Blood In The Clover:
Stephen Sondheim's “Assassins” In The Classroom
Wilkes Booth laments that “the country is not what it was,” early on
in “Assassins,” he initiates one of the recurring motifs of the play: America
as a lost paradise where promised opportunities always materialized without
fail and everybody had “the right to be happy.” Nostalgic longing for the
once perfect land mingles paradoxically with acknowledgement of the irreversibly
fallen state of the Union, as Booth mourns, “the country can never again
be the hope that it was.” Ultimately, the image of America as paradise is
a false one, as is our notion that the American classroom is an innocent
garden where young minds must be protected from exposure to the darker underbelly
of the culture.
Nobody explodes this myth better than Dr. Daniel Victor, teacher of American Literature at the Hamilton Humanities Magnet in the Los Angeles Unified School District. For the past four years, Dr. Victor has included the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical “Assassins” in his 11th Grade curriculum. Although the students of Hamilton are no strangers to Sondheim (other teachers in the program examine “Pacific Overtures,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday In The Park With George,” and “Into The Woods” in cultural, political, and literary contexts), bringing a controversial work like “Assassins” into the high school classroom seemed risky. However, the play has proven to be one of the more popular and memorable literary experiences that Dr. Victor’s students have during their Junior year.
Indeed, teaching the play took on particular resonance this year, coming as it did in the wake of the horrific massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, perpetrators of the Columbine killings, whose personal and political philosophies were published on the internet before the outburst, bear uncomfortable similarities to Sondheim’s assassins, a fact that was not lost on either Dan Victor or his students. According to Victor, Booth and his misfit contingent in “Assassins” are merely symptomatic of a deeper pathology inherent in American culture, a need for attention, influence, and validation of one’s “specialness,” which, when unfulfilled, can lead to a heightened sense of exclusion and paranoid alienation, sometimes manifesting itself violently, as exemplified by Klebold and Harris’ rampage. “In the light of Columbine,” Victor says, “the assassins in the play didn’t seem as weird as they have to students in the past.” Although the recent tragedy has added a new dimension to approaching the play, Victor spotted the richness of the Sondheim/Weidman text from the moment he encountered it.
His initial experience with “Assassins” came via a production staged by the Los Angeles Repertory Theatre Company, under the direction of Peter Ellenstein. Victor recalls, “These considerable events were treated with a respect and overall seriousness--even while using humor and satire--that I felt the subject matter demanded. It could have been farcical or foolish or trivializing, but it was not. That’s what immediately impressed me.” And “Assassins” is so compelling as a teaching tool because “virtually nobody looks at the enormity of this subject,” he says, “but I find it an extremely interesting topic, so tremendously relevant and yet so tremendously underplayed and ignored. In fact, the silence surrounding these assassinations tells us quite a bit more about ourselves as a society than we probably want to admit, and Sondheim and Weidman exploit that discomfort with great wit and insight.”
Because the Humanities curriculum encourages students to make connections across disciplines, by teaching “Assassins” Victor ensures the students are not just doing literary analysis but historical and musical analysis as well. “Teaching, to me, is a matter of getting students to think critically and read critically, not just about assigned texts but also about real life events,” he explains, “and presenting this play is an excellent way of raising some of those issues to a higher level. Sondheim and I are on the same wavelength, I think,” he continues, “in that we both like to raise questions, and we both recognize that the ability of music to grant access to complex ideas which might not otherwise be comprehended is powerful and seductive. This combination makes for a meaningful experience in the classroom. History is a song, and perhaps the play will stimulate kids to think about and pursue these issues more actively than they might have reading only the more traditional literary texts.”
The 11th Grade curriculum at The Hamilton Humanities Magnet focuses on American Studies, and for Dan Victor the study of American culture is the study of its inherent paradoxes, communicated beautifully in the way Sondheim sets his ominous lyrics about American desperation to such wholesome sounding music, with overt melodic and rhythmic references to icons of American composition such as Sousa, Copland, and Foster, among others. Right away he can demonstrate to the students the contradictions in a very vivid way. An abstract concept like ‘paradox’ is made immediately concrete. He notes, “the kids respond with shock and amusement at the juxtaposition. Also, it ties back into the idea that history is a song and also connects nicely to Walt Whitman’s ‘I Hear America Singing’. The characters in ‘Assassins’ represent a very different America singing from the one Whitman invokes.”
One paradox Victor likes to cover is the misconception of America as a fallen paradise, a motif evoked in the play’s first song, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” during which the assassins sing together, “Pick your apple/ Take a bite.” Students are asked to consider how the paradise of America was the product of a bloody revolution, hardly an Edenic perfection, a place wherein the right to pursue happiness and the right to bear arms were not only unalienable but inseparable, implying of course that such a paradise was never really a paradise at all, and yet there are those who cling to the illusion, commiting acts of violence in an ironic attempt to restore paradise even while acknowledging that such a reversal is impossible. Victor muses wryly about this recurring motif in the American psyche, “Loss of Innocence is the theme of every major American event, including assassinations. It’s an American staple. The Vietnam War: The end of our Innocence! The Kennedy Assassination: The end of our Innocence! Watergate: The end of our Innocence! The Clinton Impeachment: The end of our Innocence! Now, the Columbine killings, the Innocence of the American High School lost! As a society we love to entertain this view of ourselves.”
Another paradoxical motif that runs through the play is the idea/illusion of The American Dream, a commonly enough explored theme in high school literature classes. Any number of 20th Century novels, plays and poems have dealt with the false promises that this country holds out to its present and future citizens. What distinguishes the characters in “Assassins,” however, is that they cling to their sense of entitlement even amidst their bitter disenfranchisement from the American mainstream. American political assassins have been mostly middle or working-class white people, unencumbered with the burdens of poverty and discrimination, hungry sometimes, yes, but not starving, who grow especially upset at being locked out of the Dream that was supposed to be their reality. They were raised believing it not just possible but guaranteed that they would be Somebody, that they would win the “prize,” hence the profound disappointment when that status is not attained.
Zangara describes himself as “an American nothing.” John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme sing the refrain, “I am nothing.” In analyzing this recurring image, being a ‘nothing,’ Victor explains, “It is very important for the students to ponder this question seriously: When one is raised in a society that promises a ‘prize,’ be it fortune or fame or whatever, an elevated identity, what kind of damage does that do to the psyches of those who don’t succeed? And when you build a society on the idea that everybody has the opportunity to win, and you base that society on a Gun-Culture, then you pay the price. To the victims of Columbine High and their families that price was dear indeed. In this country, you may not be able to get anything else, but no matter how poor or how young you are you can always get a gun, even if you’re a couple of high school kids. And Guiteau reminds us very clearly, in ‘The Gun Song’: ‘When you’ve got a gun everybody pays attention,’ which brings us to the Willy Loman reference that arises during the Oswald scene: Attention must be paid.”
Students in Victor’s class have already read “Death of a Salesman” by the time they get to “Assassins,” making the Willy Loman allusions especially pertinent. “Arthur Miller had his finger on the same thing as Sondheim and Weidman,” Victor observes. Willy Loman is “an American nothing” who didn’t get the attention that Americans tend to feel entitled to as part of their birthright. That is the source of his anguish. He commits suicide instead of killing the president. “He did something dumb,” as Booth puts it. Continuing in a similar vein, Victor suggests, “In a way, Booth pioneered an art form.”
It might seem strange to speak of political assassination as an art form, but one mustn’t forget that the first assassination of an American president did take place in a theatre and was committed by an actor. Victor continues, “Booth is a pioneer in that he is the first one to commit this act, and had it not been done in the first place it might have been a crime so horrific that no one would have even contemplated it. Booth’s appearance is the manifestation of something that’s now embedded in the American psyche. If you want to make yourself known, kill the president. However stupid, foolish, sexually-driven or insane you are, by killing the President you are immediately elevated. It enobles your act, no matter how trivial your motivations.”
Getting Attention, too, has become a kind of a national mania, not just a craving reserved for America’s social outcasts. “The bystanders in the song ‘How I Saved Roosevelt’ essentially want the same thing as the asssassins,” Victor explains, “In all, the play is really a presentation of different points of view with a common denominator. In fact we could take this one step further: The proprietor of the carnival at the beginning hails Booth as ‘Chief,’ which connects him to the President, whose fanfare, which we hear at the start of the next scene, is entitled ‘Hail To The Chief.’ That puts the President of the United States on the same level as the political assassins. Are the kinds of things the President does equivalent to political assassinations? Certainly, as they are depicted in the play, Booth, Czolgosz and Zangara would agree that they are. Proposing such ideas to the students really gets them thinking critically about their assumptions and their criteria for judgement.”
The assassins, of course, are distinguished from the average American desiring success by the great severity of their disconnection from the everyday world. The disconnection that ironically “unites” all the assassins is illustrated to great effect in the song “I Am Unworthy Of Your Love,” the song from the show that Victor claims is usually the favorite among the students. Here we have a duet being sung by two people on stage together, John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme, who are not singing to each other but rather to idealized fantasies, Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, to whom, in fact, the two singers have only the most tenuous connections. “The grotesqueness of it all,” Victor says, “is most apparent in this number. The characters singing are feeling the song deeply, yet when the viewer becomes aware of what they are singing about, and to whom they are singing, it is most discomfiting: A disconnected love song sung by two people not in love with each other, not in love with real human beings, even. This brings us back to the power of music to seduce.”
Many people aren’t aware that the real life Charles Guiteau, just before his execution, said the following about his poem “I Am Going To The Lordy:” “If set to music these words may be rendered effective.” One wonders if Sondheim read that statement and took it as an invitation. In reaction to this possibility, Victor offers, “Yes, history is a song, again, you see. And if history is a song, and Oswald doesn’t have a song (which he doesn’t in ‘Assassins’) then what does that say about Oswald, or Sondheim’s conception of his role in this confederacy of assassins?” This sounds like the making of a possible essay topic.
Which gives rise to the inevitable question at the end of any educational inquiry: How does one assess student understanding? The students who study “Assassins” with Dr. Victor, though they are engaged in a very unusual literary experience, are expected to write very traditional essays in response when the unit is over. For example, they are asked to choose an assassin and discuss what makes him both typical of real life Americans and different. Or they have to discuss the Walt Whitman line, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,” as a fitting headnote to “Assassins.” Given the definition of Satire as “humor with the intent to reform,” students must apply that definition to the play. More provocatively, Victor asks students to confront the argument that such topics as real life political assassinations should not be treated lightly and then defend the generally upbeat musical score of “Assassins.”
This year, Victor added a new topic: Compare Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to the assassins in the play. The student responses to this obviously popular topic were thoughtful and moving. One student wrote, “Both the assassins and Klebold/Harris felt the same power and effect, and it fulfilled a psychological need for attention, a sense of ‘mattering.’ As outsiders, becoming the focus of the nation must have been something they always needed. Previously overlooked and rejected, now they were part of society, even though it was a society they hated.” Another student observed, “Like the presidential assassins, Klebold and Harris felt mistreated and oppressed by society. Facing constant pain and ridicule at the hands of their immediate society, they retaliated by shooting their chief tormentors; for the assassins, the President of the United States embodied this torment; for Klebold and Harris, tragically, it was their fellow students.”
Is this proper stuff with which to be filling the heads of impressionable young men and women? “Absolutely,” contends Victor, “it teaches them to think for themselves and about themselves as Americans and their place in this society.” Isn’t he worried that the lines “There’s another national anthem, and I think it just began in the ballpark” near the end of the play function as a menacing threat that the sentiments of the nation’s underbelly are creeping into mainstream American thought? No, he is not. “History is a song,” repeats Victor, “and if the beat goes on, then everything’s all right with the world.”
© 1999 by Barry Smolin