ONE evening in May 1849, hundreds of stone-throwing rioters clashed with New York City police and state militiamen outside the Astor Place Opera House, leaving more than 20 people dead and scores wounded. The ostensible cause of this fracas seems preposterous from today’s vantage point: Clashing fans of two Shakespearean actors, the American Edwin Forrest and the Englishman William Charles Macready, became so overwrought that they put their bodies on the line for their thespian idols. Yet the roots of the so-called Shakespeare riots were far more complex, and it is the merit of Nigel Cliff’s brilliantly engrossing book to make a historic event, absurd on the surface, come to seem plausible, even tragically inevitable.
Cliff, a former theater and film critic for the Times of London, is clearly steeped in theater history. For “The Shakespeare Riots,” his first book, he has done an exemplary job of researching every nook of the story. His engaging, worldly, fluent prose style has an elegant structural logic, with just enough starch to anchor the colorful details. He unpacks each of the narrative strands and contexts, one by one, until they all reinforce each other.
So, for instance, we are given separate chapters on the hazards facing English troupes that toured America in the early 19th century, the reputation of actors as unsavory and licentious (sometimes quite justified), the literary accounts of English travelers who profited by insulting America as an uncouth wasteland, and the mounting ill will between England and her former colony. There were tensions over the Northwest Territories’ boundary (“Fifty-four Forty or Fight!”), repudiation (the refusal of Pennsylvania and other states to pay their debts to English banks), the Mexican-American War and America’s clinging to slavery long after England abolished it. These excursions into social and political history, crammed with entertaining nuggets, are still only the backdrop for the heart of the matter: a thwarted friendship between Forrest and Macready involving America’s favorite playwright, William Shakespeare.
Why Shakespeare? According to Cliff, no author had been taken more to the bosom of our young nation: “Altogether Shakespeare accounted for nearly a quarter of the plays performed in America during the 19th century, and he was by far the most popular playwright on the frontier.” His soliloquies were recited in barrooms and around campfires; he was the staple of schoolmarms and orators; yet the passion and gore of his great tragedies, with their murderers, bawds, eye-gougers and witches, “were too vital to be mired in respectability.” The playwright’s insistence on man as the measure spoke to a frontier ethos of individualism and epic endeavor.
However odd it seems, at a time when the young republic was chafing under English cultural imperialism, it managed to perform the feat of making Shakespeare American: "[T]he new world ... embodied the Bard’s spirit better than his own country,” Cliff writes. “America itself, many came to believe, was the ark in which the true Shakespeare would be saved.”
Enter Forrest, America’s first homegrown theatrical star. He was “a poster child for Jacksonian America,” and, like President Jackson, the actor counted for support on the working-class masses who despised England for its aristocratic, white-gloved snobbery. Forrest seems to have been a very physical actor, baring his well-oiled chest and brawny thighs, trusting to intuition and exuberant energy and unleashing enormous vocal power to wow the crowds. By age 21, he was earning “the unprecedented sum, for an American actor, of two hundred dollars a night, at least four thousand dollars in today’s money.”
Across the Atlantic, England’s leading actor was Macready. Unlike his flamboyant American colleague, Macready did not fall in love with acting but was compelled by economic circumstances to take over his actor father’s provincial theaters, and he remained fastidiously ambivalent about the sordid aspects of the theatrical trade. He was a more introverted performer, who emphasized Hamlet’s and Macbeth’s self-doubts and played down scene-chewing melodramatics, all of which brought him closer to modern acting than any of his predecessors or peers.
One of Macready’s greatest contributions was to restore in performance Shakespeare’s original texts, which had been butchered and rewritten (even “King Lear” was given a happy ending). As an actor and theater manager, his productions made him a hero of the educated and won him the friendship of such Victorian luminaries as Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, William Makepeace Thackeray and Robert Browning. “For these men, Macready was the great hope, the subtle, scholarly face of the theatre, the only one who could make the painted profession a respectable pursuit for artists and intellectuals.”
IT did not help Macready’s future reception in America that his friend Dickens, in the travel memoir “American Notes for General Circulation” and the novel “Martin Chuzzlewit,” had lambasted the country that had lionized him. Ironically, Macready disapproved of Dickens’ printed attacks on America and championed the young republic; his politics leaning toward that of a radical democrat, he celebrated annually the signing of the Declaration of Independence and even contemplated moving with his family permanently to America. None of this counted the slightest in May 1849, when the mere fact that he was English -- and an antagonistic rival of Forrest -- turned the mob against him.
The two actors had started out as professional friends, and they had many things in common (bouts of depression, the pressures of acting and celebrity, radical politics, family losses). Macready originally had thought the younger man showed promise if he would just cultivate his mind and be more self-denying and disciplined. Forrest, meanwhile, admired Macready’s knowledge but found his acting cold and lacking fire. “People admired Macready; they loved Forrest,” Cliff writes. “Macready was the greater actor, but Forrest was the greater star.”
Although Cliff tries hard to be scrupulously even-handed and has fun with Macready’s priggishness and oversensitivity, he never succeeds in understanding Forrest, in getting under his skin, to the degree he does his own countryman. Whether this is because Macready left behind a trove of self-analytical diaries and letters or because Cliff is finally repelled by Forrest’s monomania and rudeness (he infamously hissed at Macready while the other was performing), it is the English actor who comes off as the hero. (In fact, the book’s only stylistic flaw, which crops up twice, is an unnecessary attempt to novelize by going into Macready’s mind.)
By the time Macready is ready to make his farewell tour of American theaters, the stage is set for catastrophe. In New York City, tensions among the nativists, Irish street gangs and uptown swells converge uncannily with English-American enmities and the two stars’ professional rivalry as Macready attempts to perform “Macbeth.”
“The fact that the showdown took place in the theatre was not as outlandish as it appears today,” the author writes. “The theatres had always been the great democratic gathering places, the only arenas where the people’s voice was louder than the elite’s, where the poor could sit in judgment on the wealthy folk below.”
Bloody as the Shakespeare riots were, Cliff cannot suppress regret for a time when the stage and the Bard mattered enough to tear the town apart.