In May, 1849, gangs of hoodlums took to the streets of New York, furious at the insult that had been hurled at them. The National Guard was called in to hold back the angry mob, and in a panic, shots were fired. A riot broke out and about twenty-six people died. Countless others were injured.
And what was the cause of all this violence? It wasn't politics, or the economy, or class struggle—it was about Shakespeare and styles of acting. At least on the surface, that's what it was. However, in his book The Shakespeare Riots, Nigel Cliff makes the argument that in mid 19th century America, for a moment, Shakespeare and how his work was performed did embody deeper arguments about politics, money, and class.
William Macready was born in 1793, to actor parents who managed to put away enough money to send their son to a fine school like Rugby, so he could get an education that would help him do something better in life than trudge around the country to perform in shoddy theaters. That was fine with William, who had no intention of going into the theater, despite the talent his teachers noted and tried to encourage. He planned to be a lawyer instead. When his mother died, though, and his father hit financial hard times, William left school and took over his father's company. He whipped it into shape and slowly began to pull it out of crisis. Resigned now to his fate as an actor, he worked on refining his craft. The best English actor of a previous generation, John Kemble, had excelled with a declamatory style that emphasized his excellent elocution, but put little physicality in to his roles. The current, though aging, favorite, Edmund Kean had brought Romanticism to the stage, acting with a wild passion and emotion that shocked and thrilled audiences. The excitement he caused even created a group of devoted fans, Kean's Wolves, who made sure that no critic or rival actor dared cross Kean.
Macready, though, wanted to try something different. He wanted to find the truth of each character not just in one particular speech or soliloquy, but in context of the play and the whole character's experience. He wanted to bring down the level of Kean's emotion, to make characters seem more like real people than larger than life figures. He practiced angry monologues in a whisper instead of a shout; he tied his hands behind his back as he rehearsed to keep himself from making big gestures. His new style was embraced by some; dismissed by others, particularly fans of Kean. He was admired more than loved. More problematic, he wasn't a big draw. Theater managers preferred melodramas and operas to Shakespeare. The manager of the two primary theaters in London, the Drury Lane and Covent Garden, cut costs so much that actors found themselves in productions at both theaters at once, often running through the streets from one to another, trying to make their cues in different scenes.
Macready had already made a journey to America to escape the difficult theater climate in London. The stinginess of the management, though, finally made him crack. In one episode, he got into a fight with the manager and knocked him down. Oddly, this made him suddenly more popular. He had previously seemed unapproachable and perhaps cold. Now as word spread of the fight, he took on the aura of someone more recognizable to audiences, a man who fought and shouted and brawled, just like them. Suddenly Macready was more appreciated than ever; his first appearance onstage after the fight was greeted with a standing ovation.
William Macready as Macbeth.
At this moment, a competitor appeared—Edwin Forrest, an American actor was coming to perform in London. The idea of an American taking on the great plays of England, particularly Shakespeare, piqued the interest of Londoners. English actors had long toured America, but it seemed impossible to the English that America, a land of no culture could produce its own leading actor, let alone one with the skill to challenge English actors on their own turf. The visit by Forrest in 1836 was a huge event before he even arrived.
Edwin Forrest was born in Philadelphia in 1806. He was the prototypical stage struck kid. He spent his time learning speeches from Shakespeare, declaimed them in the schoolroom, and hung around the back door of the city's theaters. Once he got a chance to go on in place of a sick actor, there was no turning back. He had been a weak, scrawny boy, but worked himself into a heavily muscled Victorian Adonis, who as he began to tour the US, made sure that his costumes showed off his physique.
Cliff describes Forrest as "an antebellum Elvis."
His acting style was as muscular as his body. He was strong, emotional, and passionate, a descendant of the Kean style. He was always heroic—some English critics noted that he seemed unable to play anything but the cardboard leading man: "guilt and weakness were not in his makeup." He appeared far too healthy and strong for Richard III and his Macbeth lacked any hesitance, conscience or doubt; one person noted that he would probably have made a better Lady Macbeth.
Forrest's heroic Macbeth.
Most of the English critics, though, were ecstatic, impressed by Forrest's figure and dominating stage presence. Macready was not thrilled by the popular reception to Forrest, but he tried to be charitable. He had seen Forrest on his earlier trip to the US and thought him talented, but unpolished; he thought in time he might become a great actor if he chose to work at it. Macready also was an outspoken admirer of America, unlike many of his peers. He felt it was important to encourage American actors and had made a point of meeting and welcoming Forrest upon his arrival in London.
Macready's good friend, John Forster, was not so generous. A critic for The Examiner, he was annoyed by any threat to Macready's eminence. He felt that Forrest was being lionized by those who were already hostile to Macready. He began to write harsh critiques of Forrest's performances. He showed them in advance to Macready, who tried to talk him out of them—he suggested that even in Forster didn't like Forrest's acting, he could at least compliment him on his personal character. Forster went ahead and published them, though, making life extremely awkward for Macready, who had even made plans for Forrest to visit him. Forrest had heard through the grapevine that Macready was responsible for the nasty reviews, but Macready was so kind to him when he visited that Forrest dismissed the gossip, and the two parted on a friendly note.
Macready was intent on making the theater respectable. He took over management of the Theater at Covent Garden, one of the few theaters in London authorized to perform Shakespeare. He cleaned the shabby theater up, improved the quality of the actors performing in the company, and pushed out the whores who did business in the box seats and saloon of the theater (much to the annoyance of the bartenders who'd been profiting from the extracurricular activities during performances).
Most importantly, he dug through the many altered versions of Shakespeare that were out there being performed and brought the originals back to the stage. The bowdlerized versions that had been deemed more desirable for audiences (happy endings for Romeo and Juliet and King Lear, the almost unrecognizable musical adaptation of The Tempest) and actors (David Garrick's production of Hamlet ended as soon as Hamlet died—he was the star and how important could the last lines of the play be if he wasn't saying them?). Macready performed the original texts and made audiences remember why they had been loved and had had any kind of meaning—after all, they made sense again.
But although Macready was being proclaimed as Britain's "Eminent Tragedian," legit theater was struggling (again). Circuses, novelties, and animal acts brought in bigger crowds to London theaters; it was hard not to notice that the young Queen Victoria went to see a lion tamer's act over and over but rarely came to see a play. Macready was acclaimed, but he wasn't doing great business. After struggling as an actor-manager for a number of years, in 1843, Macready decided to tour America again.
It was a bad time for an English actor to visit the US. Relations between the two countries had become considerably strained. The English economy had suffered when a number of American states had defaulted on debts held by the British government and then decided that the best plan was to simply not pay them. British papers heaped scorn on the states that were causing them so much trouble. British travelers to the US added to the contempt by writing scathing accounts of their visits, complaining about American manners (or lack thereof), materialistic culture, and general uncouthness. For many of the memoirists, this was indeed their feeling, but for the upper class visitors, trashing American had an extra significance. The British upper-class was becoming increasingly nervous about reforms that were meant to bring some equality to the lower classes. By painting America as a failed experiment, a country where equality had brought about nothing but ruin, it helped their case to keep their own country strictly divided.
Americans, in turn, were sick of the British. Impressment of American sailors into the British navy had long been a problem. They were insulted by the condescending, disparaging travelogues by British visitors they had welcomed into their homes. Worse, a flood of Irish immigrants were now crowding the cities, taking up jobs that Americans had once held. Packed into tenements, native born Americans felt they were responsible for the trashing of their cities with their unkempt habits and gangs of swaggering, drinking b'hoys (slang for the Irish toughs who populated lower Manhattan) who seemed to be involved in a never-ending brawl with each other and anyone unfortunate enough to get in their way. Many Americans blamed the British for creating policies that drove the Irish to leave Ireland and come to America. The anti-immigration nativists and Irish immigrants were often at each other's throats, but they could agree on one thing: both groups hated the British.
The ardently pro-American Macready had been horrified by the anti-American sentiment in the British travel stories that had been published. His good friend Charles Dickens had written one of the most famous ones, his American Notes, and Macready had cringed at the book's vitriol toward the country he had so admired. Macready was saddened that on his next tour of America, the East Coast audiences that had so warmly supported him on his last visit were now chillier. In the more Anglophile South, he was received more enthusiastically, but then he had a new problem.
Although Forrest and Macready had appeared to be on good terms, Forrest was competitive, and intent on proving himself the world's greatest actor, particularly the world's greatest Shakespearean. In America, to be great at Shakespeare meant something because America in its early days seemed to want to claim Shakespeare as its own. For a long time, many homes in the US might have only two books, a Bible and a collection of Shakespeare's work. More read than performed, Shakespeare's words were learned by students in a culture where memorization and recitation were part of the basic skills taught. Those who couldn't read even learned passages from Shakespeare, having heard them spoken so often that they could speak them as easily and confidently as if they had studied the texts. Cliff theorizes that Shakespeare had more meaning to Americans in the blossoming country than it did to the British, because his characters and their stories and struggles provided a moral guide to a people trying to find their way in an uncharted new world. When newspapers wrote about almost any situation—trial, marital spat, political machination—the comparison was typically made to a Shakespeare play, and audiences were expected to understand what an editor meant when he wrote about a politician's Cassius-like behavior, or when a wife's failings (or perceived failings) were described with the name Desdemona. For Americans, Forrest's triumphs with Shakespeare were triumphs of Americanism and populism; the elitist British and their snooty actors and audiences didn't understand or deserve the Bard. Forrest, as anti-British as Macready was pro-American, was determined to win the crown.
Seemingly coincidentally at first, he began to shadow Macready's tour. He turned up in the same cities and put on his version of each play Macready performed. Reviews compared the performances on a daily basis. Macready unwittingly found himself in a constant competition, with the verdict being rendered in the newspapers. Not surprisingly, Forrest was the one more often cheered. His muscular, outsized acting was more American than Macready's often cooler, more psychological take. Macready, it was felt, was too snobby, too delicate, too British to tear into a role like the heroic Forrest.
Macready was disappointed by what had happened on his tour, but things were worse when Forrest returned to England. This time Macready's friends weren't the only ones ready to pounce. Forrest was received less enthusiastically, receiving scathing reviews from a number of critics. He suspected a plot orchestrated by Macready to turn reviewers and audiences against him, as well as a virulent anti-Americanism that meant that he wasn't being given a fair chance. His co-star on the tour, a young American actress named Charlotte Cushman became a huge hit in Britain, which would seem to belie Forrest's charge of anti-Americanism, but her success was easily chalked up to the fact that she was just a woman and not taking on the roles of a great Shakespearan tragic actor—she was not competing as Othello, Lear, Hamlet, or Macbeth; it was easy for British audiences to be kind to her. The fact that Cushman was an avowed fan of Macready didn't help Forrest's suspicions about a plot against him.
Forrest's engagement in London was a flop and he set off to tour the British countryside, Ireland, and Scotland. He eventually caught up with Macready, who is on his own tour, and in Edinburgh came to see Macready perform Hamlet. During one scene, a loud hiss was heard from the audience, loud enough that Macready had to acknowledge it. Word began to spread that Forrest was the one who hissed Macready. This would not be unexpected from a passionate, opinionated theatergoer, but was outrageous from a fellow actor.
Macready didn't want to believe it had been Forrest, but others who had been at the performance confirmed it. Meanwhile, stories of the jealous American actor reached the papers, spreading all the way to London. Finally, Forrest responded with a letter to The Times, explaining that it was not professional jealousy that had caused his reaction but just his firm objection as an actor to Macready's interpretation of one scene. But the division between the two and their friends and supporters had become too great for this explanation to heal, even if anyone had believed it. The rift was about interpretation of Shakespeare, and acting styles, and elitism vs. populism, and America vs. Britain, and of course, professional jealousy, and that was too much for anyone to overcome. The time for politeness was over and the conflict was now out in the open.
When Macready returned to the US in 1848, he was badly received at many stops. Audiences had always been rowdy, especially the lower classes who treated a night at the theater like a barroom brawl. They reclined drinking across seats, loudly prompted actors who hesitated on a line, and kept up an endless line of chatter. That's not to say they weren't enjoying themselves—they were, but to the extent that they took over the plays. During a production of Richard III at the Bowery Theater in New York, a group of several hundred rowdy b'hoys climbed onstage, tried on Richard's crown, played soldiers during the Battle of Bosworth Field, and wouldn't let Richard and Richmond stop their fight because they were enjoying it so much (the fight kept on for another fifteen minutes).
That's how they behaved when they were enjoying the show. When Macready arrived, the crowds were against him. Shouts and all kinds of refuse rained down onstage during his performances—at one stop, half a sheep carcass landed in front of Macready. By the time he reached New York in 1849, to perform at the new Astor Place theater, the hecklers were out of control. Worse, the New York crowds were organized by a group of nativist, local political operators; hundreds of tickets were handed out to the roughest gang members with the instruction to make Macready's life miserable. His opening night performance of Macbeth was marked from the start by shouting, signs, and garbage pelted on the stage. The cream of New York aristocracy, in the theater's boxes, tried to respond by cheering but they were no match. Seats were thrown into the orchestra, causing the musicians to flee.
Macready didn't complete his performance, walking offstage during the third act. He decided that he wouldn't continue his engagement at the theater. However, forty-eight members of the upper echelon of New York society wrote Macready a letter of support that was published in all the papers; representatives of the group also visited Macready in person to beg him to change his mind. The upper-classes of New York were determined that they wouldn't let mob rule disrupt the culture they were trying to develop and appreciate. To be for Macready was to be for civilization and gentility; to be for Forrest was to be for low taste and misrule.
Macready agreed to perform Macbeth one more time. Placards were printed all over town calling for the gangs and rabble to come to the theater to put down the Englishman and support the American way. The nervous, inexperienced mayor, Caleb Woodhull, was advised by his police chief that they wouldn't be able to put down a mob of this potential size. The state militia was asked to be ready to support the police.
Tickets for Macready supporters had been marked so that the rabble who wanted to cause trouble wouldn't be admitted. When they began to be turned away, the mob reacted by throwing stones at the theater and by trying to break down the doors and walls. With their shouting and pounding in the background, Macready gamely made his way through the play for his select audience.
The militia arrived, some on horseback. They fought with the angry crowd until they felt they had no other choice but to fire. In the chaos that followed, more than a few innocent bystanders or local residents were caught in the crossfire; several would be amongst the dead. Members of the mob attacked train terminals in New York City, looking for the British actor, but Macready had slipped out of the theater and managed to get away to New Rochelle. From there he took a train to Boston. Meanwhile, as unrest continued for the next few nights, Edwin Forrest performed to almost empty houses at another New York theater. His supporters were so busy fighting for him, or the idea of him as the embodiment of America, that no one had time to come see him act.
Despite the loss of life, the upper classes felt they had been victorious. Although the sight of American soldiers firing on Americans was distasteful, it had undoubtedly sent a clear message to the masses that the rule of law would be upheld and that they wouldn't hesitate to put down this kind of behavior, no matter what it cost. A number of gang members were arrested and many, including Ned Buntline, a rabid nativist who had been one of the primary organizers of the riots, served time.
New theaters were built uptown where the wealthy now lived, far from the downtown mobs and tenement slums. Places like the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera House were built to keep out the mobs, and in turn, the gangs, immigrants and working people turned away from legit theater to vaudeville and other forms of entertainment. Shakespeare's plays, which had once been something that was shared by all parts of society, rich and poor, educated or not, became the property of the upper classes.
That feeling still exists today, that Shakespeare and Theater with a capital T is something to be endured, not enjoyed, despite the endless attempts of Shakespeare enthusiasts to make it more accessible. Modern dress productions, casts that include movie stars rather than theater actors, traveling groups that put on mini-productions in schools all try to share the idea that Shakespeare is for everyone, not just Ivy League snobs and giddy drama types. But for many, it is a virtue to not show interest in Shakespeare; to say, "I don't get it," or "it bores me," is proof that someone is a regular guy who knows what real fun is and it's not the stereotypical guy in tights declaiming words like "thee" and "tis." Shakespeare would be disappointed; after all, the people who now make a point of declaring their lack of interest in his work were the people he was writing for. He was writing for everyone. Now his best audience is often the people who are performing his work, because actors know the secret of Shakespeare: it's fun.
Cliff's book contains a great deal of fascinating detail and provides an excellent primer for anyone who wants to learn about the history of theater in both America and England. He's obviously enthusiastic about his subject and what he is discovering about it, and that's a good thing. The book, however, is marred by some seriously clumsy writing. There are long, wandering sentences running amok (I know, I shouldn't be judging anyone but again, I'm not writing a book; it only seems that long). Sometimes I found myself having to backtrack to sort out the jumble of clauses. Parallel structure often gets lost in the lengthy sentences, making reading more difficult. The occasional typo doesn't help. Cliff also is too in love with SAT words: a house isn't set on a hill, it's on a declivity. A fire doesn't break out, instead there's a deflagration (yes, not even a conflagration, a deflagration). I'm all for a rich, diverse vocabulary and precise word choice, but it can get tiring and awkward. When words jump out at you like the above examples, it's because they seem like an uneasy fit. Still, the book is short enough (only about 270 pages) that the writing problems aren't a complete hindrance. I enjoyed all the details about the time period and the historical back ground and found many worthwhile pieces of information. Yet for some reason I didn't really love this book. If this makes any sense, I found much of it interesting, but wasn't particularly interested in it. The parts were greater than the whole, I guess. Even though it is, as I noted, a rather short book, I still found myself dragging through it, checking to see what page I was on as you might sneak a glance at your watch during a movie that's not really going well. I recommend it as a good starting point for research, but don't feel it's a must read on any account.
Cliff writes that with all the circumstances converging at the time—the battle for Shakespeare, the problems between the US and Britain, the growing divide between the upper and lower classes, the elite and the populists—it shouldn't have been a surprise that a riot of this magnitude and violence took place around a theater. It would have been more of a surprise if it hadn't. The least surprised that any of this happened, of course, would be actors. Because they understand that anything can happen in a theater. Anything.
Astor Place Theatre Riots