Slings and arrows


Several weeks ago, comic actor-author Stephen Fry advanced what he admitted was a "treasonous" suggestion about British actors: "I sometimes wonder if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting a brilliance that may not really be there. I mean, would they notice if Jeremy Irons or Judi Dench gave a bad performance? Not that those two paragons ever would, but it's worth considering.''

His remarks, made to the British magazine Radio Times, prompted a small flurry of media commentary about American vs. British acting styles. The flurry quickly passed perhaps because it's actually a very old debate -- more than 150 years old -- and one that seemed fairly well settled. Like the abstract expressionists of the '50s and '60s -- all those Pollocks and Rothkos who gained worldwide acclaim for Yankee painters -- American actors of the period (Marlon Brando, George C. Scott, Paul Newman) proved they could more than hold their own on stage or film, in classics and contemporary material.

But once upon a time, that same argument inspired violent gangs to smash windows and set fires in lower Manhattan. National Guard troops were ordered into the streets and ultimately, some 30 people were shot to death -- all because of competing productions of Macbeth. Students of American theater history know the 1840 upheaval as the "Astor Place riots," but for his purposes, first-time author Nigel Cliff has called them The Shakespeare Riots.

It makes for a livelier title, and this is a very lively book, a popular history that uses the deadly rivalry between the leading British thespian of the age, William Charles Macready, and America's first great actor, Edwin Forrest, to cover a lot of ground: the primitive days of American theater up and down the Mississippi (the original "showboats"), crime in New York City, the state of Shakespearean interpretation and, above all, the simmering nativist resentments between Britain and America.

On London stages, Shakespeare had fallen on hard times. Audiences had drifted away to follow circus-like extravaganzas, French dramas or Italian operas (favorites of Queen Victoria). So the old actor-managers took ship to America and found fertile ground. America was besotted with preaching and the high-flown rhetoric of politicians like Daniel Webster. In particular, Americans were mad for Shakespeare, mad for the grand speeches and the tragedian's posturing. Recall the Duke and Dauphin from Huckleberry Finn: When the pair of scam artists need to rustle up some quick cash from the local hicks, the first thing they think of is performing Shakespeare -- while pretending they're British. The Bard had penetrated that far into the backwoods.

The new, brawling, expansionist spirit of Jacksonian democracy shifted this reverence, adding an Oedipal resentment to the young country's attitude toward highfalutin' British culture. Americans now laid claim to the true spirit of Shakespeare himself. This wasn't such an interpretive stretch: Shakespeare's tragedies, after all, overflow with swordfights and battles and heroic calls to arms, and the plays triumphed in an age of bear-baitings and duels and street performers. At times, Elizabethan London can seem remarkably similar to America's frontier towns. Or its gang-filled cities.

Enter Edwin Forrest. He became a stage star by embodying this new, action-hero-style of drama. Forrest, as Mr. Cliff notes, looked a bit like a late-period Elvis impersonator: beefy build, smouldering eyes, towering hair. (To tell you the truth, he also looks like a younger, slimmer version of Robbie Coltrane) He was an athletic, titanic presence on stage, perfect for the blood-and-thunder melodramas of the period and perfect for Shakespeare's tragic heroes, provided those heroes went in more for swordplay than poetry.

Against Forrest stood the more genteel, tradition-bound interpretations of the British, beloved by the elites in the East and embodied by Macready. Macready was actually something of a revolutionary himself, having dumped many of the bowdlerized and "punched-up" versions of Shakespeare's plays that had been performed for decades. He went back to the primary texts, startling London audiences, for example, with the harrowing original ending of Lear.

Macready and Forrest began as respectful friends, even touring America as duelling tragedians, the better to raise their box office take. But a series of misunderstandings, personal reversals, the tug of actor vanity and the increasingly rancorous relationship between Britain and America made them rivals. When Macready announced his retirement from the stage -- with a last tour culminating in his performance of Macbeth at Astor Place Theatre -- Forrest countered with his own Scottish play, and with some angry pot-stirring among the locals. He'd become the darling of New York's (mostly Irish) street gangs, notably the Bowery Boys, who brought their own national hatreds and class resentments en masse to Astor Place.

Clearly, the "Shakespeare riots" were about almost everything but Shakespeare. Imagine the Martin Scorsese film, The Gangs of New York but the climactic violence isn't the Civil War draft riot; it's a street battle over what theater meant in the young republic. That gives you some idea of the scope and drama of the book, which reads quickly, almost like a page-turner, despite the historical research that went into it. Mr. Cliff, a former theater critic for the London Times, has delved into actors' memoirs, prompt books, playbills and newspaper accounts -- the better to fill out his account with vivid details and perceptive arguments (the notes to his epilogue alone trace several provocative points about Shakespeare's influence on 19th century American literature).

Sometimes, events lead Mr. Cliff to drop his dry humor and lay the drama on a little thick, as in this portentous chapter ending: "[Several of Forrest's supporters] had ambitions far more explosive than merely salving their friend's honor: ambitions that, if fulfilled, could change the face of America. And New York City was the keg to which the whole crooked powder trail finally led."

But that's a minor reservation. For the most part, The Shakespeare Riots takes a footnote in stage history and makes it a firecracker of a story, a rousing and illuminating study of the last time Americans, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, went to the theater together and fought a pitched battle over who would control public culture in this country.

April 29, 2007 12:21 PM | | Comments (3)



I WAS aware of the Nelson play and am ashamed, as a former theater critic, that I completely forgot about it when I wrote my review. Thanks for calling it to my attention.

I'm so happy you reviewed this book! I've been meaning to get my hands on The Shakespeare Riots ever since it was released a few weeks ago. I look forward to reading it now more than ever. : )

Are you aware of Richard Nelson's play TWO SHAKESPEAREAN ACTORS which was done at the RSC in England (Stratford and London) and then was done here as well? A really good play on the same subject.


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