Scheibe Explores “Wisdom of Hamilton,” Psychological Depth, in Talk, New Books

Professor Emeritus Karl Scheibe joins his former students Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02 and Owen Panettieri ’01, both playwrights and alumni of his Dramaturgical Approach to Psychology, at a production of Hamilton in New York City. Scheibe will speak on “The Wisdom of Hamilton,” at the Wasch Center for Retired Faculty on Feb. 14 at 4:30 p.m.

Professor of Psychology Emeritus Karl Scheibe recently published two new books, The Storied Nature of Human Life: The Life and Works of Theodore R. Sarbin (co-written with Frank J. Barret), which, he says, “sets the tone” for the second, Deep Drama: Exploring Life as Theater, a collection of recent essays. The latter book’s final piece, “The Wisdom of Hamilton,” recalls Scheibe’s first meeting with Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, his advisee in the autumn of 1998, and then explores the psychological depth and truth within Miranda’s award-winning Broadway musical. Miranda had been a member of Scheibe’s course, A Dramaturgical Approach to Psychology, in the spring of his junior year.

Scheibe also presented a talk on “The Wisdom of Hamilton” at the Wasch Center for Retired Faculty on Feb. 14.

In a Q&A, he further discusses the two books in context to each other and his work:

Q: You’ve said that your intellectual formation as a psychologist owes so much to Sarbin and the intellectual positions that he taught you to honor and value. How would you describe this intellectual stance that you owe to Sarbin, your mentor?

K.S.: Well, it’s critical of conventional psychology. I don’t want to say hostile because that’s an attitude Sarbin never had, nor do I. But it’s critical of traditional views of psychology, in that the major metaphor historically has been mechanistic. Psychology grew out of philosophy and physiology, using the physiological model of the central nervous system—a system made out of component parts that operate in particular ways. Behaviorists, also, made very little distinction between lower animals and human beings.

Sarbin’s model recognizes that storied nature of human life isn’t something you could say about porcupines. That is to say: Animals have stories told about them but they, themselves, don’t tell stories. Human beings are creators of stories; we are consumers of stories and our lives are conducted in terms of the stories we’ve invented.

Q: These two books seem together to form a narrative arc—first the one on your mentor, the second one on your work, with the last essay “The Wisdom of Hamilton,” about Lin-Manuel Miranda who was your student at Wesleyan. How did you come up with the idea for that essay?

K.S.: From seeing Hamilton several times and being bowled over by the power of it.

My major book preceding this one was The Drama of Everyday Life (Harvard University Press, 2000), which embraces the theatrical approach to understanding human life, as an approach to psychology. The Deep Drama book is its sequel.

Hamilton, then, becomes a case in point: Why is Hamilton so powerful? Why is it so successful? Why is it so revolutionary as a piece of theater?

As I wrote, “One has the experience in the theater of learning the shape and direction of a character who has long occupied a neutral place in our mental lives. From his first appearance on stage, just pronouncing his name, Hamilton becomes a character full of passion and purpose. His first song, ‘My Shot,” is a resounding assertion of his will to translate his convictions into effective action—for the audience knows that the play about revolution is embarked on a path of revelation.” There’s more, of course: in the rap idiom, the words come thick and fast; the lyrics are deep but accessible; and the play has to do with emotional range—friendship, brotherhood, and sisterhood— as well as questions of character.

And the audience, itself, also experiences another revelation: The minute you walk into Hamilton, you see a cast that doesn’t conform at all in ethnic identity to the people it represents, so it challenges conventional ways of thinking and stereotypes. Then—because the work is so successful, so fluid, so intelligible—you feel yourself to have undergone a liberation in understanding.

That’s just rich, both psychologically and theatrically.

Q: What do you think Miranda found in his work with you?

K.S.: I don’t want to exaggerate my role in his life. I was one of his teachers; he had a lot of teachers who were important to him. I think with Lin, his mother is a psychologist, his father is deeply involved in the world of New York theater, so what I presented to Lin was a genuine joining of the psychological and the dramatic. I think it encouraged him in something he wanted to do anyway, to conjoin the psychologic and dramatic and to enrich both fields by the joining. That’s where we met.

I think Wesleyan was important to him because Wesleyan encourages—then and now—the creation of new forms, new ways of conceiving things and doing things.

Q.: Do you have another favorite essay in Deep Drama?

K.S.: The first chapter, “Profound Drama,” is conceptually important—and things are often revealed by paying attention to their opposites: if you want to talk about depth, think immediately about shallowness. Think about people you know who seem to have some sort of gravitas, some weight, heft, depth or feel of heaviness that holds them to the earth. And some people don’t have much depth at all, but go around as the wind blows. So what are we talking about when we’re talking about depth of human beings? How is it acquired, and how does it manifest itself? Does seriousness correlate with being humorless? I think not.

I remember years ago being instructed by a professor of mine on the difference between comedy and humor. There are humorists, someone like a Mark Twain. And there are comedians, someone like a Henny Youngman. And they are very different. Comedians are rather shallow; humorists are rather deep by comparison.

It’s a dimension worth considering, and this book is an encouragement for people to start thinking this way.

There’s a chapter on rejection and that begins with the not-so-secret revelation that even the most successful people we know of have suffered rejection. There’s also a chapter on fear and also a chapter on shame and guilt. Those are familiar topics in psychology.

You want to look the familiar in the face until it becomes strange to you. Then you can begin to understand it in a new way.