Call it the “Jefferson conundrum.” And the issue is this: How could Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father of this country who, at the age of 33, penned the Declaration of Independence (a document that declared “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”) also spend his life as the owner of several plantations in Virginia that were worked by hundreds of slaves?
In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton,” Jefferson is portrayed as an aristocrat with a passion for France (where he served as ambassador), who arrives back in the U.S. in 1789 and, in a song that never fails to generate audience laughter, asks: “What’d I Miss?” Then, as he argues for his financial plan for the country, Hamilton chides Jefferson with these (applause-generating) lines: “Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor/’We plant seeds in the South. We create.’/ Yeah, keep ranting/We know who’s really doing the planting.”
Some historians have criticized the musical for what they consider to be an idealized depiction of Hamilton (who was by no means an abolitionist) and a vilification of Jefferson. Now, in his play, “Monticello,” which opens Aug. 6 in a world premiere production by Aurora Theatre Works Inc., Thomas R. Geoghagen, the distinguished Chicago labor lawyer and author with a longtime passion for theater, tries to come to terms with all the contradictions embodied by Jefferson in what is something of a fantasia rooted in fact.
And playing opposite Jefferson is none other than Edgar Allan Poe, the poet and short story writer known as a master of the macabre and an inventor of detective fiction.
When: Aug. 3-Sept. 3
Where: St. Bonaventure Oratory, 1625 W. Diversey
“This play was never meant to be a riposte to ‘Hamilton,’ which hadn’t even been produced when I started writing, and which I will only see for the first time in October,” said Geoghegan. “I’ve been thinking about Jefferson for years, and finally, about two years ago, several friends turned to me and said ‘Just write it!’ ”
Why Jefferson? “Well, in a certain way he invented this country — far more than Hamilton. He was immensely influential, with the Declaration of Independence defining what this country should be like, for better or for worse. And that document remains the best piece of ‘resistance’ writing even now. Jefferson was something of an anarchist, a true free spirit who was against all government. Of course, no one could be on his side completely because of the terrible paradox: Here was a slave owner who at the same time proclaimed that we should throw aside every bond. But it’s important to remember that the whole country was the world’s No. 1 slave power at the time, even as it also was the one democracy in the world.”
Geoghegan’s play, directed by Anthony Irons, an actor and Congo Square Theatre Company ensemble member who most recently directed its excellent production of “Hobo King,” is set near the very end of Jefferson’s life (he died in 1826, at the age of 83).
“I started out by wanting Jefferson to explain himself in a way that cast light on our predicament today,” said Geoghegan. “But I didn’t want him to be in conversation with John Adams, James Madison or Hamilton. I wanted it to be with Poe, whose story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is about a darkly haunted but cultured family, just as Jefferson’s home at Monticello was a house of reason and enlightenment, yet at the same time was caught up in the original sin of slavery.”
And, as the fates would have it, Poe happened to be enrolled in the fledgling University of Virginia in 1826. Whether or not he was among the students said to have paid visits to Jefferson is pure speculation, but it was enough to set Geoghegan’s imagination in motion. So here we have the burgeoning young writer challenging Jefferson on many issues, just as the dying man, whose estate is in debt and whose family is in chaos, must make a grave choice. Should he appease the wealthy interests of the young country by saying the Declaration of Independence does not apply to enslaved people? Or should he cement his legacy and the freedom of generations of black Americans by denouncing the inhuman institution on which the fragile economy depends?
Along the way, the playwright also introduces us to Jefferson’s daughter, Martha; Sally Hemings, his slave and “mistress”; Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s, and others.
As Irons observed: “The play, like all Tom’s work, is on the theme of social justice, and about where we stand individually, and as a society in terms of race relations. It reinvigorates the debate about just what Jefferson meant when he said ‘all men are created equal.’ And it gives us the dichotomy in Jefferson — the hypocrisy of a man who wrote one thing and lived another. It’s an argument play. It’s also quite comedic. And I have to say I was struck by a beautiful recent image — a photograph of all of Jefferson’s descendants who form a rainbow of colors.”