoots into the air. And Burr is fit to be tied. He knows that he can’t shoot Hamilton because then it would be murder. So he shoots into the ground and says something to the effect that “this isn’t over.”
The second act is the part in which, because Burr was not disgraced, he has the clout to to become the leader of the secessionist northern states. So they secede and the Civil War comes early. In the second act, the secessionists have lost and Burr, the last leader of the Confederation, is holed up in the little town of Nottingham, New Hampshire, waiting to see if England is going to enter the war on his behalf.
For tickets ($25) to The Duel at the Palace, visit the Web site at palacetheatre.org or call the box office at 668-5588.