BOOTH: You know, you really ought to do something about that stomach.
ZANGARA: I do everything about this stomach!
BOOTH: Oh, yes?
ZANGARA: I give up wine, no good. I give up smokes, no good. I quit my work, no good. I move Miami, no good. I take appendix out, no good. Nothing no good. Nothing, nothing, nothing!
BOOTH: Have you considered shooting Franklin Roosevelt?
ZANGARA: You think that help?
BOOTH: It couldn’t hurt.
In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, lots of people wrote lots of thinkpieces about lots of different art that could putatively “explain” This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit, whether through its content (e.g. Idiocracy) or the cultural discourse surrounding it (e.g. the truly wild amount of controversy and debate about the Ghostbusters remake). I understand the impulse, even if I find it misguided and sad. People want a piece of media to unlock everything because it creates the illusion that you can understand and control things that are either inexplicable or which require you to re-evaluate yourself and your life in a way that’s uncomfortable or even painful. It’s not really that different from why people become conspiracy theorists, though art is usually a less dangerous lens through which to seek clarity. The main musical afflicted with this unfair burden was Hamilton, which was held up as either a celebration of bipartisan procedural democracy or a rebuke to rising xenophobia, depending on what was convenient. But some other musicals got the same treatment, including Evita and Assassins. (Not The Fix though, because no one gives a shit about The Fix.)
Assassins¹ is a very strange musical, even for Stephen Sondheim, one of the form’s most idiosyncratic writers. (He wrote the music and lyrics; John Weidman wrote the book.) It concerns some of the various men and women (mostly men) who assassinated or attempted to assassinate Presidents of the United States, with a particular focus on those who succeeded: John Wilkes Booth, Charles J. Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz and Lee Harvey Oswald. You could say it has a non-linear plot, since it presents the assassinations out of order, but that understates the oddness of its narrative structure.
Between assassinations, all the characters hang out in a kind of purgatory that exists before, after and alongside their lives. John Wilkes Booth, who died in 1865, gives Giuseppe Zangara the idea to shoot FDR in 1933. John Hinckley, Jr. and Sara Jane Moore sing a duet about their plans to kill Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford respectively. Like Into the Woods, another Sondheim musical, it has an omniscient narrator who comes into conflict with the characters and is eventually destroyed by them. It’s very weird, very dark and very, very funny. It’s one of my favourite musicals of all time.
I don’t think Assassins can explain the current political moment. I don’t think any work of art can, because art just isn’t very good at providing answers like that. But art is excellent at asking questions or reframing how we think. Not much leaves me thinking quite like Assassins does.
Assassins opens with the official anthem of the President of the United States: “Hail to the Chief”. It repeats intermittently throughout the score and Guiteau leads a toast to the office with the phrase. Much later, in the song “Another National Anthem”, these characters will sing that, while people “may not understand all the words, all the same, they hear the music”. For me, it’s the key line to understanding Assassins. Many of the characters expound on their motives, but people are not the best articulators of their inner selves. We can’t just look at what people say matters to them, we need to understand the context the words are embedded in. Zangara says he didn’t try to kill Roosevelt because he had any particular issue with him, but because blames the mistreatment of the rich for his stomach pain. He initially planned to kill the sitting President, Herbert Hoover, but it was “too cold for the stomach in Washington”, so he went to Miami to kill the man who’d just been elected to succeed him. You could say Zangara’s motive was his stomach pain, or hatred of the rich, but he mentions other ways he’s suffered in his song – “Zangara have nothing / No luck, no girl / Zangara no smart, no school” – and is outraged when someone calls him “some left-wing foreigner” because he’s an American citizen, not a “foreign tool”. Though no two assassins are alike, all of them have a lot more going on than their stated motives. Assassins looks past the obvious explanation and digs into what lies underneath, all the context that precedes their decision to pull the trigger. But it’s not looking for a different explanation. The point isn’t to say what “really” motivated Zangara or any of the others. All the characters are sick in some way – physically, mentally, spiritually, morally – but it’s not as interested in diagnosing them as studying the illness itself.
Assassins’ purgatory is a carnival with a shooting range where customers can win a prize by shooting the President. The Proprietor sings “Everybody’s Got a Right” as eight of our nine assassins enter and invites each one to play the game. The first seven are:
- Leon Czolgosz (28), assassin of President William McKinley
- John Hinckley, Jr. (26), attempted assassin of President Ronald Reagan
- Charles J. Guiteau (40), assassin of President James Garfield
- Giuseppe Zangara (32), attempted assassin of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt
- Samuel Byck (44), attempted assassin of President Richard Nixon
- Lynette Fromme (26), attempted assassin of President Gerald Ford
- Sara Jane Moore (45), attempted assassin of President Gerald Ford
The Proprietor appeals to the woes of each of the men, their loneliness and pain, and tells them that shooting a President will make them feel better. He discourages the women from participating but relents when they threaten him. The eighth assassin is hailed by the Proprietor as “our pioneer”. John Wilkes Booth (26), the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, was the first person to successfully kill the sitting President of the United States. He joins the Proprietor in singing “Everybody’s Got the Right”, just one of several ways the play distinguishes him from the other assassins. “Everybody’s Got the Right” is one of two ideas about America that runs through Assassins. It’s the version of the American Dream that sees it as an entitlement. Not just something everybody should have, but something everyone should be given. It starts off innocuous enough. The Proprietor sings that “everybody’s got the right to be happy” and assures the assassins that “life’s not as bad as it seems”. But the context – he’s handing out guns to assassins, after all – undercuts the bright rhetoric and the darker undercurrents come to the fore as he duets with Booth:
BOOTH: Free country!
PROPRIETOR: Means your dreams can come true
BOOTH: Be a scholar—
PROPRIETOR: —Make a dollar
TOGETHER: Free country!
BOOTH: Means they listen to you
PROPRIETOR: Scream and holler
BOOTH: Grab ’em by the collar!
TOGETHER: Free country!
BOOTH: Means you don’t have to sit
PROPRIETOR: That’s it!
BOOTH: And put up with the shit!
The other is a version of the American Dream that sees it as a possibility, not a promise. Instead of a song, it’s represented by a character, the Balladeer, who arrives shortly after Booth to sing the first of three songs about the successful assassins, “The Ballad of Booth”. The Balladeer is our part-time narrator, telling us the stories of Booth, Czolgosz and Guiteau, and he’s not just an earnest believer in the American Dream, he is earnest belief in the American Dream itself. Instead of the rhetoric of “Everybody’s Got the Right” – which is all about what a person is owed by the world – the Balladeer sings about how America is the land of opportunity, where anyone can have the life they want if they work hard enough. And if you don’t get what you want, well, you just didn’t work hard enough, and you need to keep trying. The Proprietor and the Balladeer don’t sound all that different at first, with both telling the characters to keep their chins up, because they’re two sides of the same coin. They both represent the American Dream, but they emphasise different parts of it and the tension between those parts – between the promise of happiness and the mere possibility of it – is the core conflict of the musical. The Balladeer opens “The Ballad of Booth” singing
“Someone tell the story
Someone sing the song
Every now and then the country
Goes a little wrong
Every now and then a madman’s
Bound to come along
Doesn’t stop the story—
Story’s pretty strong
Doesn’t change the song…”
He’s right, at least in this case. Booth’s assassination of Lincoln does not present a challenge to the American Dream. “The Ballad of Booth” picks up twelve days after the assassination. Booth is trapped in a barn with his accomplice, David Herold, and surrounded by soldiers. He’s read some of the contemporary speculation about his motives in the news, as sung by the Balladeer: “They say your ship was sinkin’, John / You started missing cues / They say it wasn’t Lincoln, John / You’d merely had a slew of bad reviews”. Booth screams at him to shut up. He wants to write a letter explaining the reasons for his crime, so that history will “not rob [him] of its meaning”. He’s too injured to hold a pen, so he forces Herold to write it at gunpoint. He charges Abraham Lincoln with “the following high crimes and misdemeanors”:
“One: That you did ruthlessly provoke a war between the States, which cost some six hundred thousand of my countrymen their lives.
Two: That you did silence your critics in the North, by hurling them into prison without benefit of charge or trial.
The Balladeer interrupts him there and Herold flees when the commanding officer of the soldiers outside threatens to burn down the barn if they don’t surrender. Booth begs the Balladeer to help him finish his letter and continues ranting in song. He calls Lincoln “a righteous whore” and says he “slew the tyrant, just as Brutus slew the tyrant”. The song builds and builds as Booth piles on more and more justification. He weeps that “the nation can never again be the hope that it was”. Some of what he says is reasonable – Lincoln really did suspend habeas corpus so he could lock up political opponents during the Civil War – or at least vaguely noble-sounding. But he’s lying through his teeth, definitely to the world and maybe even to himself, because his real motive, in his life and in this play, was racism. Booth was an ardent supporter of slavery and an unvarnished white supremacist. He supported the Confederacy because he supported the continued domination of the white ruling-class over enslaved black people. And so, as the song reaches its crescendo, Booth shows his true face and screams that Lincoln was a “vulgar, high and mighty n*****r-lover”. It jolts you the first time you hear it (and most times after, if we’re frank), because his portrait of himself had been so flattering until he shredded it with one word. He prays to God that he will live on in history, then shoots himself in the head. The Balladeer curses him for setting an example that “other madmen” would follow, but reassures the audience that none of them will undermine the American Dream:
“Listen to the stories
Hear it in the songs
Angry men don’t write the rules
And guns don’t right the wrongs
Hurts a while
But soon the country’s
Back where it belongs
And that’s the truth
Still and all
Damn you, Booth!”
The Balladeer makes the point of view on America he represents – he calls it “the story” or “song” – clearer in his subsequent appearances in “The Ballad of Czolgosz” and “The Ballad of Guiteau”.
Leon Czolgosz was a factory worker and anarchist who assassinated William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901. He became involved in left-wing political spaces after a strike at the factory where he worked and gradually shifted from trade unionist to anarchist as he became more concerned with general social injustice. He had a shy, blunt, awkward manner and struggled to make friends in the anarchist community, because they thought he was an incompetent spy. In his life, he was a follower of Emma Goldman, who he met once, and in this play, he’s also in love with her.
Czolgosz is the most reluctant of the assassins: between the assassinations themselves, they all hang out at the carnival, interacting with each other. In an early scene, the one where Booth suggests that Zangara shoot Roosevelt, Hinckley accidentally breaks a bottle and Czolgosz lectures him about the toil, danger and unfair pay he suffers as a worker in a glass bottle factory. Guiteau, the consummate Republican, tells him to get another job. When Czolgosz protests that it’s not that simple, Guiteau responds that he’s been a lawyer, insurance salesman and bill collector. Czolgosz says it’s all very well for well-off, educated people like Guiteau and Hinckley, but not an unschooled immigrant like him.
Charles J. Guiteau was a delusional writer who assassinated James Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. in 1881. He’s portrayed in Assassins as a true believer in the American Dream, whose faith holds strong against every one of his failures, feeling doubt only as he ascends the scaffold to be hanged for his crime. Czolgosz and Guiteau have equal and opposite reactions to the narrative of the American Dream as the Balladeer presents it. Czolgosz sees it as a lie used to disguise the exploitation of workers as a hopeful story of individual endeavour. Guiteau sees it as a guarantee that, one day, if he doesn’t give up, he’ll be wealthy, successful and admired. Czolgosz is a strident anti-capitalist radical. Guiteau is a huckster businessman, reinventing himself as, among other things, a preacher and a celebrated author. (He hands out copies of his book to the other assassins and, in some productions, members of the audience.) Czolgosz is disgusted by the injustice of the world and seeks to change it. Guiteau celebrates the status quo and really believes, in spite of all evidence, that all his delusions of grandeur will eventually come true.
Czolgosz abhors violence. He lifts a bottle to smash it in anger during his argument with Guiteau and Hinckley, but hesitates. Booth arrives to convince him. He and the Proprietor pop up throughout the play as Satan figures, tempting the male assassins to violence (the women tempt each other). Booth tells Zangara killing Roosevelt will cure his chronic stomach pain. The Proprietor tells Hinckley killing Reagan will finally make his real-life stalking victim – Jodie Foster – fall in love with him. But it takes a while to persuade Czolgosz. Booth tries to goad him into smashing the bottle. He tells him it’ll feel good. But Czolgosz refuses. However, after he meets Emma Goldman, Czolgosz opens “The Gun Song” with a verse about how many men it takes to make a gun:
“It takes a lot of men to make a gun
Many men to make a gun
Men in the mines to dig the iron
Men in the mills to forge the steel
Men at machines to turn the barrel
Mold the trigger, shape the wheel
It takes a lot of men to make a gun
Booth appears and wraps Czolgosz’s finger around the trigger. “All you have to do is move your little finger,” he sings, “and you can change the world”. Czolgosz responds “I hate this gun”. Guiteau joins the song with the opposite sentiment: “What a wonder is a gun! What a versatile invention! First of all, when you’ve a gun…” He spins the chamber of the revolver and points it at the audience. He holds it for a few seconds. “Everybody pays attention,” he continues. He lists all the things he can do with a gun: “remove a scoundrel, unite a party, preserve the Union, promote the sales of my book”. Moore follows to talk about how her gun, which she produces after fumbling through her handbag, “tells ‘em who you are, where you stand”. They join together to repeat Booth’s line about changing the world. Czolgosz closes the song with a reprise of the opening verse:
“A gun kills many men before it’s done
Long before you shoot the gun
Men in the mines and in the steel mills
Men at machines, who died for what?
Something to buy—a watch, a shoe, a gun
A thing to make the bosses richer
But a gun claims many men before it’s done
Just one more”
A burst of glittering flute, bright and shiny as a sunrise, announces the beginning of “The Ballad of Czolgosz” right as “The Gun Song” ends. The Balladeer tells the story of the assassination as if it was about some plucky go-getter striking out to find their fortune: “Czolgosz, working man / born in the middle of Michigan / woke with a thought and away he ran / to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo”. He uses the rhetoric of hard work and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps to describe Czolgosz queuing to meet McKinley – “in the USA, you can work your way to the head of the line” – as the contrast with the event itself grows more and more ironic. Czolgosz has decided violence is the only possible response to a world of greed and exploitation, but he doesn’t enjoy it. It’s not a triumphant moment, but the Balladeer uses the same language he’d use describing a bright-eyed self-starter moving up in the world through sheer force of grit and spunk. The irony is only more bitter because Czolgosz’s claimed motive – the one the play takes closest to face value – is the fact that most people don’t and can’t have the happy, prosperous life at the heart of the American Dream, no matter how hard they work.
Guiteau’s ballad is a little less upbeat, musically, and a different shade of ironic. The Balladeer and Guiteau both believe in the American Dream, so, while the Balladeer sings “The Ballad of Czolgosz” alone, he sings “The Ballad of Guiteau” with its subject. (Guiteau’s lyrics are based in part on a poem written by the real Charles J. Guiteau before his execution.) He dances up and down the steps to the noose as the Balladeer recounts his trial, where Guiteau claimed God ordered him to kill Garfield and seemed certain God would save him from execution. The Balladeer introduces Guiteau as someone “bound and convinced he’d end up a winner”, with “dreams that he’d never let go”, who “never said ‘never’ or heard the word ‘no’”. Guiteau begins and ends the chorus singing “look on the bright side” and sings about how you should never give up on your dreams, smile through setbacks and “wait ‘til you see tomorrow”. His optimism holds the whole way to the top of the steps and falters for a second, but he doubles down and gets excited about the possibility of becoming an angel. He called Czolgosz a pessimist during their earlier altercation, and he may even be right, but he doesn’t end up any different for his optimism. Both died in poverty and in prison, murdered by the state for murdering the President, and neither achieved the change or success (respectively) they wanted to come from their actions. Opposite men, identical outcomes.
The attempted assassins are drawn more thinly. Zangara has to share his song, “How I Saved Roosevelt”, with the ensemble of bystanders who claim to be responsible for Zangara missing FDR. Hinckley and Fromme duet on the super creepy love song “Unworthy of Your Love”, with the former addressing Jodie Foster and the latter addressing her boyfriend, Charles Manson. Moore develops mainly through conversations with Fromme, including one where they try to kill Moore’s father by giving the “evil eye” to a “graven image” of Colonel Sanders on the bucket of KFC that Moore carries in most of her appearances. Byck gives a pair of monologues loosely based on tapes he sent to the composer Leonard Bernstein (who co-wrote West Side Story with Sondheim) and his target, Nixon. They’re all interesting characters, from Zangara’s furious insistence that he’s neither left nor right, just American, to Fromme’s casual exposition of Manson’s ideology. (“Charlie says that in America the chickens are finally coming home to roost, rotting and reeking with the oozing pus of a society devouring its own anus.”) But none of them are explored in much detail or at length. The thinness is the point though: like I said, it’s less about the characters than their context. Despite their differences, they and Czolgosz and Guiteau all come from a similar place, both literally and figuratively. They’re all Americans, obviously, and most of them are poor. Zangara and Czolgosz were mistreated by their employers and express a hatred for the rich. The men are all romantically frustrated – Guiteau and Byck were divorced, the rest simply unsuccessful with women – and I love that the play takes the time to show that as an important part of their story without reducing them to lovesick loners. Hinckley, the most obvious candidate for this treatment, is also shown to suffer from catastrophically low self-image (“I am humiliated by my weakness and impotence” he writes in a letter to Foster) and bizarre fantasies of demonstrating his superiority over others by seizing the White House and establishing a monarchy. The assassins are all social outcasts of some kind, most are mentally-ill and several have a flimsy grasp on reality, whether it’s the possibly psychosomatic nature of Zangara’s chronic stomach pain or Guiteau’s belief that he will be appointed the next Ambassador to France. Their suffering overlaps and reflects each other.
But at the bottom of it all, there’s a sense of betrayal. They were told America was a country where anyone can be happy, where “everybody’s got the right to be happy”, emphasis mine. They’ve been told happiness is not just possible for them, but promised to them, provided they play the game. But the game is rigged. They may have different motives, but all the assassins know they’ve been denied their place in the sun by forces beyond their control. Byck rants in both monologues about the state of the world, calling it “a vicious, stinking pit of emptiness and pain”. He’s horrified by the stories in the news – “Grandma lives in packing crate. Sewage closes Jersey beaches. Saudi prince buys Howard Johnsons. What the hell is goin’ on here, Dick!?” – but he doesn’t see what he or anyone else who gives a shit can do about it as long as the status quo continues to benefit the ruling class. In his second monologue, he compares the Democrats and Republicans to neglectful parents, each assuring their child they love them even if the other doesn’t. They’re both lying. Neither of them cares about ordinary people, and since America is a two-party state, that leaves people who want change with no one to vote for. Byck is devastated by his powerlessness:
“And when we realize they’re lying, really realize it in our gut, then we get scared. Then we get terrified, like children waking in the dark, we don’t know where we are… Who do we believe? Who do we trust? What do we do?
We do the only thing we can do. We kill the President.”
The monologue leads right into the climax. “Another National Anthem” begins with the first eight assassins briefly restating their motives and joining together to bellow a single question: “Where’s my prize?” The Balladeer returns to plead with the assassins. He points out none of them achieved anything by their crimes:
“But it didn’t fix the stomach
And you’ve drunk your final Bud
And it didn’t help the workers
And it didn’t heal the country
And it didn’t make them listen
And they never said, ‘We’re sorry’—”
Byck cuts him off to say “it’s never gonna happen” and the others agree. The Balladeer tells them that America is a country where “you can be what you choose, from a mailman to a President”, that if they just keep trying, if they never give up, they can still make their dreams come true. “There are prizes all around you / if you’re wise enough to see / the delivery boy’s on Wall Street / and the usherette’s a rock star”. Byck rebukes him again and the assassins demand to be heard. Their despair curdles into rage just as the Proprietor sings that “there’s another national anthem playing / not the one you cheer / at the ball park”. He and the assassins sing this new melody, accompanied by brass, “for those who never win, for the suckers, for the pikers, for those who might have been”, while the Balladeer breaks in to argue unconvincingly against them, accompanied by woodwinds. But both the songs are ultimately two halves of the same coin, the American Dream in different vocabularies. The “other national anthem” crescendos as the assassins surround the Balladeer and turn his own idyllic rhetoric against him. They agree that “you’ve got to try again” and “mustn’t get discouraged” and “mustn’t give up hope”. Only now they’re talking about killing the President of the United States. They all sing “you can always get a prize”. Booth, alone, sings “you can always get your dream”.
When they part, the Balladeer has become Lee Harvey Oswald (26), the assassin of President John F. Kennedy. He’s in the Texas Book Depository on November 22nd, 1969. And he’s about to kill himself.
Booth arrives to persuade Oswald to kill Kennedy instead, followed by the other assassins (and, in some productions, Arthur Bremer, Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray). It’s a long scene, with lots of characters that ties together all the show’s ideas, all spoken, no song. Heartache, poverty, mental illness. The exploitation of the public by the ruling class. The emptiness of consumer culture. The lust for fame. How the United States’ history was written by those who won the game as a story where things just get better and better, set in a magical land of opportunity and prosperity where everyone gets the happy ending they deserve and anyone who doesn’t get a happy ending just didn’t try hard enough. Booth brings Oswald to the window where he will soon shoot Kennedy:
“Take a look, Lee. You know what that is? That’s America. The land where any kid can grow up to be President. The shining city, Lee. It shines so bright you have to shade your eyes. But in here, this is America too. ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ An American said that and he was right. Well let me tell you something, there are no lives of quiet desperation in here. Desperation, yes. But quiet? I don’t think so. Not today. Today, we are going to make a joyful noise.”
Oswald takes a lot of convincing – way more than Czolgosz – but he eventually relents. “Something Broke”, one of the most ‘meh’ songs that Sondheim has ever written, follows the assassination, with various anonymous Americans singing about where they were when they heard Kennedy was shot. It doesn’t gel all that well with the rest of the show – musically or thematically – and its absence is the one thing I prefer about the 1990 version. Assassins is a black comedy with moments of pathos and its songs drip with dark, bitter irony, except “Something Broke”, which is just a regurgitation of the myth that America’s innocence died with Kennedy, as if the country wasn’t built on slavery and genocide. But, once it’s over, it ends at the beginning, with all the assassins – Oswald included – reprising “Everybody’s Got the Right”. It sounds very different the second time around. The melody and tempo are the same, but after everything that’s happened, it’s way less funny and much, much darker. It crescendos with the ensemble screaming the word “connect” over and over.
Assassins pulls back the façade of the American Dream to show the grim reality underneath, and it’s not a simple picture. I could write a whole other essay on just its portrayal of celebrity or history or mental illness. I could dig into the wonderful ambiguity of Sara Jane Moore, who basically tries to shoot Gerald Ford to find herself, the way someone else might get really into yoga or travel. Byck’s monologues, along with Czologosz and Zangara’s songs, gesture at the disappearance of the left as a major political force in America over the course of the last century. It’s a rich text that anyone could spend hours picking apart.
But “connect” is the word emphasised in the final song, and if there’s something that Assassins sees as the base sickness at the heart of the country, it’s loneliness. It’s a cliché to say that humans are a social animal, but when you see the most extreme effects of isolation on the human, you begin to understand just how much it underpins our basic sense of reality and self. People who’ve survived solitary confinement have reported hearing the endless screaming of other prisoners only to realise they were the ones screaming all along. Cut off from other people, we can literally forget how to distinguish ourselves from our surroundings, and start to experience our own movement as an external force acting on our bodies. It’s disturbing and raises serious questions about whether we can even be people without other people around. Obviously, that’s a more extreme case than the “ordinary” loneliness that afflicts people outside prison, but it’s all part of a spectrum of suffering. Loneliness, isolation and abandonment are, ironically, the ties that bind the assassins. When the other assassins appear to Oswald, one of their temptations is that, once he kills Kennedy, he’ll finally belong. Guiteau and Moore sing “We’re your family” as he crosses to the window. Assassins shows lots of reasons people end up alone. Fromme was thrown out by her father. Hinckley is stigmatised for his mental illness. Czolgosz and Moore are just socially awkward and bad at making friends. But America itself is at issue too.
Most of the old nations are based around some kind of pre-existing commonality, like ethnicity, culture or religion, but America is a nation that claims values are at the core of its identity. Personal liberty. Rugged individualism. The American Dream. Where anyone can make their own way and prosper by their dedication and hard work. It’s an ideology that valorises individualism, self-interest and personal responsibility. It encourages people to pursue their own advancement over anything else, including friendship and family. The sacrifice will be worth it in the end, it promises, but it’s a lie. Even in the best of circumstances, not everyone can be a millionaire. The only reason being a millionaire means anything is because it lets you buy more things than other people. You can only be rich if others are poor. The American Dream depends on the failure of most people to achieve it. You give up every source of meaningful connection in your life because you believe you’ll be rewarded in the end. Then, when you fail, you discover you’re even more alone than you thought. Because if the American Dream is a lie, America is a lie, and if America is a lie, then you don’t even have a nation to belong to. Byck calls the assassins “expatriates in our own country”, and he’s right.
I don’t think Assassins is a warning, or the work of art that explains whatever, but it does draw forth certain truths about the world that might give us pause. How devastating to the soul and disturbing to the mind loneliness can be. How vulnerable the lonely are to radicalisation, sure, but, even more importantly, how vulnerable to pain. It ought not diminish the seriousness of capitalist exploitation, racial oppression or endless war to acknowledge that one of the great spiritual maladies of our time is a simple, human lack of connection. Plenty of people have written good, useful articles about how loneliness helps fascists and other extremists recruit, and that’s important work. But we should not only be concerned by how the plague of loneliness can snarl back on the rest of us. We should also care about those who suffer with loneliness simply because they suffer.
¹ Assassins exists in three versions – 1990 (Off-Broadway), 2002 (London) and 2004 (Broadway) – with several differences, including an entire song written for the 2002 production and included in all later productions. This piece is based on the 2004 version, even though I hate that song, because it has the best book. They’re all good though.