Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: Anachronism Yea Yea

December 27, 2010 at 10:16 pm, by

On Monday November 22, I had the pleasure of seeing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a brilliant punk-rock retelling of the biography of the seventh American president. The basic gag of the show is that this 18th/19th Century story is cast somewhere between 1776 and American Idiot. While the actors wear costumes reflective of the time when Jackson lived, the characters speak, sing, move and swear like 21st Century emo rockers and groupies.

Besides seeing the show, I was able to sit in at a Q&A talkback with the playwright, Alex Timbers, and composer, Michael Friedman. Speaking of the genesis of the musical, they mentioned that making a “punk-rock musical about Andrew Jackson” was simply a dream of theirs from the outset. They agreed that, of all the early American presidents, Andrew Jackson was the most emo: he was against the authorities (hence, the opening number of “Populism Yea Yea”), he was pretty socially inept, and he was a wrist-slitter (practicing blood-letting quite a while after it had already been deemed a medically questionable practice).

Further blending contemporary America with Jackson’s America are the many parallels between the politics of these two eras: today’s questions of foreign policy and border patrol resonate with Jackson’s controversial battles, or sometimes agreements, with American Indian populations; just as Obama and members of the Tea Party today are seen as figures formerly removed from  the political realm, Jackson was the first “commoner” President as he was born in neither Virginia nor Massachusetts; and, aside from Jackson’s dedication to the American people (a plurality of voices that made his voice ambiguous at times), still further parallels become apparent in Timbers’ and Friedman’s show.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was determining what percent of what was portrayed was actually true. According to the writers, very little was made up; almost anything that sounds hard-to-believe was not made up (Jackson’s bigamy, highly inappropriate public speeches, mixed messages, etc.). I guess that leaves the only false thing about the show to be the historically inaccurate stuff: the telephones, the electronic wheelchairs, etc.

Somehow, being told that everything was true—unless I knew for a fact that it wasn’t—was comforting to me, on two levels: (1) I could be more sure of what I could reject in what I learned that evening about Andrew Jackson, and (2) this made me reconsider the problems I have with Aggadah, rabbinic tales that help explain other ideas or myths in Judaism.

I wondered if, perhaps, when Aggadah was compiled, there was a common agreement among Jews who lived in the days when the Aggadah spread: Aggadah might explain and clarify a lot of things, but Midrash may be marked by historically inaccurate elements. (A snippet of Aggadah might for example speak of a sage who met with a king even when that sage lived at a time when there no local king; however, the kernels of truth that come out of the conversation recorded in the Aggadah might still resonate to someone encountering the Aggadah—even if that king never existed.)

For some reason, no other show or film has so carefully justified Aggadah to me as provocatively as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Although I saw a depiction of Jackson that was historically implausible, rewriting archaic speech and music into contemporary idioms made this musical a very comprehensible translation of what Jackson’s life was like.

Learning about Jackson’s precociousness, indecisiveness, and hostility through a modern retelling taught me more about Jackson probably than a historically faithful musical might have. So, I believe that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson does what good Aggadah often does: it teaches us truths that we can only discover if we’re willing to mix our imagination with our perception of reality for just a moment. The past can teach us about the present and the future, but, in order to learn about the past, we sometimes need to think about the past in terms of the present. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and a good piece of Aggadah share a similar talent: the power to teach truths that transcend the boundaries of time.

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