Commentary: The Shakespeare Riots | KERA News

Commentary: The Shakespeare Riots

Dallas, TX –

Students of American theater history have long known them as the "Astor Place riots," named for the New York theater in 1840 where two nights of mob violence led to state militia shooting 30 people dead. But for his new book, author Nigel Cliff has re-named them The Shakespeare Riots. It's a livelier title, and this is a lively history of a watershed moment in our culture: the only time when Americans were galvanized over competing productions of Macbeth, when we battled in the streets over who would control the popular stage.

Of course, this being America, the Shakespeare riots were about almost everything but Shakespeare. Imagine the Martin Scorsese film, The Gangs of New York, with the climactic fight not the Civil War draft riots but a battle between British-loving high society types and struggling Irish immigrants, and you have some idea of the class warfare and nativist hatreds involved. The very same gangs featured in the Scorsese film were at the heart of the theater violence.

By the 1830s, British audiences had abandoned Shakespeare, so London actors took ship to America, where they found fertile ground. Americans were spellbound by preaching and the rhetoric of politicians like Daniel Webster. We were especially mad for Shakespeare. Recall the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn: When these two cons need to scam some quick cash, the first thing they think of is performing a little Bard for the rubes. That's how popular Shakespeare was.

But it wasn't a Shakespeare we would necessarily recognize today. This was a bloodthirsty Bard, the grand tragedian who had won over crowds from Elizabethan bear baitings and now appealed to raw frontier towns. Andrew Jackson's presidency in the 1830s had also fired up a brawling, expansionist spirit, and Edwin Forrest became America's first stage star by playing this new action hero. At the time, many Americans weren't going high-culture when they embraced Shakespeare, they saw him as one of our own, a kind of warrior-playwright like our warrior-president.

Forrest was friends with William Macready, a more genteel British actor who'd bravely restored Shakespeare to the London stage and was widely admired on both sides of the Atlantic. Macready even hoped to retire to America. But like the testy relationship of their two countries, the friends developed a lucrative competition that degenerated into a bitter rivalry stoked by misunderstandings and partisan newspapers. When Macready announced that his farewell tour would end in New York with Macbeth, Forrest responded with his own revival and encouraged popular outcries against the invading Brit. The stage was set for a Macbeth like no other.

Using actors' memoirs and newspaper accounts, Mr. Cliff, a British critic for The Financial Times, fills in a lot of vivid, sometimes tangential background -from the original "showboats" up and down the Mississippi to New York City crime to the astonishing career of Ned Buntline, who later created much of our gunfighting folklore in his many dime novels about Buffalo Bill but who here is little more than a would-be Hitler looking for the right angry mob to grab power.

Perhaps the saddest point Mr. Cliff makes in The Shakespeare Riots is that the will of the common American won: Macready was driven from the stage, even from the country. But this also was the last time Shakespearean drama was American pop culture. Farmers and factory hands once shouted his speeches; now they lay dead in the streets. In effect, America's wealthy establishment had also won. For the most part, they had preserved Shakespeare and the theater as upperclass entertainments, the way they are still widely seen today.

Jerome Weeks is a former book columnist for the Dallas Morning News and writes about books for artsjournal.com.

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