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I Guess That I Will Weep No More

Recently I saw a brilliantly chilling local production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. This musical, which grants the stage to the men and women who have attempted and, in four instances, succeeded in assassinating the President of the United States, is usually modified by the word “controversial.”.The show’s inaugural run in 1990-91 lost momentum amid surging patriotism during the First Gulf War; its first Broadway appearance in 2004 had initially been planned for 2001, but the terrorist attacks of 9/11 created an atmosphere hostile to marketing a musical about people who plot to kill the Leader of the Free World.

2016 is the right time for Assassins. The menace and mordancy of the musical is in tune with our political moment, for Assassins gives us bitter, delusional individuals—mostly white men—who feel they are owed something. Where is our special treatment, the assassins ask, of their government and of others who have ignored them. In the song “Another National Anthem,” one unsuccessful killer sings “Where’s my prize?…Don’t I get a prize?…I deserve a fucking prize!” This “other national anthem” heard by the Booths and Czolgoszs and Oswalds and Frommes and Hinkleys and Zangaras of America thrums for those “on the outside,” it comes up from underground.

Assassins Broadway Cast

This is the rage and sneer we hear today from those on the right who characterize Obama supporters as desiring “free stuff,” or from racist internet commenters who invoke a welfare state, who see institutionalized entitlement and privilege in women and people of color, rather than in white malehood. This is the “other national anthem” that Donald Trump bellows to his supporters in order to decry the state of our “third-world,” “disaster” of a nation from the security of his white skin: as Shaun King has pointed out, “The epitome of white privilege is becoming popular because of your frustration with the United States.” I deserve a fucking prize, I hear in the echo of these speeches. Colin Kaepernick’s silent, peaceful protest against racial injustice during the playing of the original National Anthem, on the other hand, has been answered with hatred and threats.

Assassins is especially electric in a 2016 in which the Republican presidential candidate barely veils his encouragement to gun owners to shoot the Democratic candidate, among his many other instances of violent rhetoric, including—most recently—fomenting voter intimidation against citizens of color. In the musical, during their ecstatic, unhinged, justificatory solos, the assassins point their guns at the audience just as often as at their presidential targets. As the killer of James Garfield sings in “Gun Song,” “What a wonder is a gun, what a versatile invention/ First of all, when you’ve a gun—” At this point, in the stage version, both actor and orchestra cease all sounds for a terrifying sixteen bars while the assassin slowly tracks audience members with his pistol, before continuing emphatically “—everybody pays attention.” The act of spectatorship for Assassins today, in our time of unrelenting gun violence, becomes a fear that a weapon will fire in a crowded theater.

It is Charles Guiteau who demands our attention in the “Gun Song” moment I’ve just described. I’ve been thinking about him compulsively ever since the show. Guiteau is a less familiar figure than John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald, certainly, whom the musical treats as the assassins’ “pioneer” and apotheosis, respectively. Of all the crimes and failed plots in the musical, Guiteau’s 1881 murder of Garfield may arguably have the fewest resonances with today; and yet, the historical figure’s crackpot nineteenth-century biography gave me another “other national anthem” of sorts in this grimmest and most disturbing of election seasons. Guiteau failed at pretty much every nineteenth-century American scheme, in the most baroque and spectacular ways. And yet Guiteau was a joiner: however fanatically, with whatever violent derangement, he sought to secure community.

assassisns-2Here are some of the flashpoints in the life of Charles Julius Guiteau: he dropped out of the University of Michigan, at which he was performing terribly, in order to join the Oneida Community, a free love commune in upstate New York. At Oneida Guiteau found rejection instead of love: he was called “Charles Git-Out” and was later condemned by the commune’s leader for an addiction to masturbation. At his trial, in fact, the Oneida leader testified that Guiteau’s habitual “self-abuse [was] at the bottom of his imbecility.” He became a questionably accredited and corrupt lawyer, married a women whom he serially abused, and plotted to buy a Chicago newspaper which he thought would succeed by reprinting New York Tribune wire reports. His family repeatedly characterized him as clinically insane. He plagiarized the Bible and other theological texts and hawked a book under his name called The Truth, and then began hassling the newly-elected Garfield for an Ambassadorship to France.

So relentless was he in this quest that the Secretary of State wrote to Guiteau, “Never bother me again about the Paris consulship so long as you live.” Guiteau concluded from this brushoff that God wished him to kill the president, so he stalked Garfield and shot two bullets into him. He chose an ivory-handled pistol on the logic that it would be more visible in a museum, where it would inevitably wind up after being used as an assassination weapon. The President lingered for two months (he was taken at one point to the Jersey shore in the hope that ocean breezes would aid his recovery) before dying. Before he was hanged, Guiteau wrote two poems: one justifying the assassination, and one a note of farewell, which Stephen Sondheim incorporated into the lyrics of “The Ballad of Guiteau.” Here are the historical Charles J. Guiteau’s final words:

I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad,
I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad,
I am going to the Lordy,
Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah!
I am going to the Lordy.
I love the Lordy with all my soul,
Glory hallelujah!
And that is the reason I am going to the Lord,
Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah!
I am going to the Lord.
I saved my party and my land,
Glory hallelujah!
But they have murdered me for it,
And that is the reason I am going to the Lordy,
Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah!
I am going to the Lordy!
I wonder what I will do when I get to the Lordy,
I guess that I will weep no more
When I get to the Lordy!
Glory hallelujah!
I wonder what I will see when I get to the Lordy,
I expect to see most glorious things,
Beyond all earthly conception
When I am with the Lordy!
Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah!
I am with the Lord.

An autopsy after Guiteau’s death revealed that he had a condition called phimosis, in which his penile foreskin could not retract. Phimosis-induced insanity made him an assassin, nineteenth-century medical science concluded; Charles could not Git-Out. More recent speculative diagnoses include brain damage caused by neurosyphilis and chronic malaria. Part of his brain can be seen today in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians.

The glimmer of hope that Guiteau’s story gives me is not intrinsic to any of these morbid details. But I mark a pivot in the historical moment that he occupied, in the manner he occupied it: Guiteau joined an intentional community at the tail end of the century’s utopian experimental movements, and instead of receiving and joining in communion was pathologized for onanism, withdrawing into himself. His extralegal law career came at a time when the law trade was beginning to consolidate its professional codes and requirements. His newspaper scheme and his plagiarized book were both enabled by emerging printing and telecommunication technologies. In choosing a pistol design for its spectacular display he had learned from the period’s Barnumesque showmen.

guiteau-brainGarfield’s own death at Guiteau’s hands fell on the early side of the pivot, too; he died not from the bullet wounds, but from a blood infection caused by too many unsterilized hands and instruments following the bullets’ entrance. Shortly afterward medical science would adopt antiseptic methods that would have kept Garfield alive. Guiteau’s particular brand of madness is very nineteenth-century in many ways: suffering from a fused foreskin, writing confessional poetry, harboring the notion that failed writers deserve foreign consulships. In others it is very contemporary: demonstrating violence toward women, taking advantage of legal loopholes, acting out of entitlement. But those are nothing new, either.

It is the gallows poem that gets me, though, and provides a bit of dawn’s early light in this dark time for the presidency and for national anthems. The conceit of Assassins is that the characters are gathered in a grotesque carnival, gathered by a barker, encouraged to take a shot, ring the bell, come up a winner—where’s my prize? The conceit of winners and losers is especially effective, again, in 2016, when the Republican candidate for president uses his media reach to call people “losers,” to fire them.

But Guiteau’s gallows poem underscores the larger theme of Assassins: affiliation, belonging, imagined communities. We see this in the “pioneer” Booth and in the apotheosis Oswald, both of whom defected from the United States: to the Confederacy and the Soviet Union, respectively. Booth and Oswald sought new national affinities, ones that foreclosed on them. We see the most hateful forms of this logic in Donald Trump’s threats that “we’re not going to have a country” without border walls. Charles Guiteau failed to find community at Oneida, as Ambassador to France, but as he ascends the gallows steps, he is going to the Lordy, and he is so glad. His poetic voice here is childlike, open, wondering; still mindful of country and murder, but relieved to be disburdened.

I’m not looking to rehabilitate Guiteau from mania or assassination, nor to paper over his trail of destruction. But there is something in his release from a notion of winners or losers, insiders or outsiders, the entitled and the disenfranchised, that introduces a welcome hesitancy into his poem: “I wonder what I will do when I get to the Lordy,/ I guess that I will weep no more.” Guiteau may have been a fanatic, but he was not an agent of fanaticism. Despite the rubble he made, the weird gladness to which Guiteau gives voice, however hysterically, is one to which we might attend now. Whatever else it is, 2016 is a time for us to find comfort both in community and uncertainty.


Hester Blum: Long time listener, first time caller. 

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