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The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America

Posted by Robin Galen Kilrain on Mar 25th, 2011 and filed under The Play's Not the Only Thing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America
Nigel Cliff
Random House, 2007

by Robin Galen Kilrain~

Riots over Shakespeare. Well, more precisely, over two famous Shakespearean actors and the nations and classes of fan base they represented. Though it would be easier to blame the violent eruption on the curse of Macbeth, being performed inside New York City’s Astor Place Theatre at the time, plenty led up to the May 1849 altercation. There’s lots for buffs of both American and British history to discover here, including the tale of the spread of the Bard’s work from the Old World to the new(ish) one. Sound dry? Not when written by Oxford-educated former London Times theatre critic Nigel Cliff. In The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America, what might be the most significant episode in American history that you never heard of is revealed, with all its fascinating backstory, both on and off the stages of two countries.

Comprising some orchestrated and also some unexpected chaos, these riots were certainly noteworthy. The initial incident marked the first time that differing rights between classes had, in America, escalated into violence involving muskets. This resulted in changed laws regarding police action. And, unfortunately, the death of more than two dozen people, some of them innocent bystanders. The bulk of Cliff’s book, however, addresses the years of rivalry that led up to the deadly situation. Not just the ever-growing animosity between the two principals around whom the conflict swirled — William Charles Macready, the most famous Shakespearean actor in England at that time, and his American counterpart, Edwin Forrest — but also the increasing unease between the nations these thespians came from and the social classes they appeared to represent. Through Cliff’s extensive examination of these tensions, a story has been created that even those not party to Bardolatry or nationalism will be intrigued by.

For many years, actors rather than politicians had been the “public face” of Britain within the United States, traveling as they did. Macready thus became a lightning rod for the mounting strains between the countries. Even though the intellectual Brit and the “first true American star,” Forrest, whose main fan base was working class, toured in each other’s countries and sometimes even performed the same classics down the street from one another, their early friendship deteriorated over the years. The wide difference in their acting styles eventually led to bristling egos; from there, loyal reviewers and rabid fans fueled a small fire into a conflagration.

Though it was played out on his home turf, Forrest was not the instigator of the main event. He did not, however, try to stop it, an omission he was later to pay for in decreased popularity. In this era depicted in the Scorsese film Gangs of New York, most participants had been specifically recruited from the Bowery to stir up trouble. As they and their rowdy ways were no longer welcome inside the Astor Place Theatre, it was easy to play on their resentment, along with misplaced national pride. When their opposition, the police and civilian militia, retaliated against their stones with bullets, however, shock overtook the crowd: It was the first time that soldiers had fired repeatedly, eye-to-eye with a civilian crowd in this country. Nevertheless, Macready finished the Scottish Play during the growing protest, even when a fellow actor suggested they cut it short; he felt he owed it to his audience. (Talk about the show must go on!)

A few close supporters managed to successfully secret the Brit away after the curtain fell, continuing to guard his safety by getting him out of town by dawn. Twelve or so hours later, a rally began to express fury about the acts of the police and militia. This crowd eventually made its way to the scene of the previous night’s skirmish. Though weapons were again present as evening fell on the damaged theatre — now filled with regrouping forces rather than thespians and their audience — no shots were fired.

When the theatre was rebuilt and reopened a half dozen months later, the building itself was not all that had changed. Shakespeare had become “depopularized”: Rotten food was no longer being flung, and silence had become golden. The relatively new kid-glove guidelines and barring of “unaccompanied women” (aka prostitutes), which had riled up many of the riot’s participants, had ultimately prevailed. As for the actors at the center of the nights of disquiet, they continued their careers for two more decades. Needless to say, though, the incident cast an ongoing shadow across the remainder of their years. When Macready died four months after Forrest’s death in 1872, in fact, all his obituaries mentioned who had lived the longest. Sadly, their huge individual talents have been largely forgotten in theatre history, save their connection to those nights of angry outrage expressed nearly two centuries ago — a tragedy worthy of the Bard himself.

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