The Roar of the Crowd

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Reviewed by Daniel Stashower
Sunday, May 20, 2007

THE SHAKESPEARE RIOTS

Revenge, Drama, and Death

In Nineteenth Century America

By Nigel Cliff

Random House. 312 pp. $26.95

On the evening of May 10, 1849, a mob of more than 10,000 New Yorkers -- some of them brandishing pistols and hurling rocks -- faced off against city police outside the Astor Place Opera House. As the clash escalated, state militiamen opened fire on the crowd with muskets, leaving more than 20 people dead and dozens injured. The flashpoint of the riot, the bloodiest in American history to that point, was not military conscription or voting rights or even liquor licensing; it was Shakespeare. Specifically, fans of the American Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest wished to express their displeasure with supporters of his English rival, William Charles Macready, by cracking their heads open.

It seems hard to fathom in modern terms -- "Judi Dench Launches Nuclear Strike" -- but, as author Nigel Cliff demonstrates, there was a certain inevitability about the drama. "In an age when theatres were the crossroads of a whole society," he writes, the subject of Shakespeare inspired "an almost hysterical passion." Cliff argues persuasively that "the Astor Place riot," as it came to be known, marked a turning point in America's search for a national identity. "Before American cultural imperialism there was British cultural imperialism," he notes, and the tension between the two seemed "inextricably bound up with the question of what sort of nation America would become."

Shakespeare's plays offered a platform upon which the debate could be staged. At a time when the Bard's influence in Britain was waning, America took his works very much to heart. "Shakespeare had become American," writes Cliff. "America itself, many came to believe, was the ark in which the true Shakespeare would be saved." Shakespeare's themes resonated even on the wild frontier, though an unexpectedly prim sensibility was occasionally brought to bear: "Shakespeare's imagination might have spanned the world, his ear might have caught the legion tones of life, but the country boy from the English Midlands was also wild, vulgar, and bloody; his goriest scenes, the eye gougings, child murders, and wife suffocations, were too much even for frontiersmen and were banished offstage or whisked behind a curtain."

At the center of this fascinating story is the star-crossed friendship of Forrest and Macready, the foremost actors of the day. The brawny, rough-hewn Forrest overcame humble origins to become America's first home-grown star, "a poster child for Jacksonian America." His energetic, physical acting style contrasted sharply with that of Macready, whose intellectual rigor and adherence to the original Shakespearean texts made him a darling of British literary lights.

In time, the stresses of stardom forced the two actors into an increasingly bitter rivalry. Macready complained of the American's lack of discipline, while Forrest came to believe that the Englishman lacked creative fire. The American public, for the most part, sided with their countryman: "People admired Macready; they loved Forrest," says Cliff. "Macready was the greater actor, but Forrest was the greater star."

Cliff, a former theater and film critic for the Times of London, gives due diligence to the historical underpinnings of the story, but his narrative gains real heat when he enters the world of the theater. He relishes the surprising details of stage life in the 19th century, from the makeshift theatrical barges working the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the "alleys, bagnios, and brothels" of London's Covent Garden. Cliff is especially good at evoking the passions stirred by Shakespeare's tragedies, as when a theater patron in Albany tried to shout down an actor playing Iago: "You damned lying scoundrel! I would like to get hold of you after the show and wring your infernal neck!"

Occasionally, one wishes Cliff would rein in his verbiage. At times he seems to be consulting a word-a-day calendar -- "autochthonous," "magniloquently" -- and many a sentence staggers beneath the weight: "Despite his condescending gasconade and his vaunting faith in the meliority of the English stage, Macready had a point. . . . " An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.

Quibbles aside, The Shakespeare Riots is an intriguing, thought-provoking book. "If this were played upon a stage now," remarks Fabian in "Twelfth Night," "I could condemn it as an improbable fiction." But it's all true, and to Cliff's credit, he turns this most improbable episode of history into a lively and compelling drama. ยท

Daniel Stashower is the author of "The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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