Let him be Caesar!

Michael Dobson

  • The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama and Death in 19th-Century America by Nigel Cliff
    Random House, 312 pp, $26.95, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 345 48694 3

During 2005, while Nigel Cliff was writing his wonderful book about the Astor Place riot, I too visited a couple of the archives he consulted, namely the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the New York Historical Society. Long fascinated by the events of 10 May 1849, I couldn’t leave Manhattan without making a pilgrimage to Astor Place. But I could find no memorial to the 26 people killed in one of New York’s bloodiest episodes; nor was there any mention of the two actors, the American Edwin Forrest and the Englishman William Charles Macready, whose long-smouldering rivalry as to whose was the greatest Macbeth of the age had culminated in clashes between a 15,000-strong mob and a detachment of the National Guard. Nowadays the neighbourhood hardly looks like the front line in New York City’s class war. Instead of a volatile confluence of uptown socialites and Bowery gang members, the place was thronged with New York University students and well-heeled shoppers, and their single largest gathering was not around a provocatively sited opera house but a vegetarian café called Karen’s.

Playing truant from the library another afternoon, however, was more illuminating about the culture that bred Forrest and his muscular fan club. I went to a matinée of Julius Caesar, far more of a favourite in republican America than it has ever been in Britain, at the Belasco on West 44th, with Denzel Washington as Brutus. Just as in Forrest’s day, many of the audience talked unabashedly whenever their hero was absent from the stage, though given the standard of what was very much a supporting cast, this didn’t seem as inappropriate as it might have done. Whenever Washington was on stage, though, they compensated by being massively enthusiastic, often in a way quite incompatible with listening to what he was saying. Conscious that his production would be seen as a vehicle for this one actor, the director had gamely coped with Shakespeare’s failure to bring Brutus into the play until I.ii by inventing a non-speaking cameo for him and Portia during the opening street scene, before anyone else spoke a line, and even this tiny piece of acting, well within the range of the merest extra, was greeted with the sort of rapturously whooping applause for which an English stage actor would have had to wait all night, if not his whole career.

Washington made a very good Brutus – another in the line of nobly unassuming popular heroes he has played in Hollywood for years – and since I was putting together a book of essays by prominent actors about playing leading parts in Shakespeare’s tragedies, I thought I might go backstage afterwards to discuss the possibility of his contributing to it. But this was to reckon without the New York crowd. Whereas in Stratford or London you can generally have a quiet word with a leading Shakespearean simply by turning up at the stage door and asking, it isn’t like that on Broadway, at least not when Denzel Washington is in the cast. Despite having paid only minimal attention to the play, what seemed like most of the audience transferred from the auditorium to the street outside the stage door the minute the adulatory curtain calls were at last over, and here, in the hopes of catching further glimpses of Washington and perhaps even getting his autograph on their programmes, they pressed up against metal cordons, spilled out into the road (stopping the traffic) and attempted unavailingly to negotiate access with a formidable looking team of security men who would probably have done better against the Astor Place rioters than the regiment deployed in 1849 did. In the end, almost crushed in the eager throng, I was able to communicate with Washington only by means of a postcard thrust into his hand as he passed, for all the world like one of the desperate petitioners in the play. Just as some of Shakespeare’s Roman plebeians greet Brutus’s egalitarian speech justifying his pre-emptive tyrannicide with cries of ‘Let him be Caesar!’, so Washington’s fans, even in the act of hailing him as a regular guy and the people’s lead actor, seemed unable to treat him as anything short of a deity.

This contradiction between the democratic ideals of American audiences and the abject hero-worship built into the star system is nowhere better exemplified than in the life of the pioneering Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest (1806-72), a man described by his admiring modern biographer Richard Moody as ‘the first actor who refused to subscribe to the nation’s cultural inferiority complex’. As The Shakespeare Riots makes clear, however, Forrest was sufficiently affected by this inferiority complex to have spent much of his life telling the English just how emphatically he refused to subscribe to it. When not staking his claim to Shakespeare he deliberately chose roles that reinforced his self-casting as a defiant, athletic personification of all-American patriotism. His favourites included Spartacus, depicted as a virtuous rebel against some very British-looking patricians in Robert Montgomery Bird’s melodrama The Gladiator (1831), and the anti-aristocratic hero of Robert Conrad’s Jack Cade (1835), a martyr who dies with the words: ‘The bondman is avenged, my country free!’ Perhaps surprisingly, Forrest did not play the libertarian Brutus, though this was for aesthetic rather than ideological reasons: by his standards it wasn’t a sufficiently macho or important part. On the few occasions when he did appear in Julius Caesar, Forrest played the less intellectual and more show-stopping Mark Antony, but he much preferred those Shakespearean roles which allowed him physically to dominate the stage for a large proportion of the play and then to finish on a spectacular death: roles like Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and, above all, Macbeth.

Given his long-nourished Anglophobia and the seemingly inevitable collision with Macready which remains the most celebrated event of his career, it may seem odd that Forrest was prepared to stake so much of his reputation on the ability to perform the works of England’s national playwright, but by the time of Forrest’s birth in 1806 Shakespeare had already been widely co-opted to the interests of the young republic. In fact, even before the rebellion of the colonies, some had linked the imaginative scope of Shakespearean drama to the liberating possibilities offered by the New World. An ode by William Havard, recited at Drury Lane in 1757, identifies Shakespeare as the Columbus of world drama, anticipating the installation, more than a century later, of statues of the playwright and the explorer opposite one another in Central Park, as two proto-founding fathers. The value of Shakespeare’s work had been recognised more pragmatically on the frontier itself, where in 1764 the explorer Thomas Morris, venturing into what is now Illinois, discovered to his surprise not only that he was not the first anglophone to have got so far west but that the locals already knew exactly how much the crown jewels of his culture were worth: ‘An Indian . . . called the little chief . . . made me a present of a volume of Shakespeare’s plays; a singular gift from a savage. He however begged a little gunpowder in return, a commodity to him much more precious than diamonds.’ Morris later had the good fortune to be lingering in his canoe, absorbed in Antony and Cleopatra, while the little chief’s tribe efficiently massacred the remainder of his party, perhaps in an unsuccessful bid to repossess the book so as to be able to repeat the transaction should any more of his kind trespass on their lands.

The War of Independence ended British imperial control over these violent and unpredictable territories, but it did not evict Shakespeare from them, despite the fact that one of the things the Puritan Pilgrim Fathers had emigrated from England to escape was Shakespearean theatre. Although the British military authorities who took over the John Street theatre in New York during the hostilities must have wondered whether the productions of Richard III, King Lear, The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth that they staged there between 1777 and 1783 were the last performances of Shakespeare or of anything else that would ever be seen west of the Atlantic, their local enemies were already getting in on the act. The rebel army mounted Coriolanus at Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1778, thereby founding a tradition of American military performances of Shakespeare that was to survive for many years. Awaiting action against the Mexican army in Texas in 1845, the young Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant played Desdemona.

With victory over the British came a public debate about whether plays written under a shamefully hierarchical monarchy could be considered fit entertainment for true democrats. ‘Accustomed to see kings, dukes and lords daily on the stage,’ a letter to the Freemen’s Journal warned in 1784, ‘we shall be gradually prepared to admit their real existence among us.’ But others, including George Washington and John Adams, already regarded the unconfined soul of Shakespeare as belonging more securely to the land of the free than to the land of his birth, and the first American edition of the Complete Works – a piracy of an English text, but with an added preface reassuring virtuous republicans that ‘the reproaches that have been thundered from the pulpit against the stage, cannot reasonably be applied to the stage of Shakespeare’ – was published in Forrest’s native city of Philadelphia in 1795. The prevailing American view of Shakespeare’s national allegiance was eloquently summed up by another Philadelphian, Peter Markoe, in 1786:

Monopolising Britain! Boast no more
His genius to your narrow bounds confin’d;
Shakespeare’s bold spirit seeks our western shore,
A gen’ral blessing for the world design’d,
And, emulous to form the rising age,
The noblest Bard demands the noblest Stage.

The noblest stage in its turn demanded the noblest actors, and Edwin Forrest was born to oblige – or rather, was self-made to oblige. ‘Early in life,’ he recalled, ‘I took a great deal of exercise and made myself what I am, a Hercules.’ Never bashful, at the age of 14 he attended a travelling exhibition at which the effects of nitrous oxide were displayed; stepping forward when the showman asked for a volunteer, he astonished the crowd by reciting large chunks of Richard III even while under the influence. He was promptly signed up to play at the Walnut Street theatre in Philadelphia, and after a period on the Western touring circuit began to attract a following in New Orleans. Here his apprenticeship concentrated less on reading and elocution than on identifying himself as a true frontiersman: he drank, gambled and brawled on paddle steamers, wielded a Bowie knife given to him by Jim Bowie himself, challenged an English theatre manager to a duel, and spent a period in the wilderness in the company of a Choctaw called Push-ma-ta-ha. With his enthusiasm for Shakespeare rekindled by seeing Edmund Kean performing on one of his American tours, the 21-year-old Forrest made an impressive New York debut as Othello in 1826, but the move back East did nothing to dampen his Jacksonian patriotism. He had himself listed on playbills as ‘The Native Tragedian’, and in 1828 used some of the big money he was beginning to earn to promise $500 to the author of ‘the best tragedy, in five acts, of which the hero, or principal character, shall be an aboriginal of this country’.

The result was John Augustus Stone’s Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags, in which Forrest was to make such an impression over the next forty years – especially on frontier audiences – that there are still towns called Metamora in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. In Metamora, repeating the rhetorical trick pioneered at the Boston Tea Party whereby the exponents of colonialism identified themselves with its victims (the men who dumped the tea were disguised as Mohawk Indians), Forrest played a noble American savage up against the English, notably the evil Lord Fitzarnold. Its sub-Ossianic script gives a vivid impression both of the bare-chested, full-bodied acting that was Forrest’s stock-in-trade and of some of the sentiments that would animate the Astor Place rioters:

If ye love the silent spots where the bones of your kindred repose, sing the dread song of war and follow me! If you love the bright lakes which the Great Spirit gave you when the sun first blazed with the fires of his touch, shout the war song of the Wampanoag race, and on to the battle follow me . . . Call on the happy spirits of the warriors dead, and cry: ‘Our lands! Our nation’s freedom! Or the grave!’

Unfortunately, the only good noble savage is a dead noble savage, and the Wampanoags, among them Metamora’s infant son, are slaughtered. The chief himself kills his squaw, Nahmeokee, to prevent her falling into enemy hands, and, encircled by English soldiers, dies after a point-blank hail of bullets has left him only sufficient vital force for one last speech:

The last of the Wampanoags’ curse be on you! . . . Spirits of the grave, I come! But the curse of Metamora stays with the white man! I die! My wife! My queen! My Nahmeokee!

Falls and dies; a tableau is formed. Drums and trumpet sound a retreat till curtain. Slow curtain.

This was a very different style of acting, and indeed of being, from that of William Charles Macready (1793-1873), who also performed in New York in 1827 and saw Forrest’s first Othello. Morbidly obsessed with a dignity he could never securely achieve, Macready admired his younger colleague’s dynamism and spontaneity, but preferred to see him in melodramas like Metamora than in the Shakespearean roles he had come to regard as his own. This was partly because he felt that Forrest’s Shakespearean acting had been spoiled by the easy applause of the ignorant, and partly because he was never fully convinced that Forrest understood all of Shakespeare’s words. As Cliff acutely points out, Forrest and Macready had much in common despite all this, and at their first meeting (during Forrest’s British tour of 1836) they became warm friends. But a rift between the rigidly middle-class Englishman who refused to let his children see him act until the last performance he ever gave and the Native Tragedian who hung out among the Choctaw became inevitable over the decade that followed, not only as relations worsened between Britain and America but as the two men’s temperaments converged. Autocratic and depression-prone actors subject to paranoid egomania rarely get on better with one another as they grow older.

Forrest’s bête noire can seem forbiddingly pompous and unsympathetic, but Cliff makes a good, compassionate job of explaining Macready’s lonely and ruthless craving for respectability. His father, a raffish provincial manager, had sent him to Rugby in the hope that he would never have to work in the theatre, and Macready remained convinced until the end of his life that the profession was beneath him, even though his family’s financial collapse had compelled him to enter it. (He avoided most of his fellow actors socially, and regarded the newly founded Garrick Club as ‘a black-guard place’.) In the everyday life of the Regency playhouses, heaven knows, there was plenty to confirm this anti-theatrical prejudice, and plenty to try tempers much more pliant than Macready’s. The diary of Drury Lane’s manager, James Winston, has frequent entries such as, ‘During the rehearsal Elliston got Margerum, Elison, Edwards, Tokely and Philips [actresses] into his room and attempted to be too familiar with them but was interrupted’ (1 April 1822), or: ‘The play waited a few minutes at the commencement for Kean. His reply was: “I always take a shag before the play begins”’ (16 August 1820). Like Forrest, Macready admired the psychological naturalism Kean had brought to Shakespeare’s protagonists, but he had spent too much of his youth filling in for the great man when he was too debilitated by drink, pox or general cussedness to go on stage to share Forrest’s enthusiasm either for Kean’s uninhibited lifestyle or for his energetic playing to the rowdies in the gallery. As far as the young Macready was concerned, Britain, and especially the British theatre, couldn’t become Victorian fast or thoroughly enough.

It is a sad irony of the story Cliff tells that Macready loathed the aristocrats who treated the Theatres Royal at Drury Lane and Covent Garden like brothels even more than he loathed the crowds who treated them like Roman circuses, and cherished a dream of escaping to enlightened, democratic America and settling his family in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while awaiting the benign English revolution that he believed was inevitable. But in the cultural climate of the 1840s this couldn’t prevent him being represented by American journalists as the simultaneously haughty and servile representative of a corrupt, elitist and threatening monarchy, and his friendship with Charles Dickens – whose American Notes (1842) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44) had outraged American national pride – didn’t help. The prospects for Macready’s continuing popularity in the United States were further blighted by the propaganda war that broke out after Forrest, convinced that the poor reviews he was receiving during his British tour of 1845 were the result of Macready’s influence, came to watch Macready play Hamlet in Edinburgh and hissed during the play scene, in protest at what he regarded as the effeminacy of Macready’s interpretation. ‘No Englishman would have done a thing so base!’ Macready fumed to his diary. ‘I do not think that such an action has its parallel in all theatrical history! The low-minded ruffian!’ His final phrase taunts Forrest in terms borrowed from Lady Macbeth: ‘That man would commit a murder, if he dare.’ Newspapers on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall, and soon on both sides of the Atlantic, were full of the affair for weeks.

Three years later, when Macready embarked on a protracted farewell tour of the States, tempers were no calmer. Boston audiences were polite, but in Forrest’s home city Macready’s Macbeth was cheered and hissed in about equal measure, by rival groups who threw either bouquets or rotten eggs. When Macready responded to the hecklers in a curtain speech, some shouted out for three cheers for him, others for Forrest. Forrest himself, taking exception to the reported contents of this oration, published what was almost a challenge to Macready in the Public Ledger two days later, a sneering repetition of everything he had said during the row over the hiss in Edinburgh, and suddenly the antagonism between ‘the eminent tragedian’ from England (or ‘the superannuated driveller’, as Forrest was by now calling him) and the heroic impersonator of the last of the Wampanoags was all over the press once more. ‘There are now two parties, the American and the English, and I have no doubt the former will triumph,’ Forrest wrote to his English-born wife. ‘Englishmen must be cuffed into a proper conduct towards us . . . I think Mac has received his death blow professionally, in this country. The feeling manifested against him here will spread over the whole continent.’ When the couple separated a few weeks later, in a blaze of scandal, it was claimed that disagreements over Forrest’s attitude towards Macready had destroyed the marriage.

The feeling to which Forrest referred, if it never quite covered the whole continent, certainly spread to many theatre pits, and ultimately to the streets of New York. Although Macready was warmly received in New Orleans, when he reached Ohio audiences were even more turbulent than those in Philadelphia, and more inventive too. Macready’s biographer William Archer, determined not to let the Astor Place riot overshadow his subject’s achievements (by his account, it was merely ‘an acute outbreak of a longstanding international irritation’), sought to play down one incident that occurred there, but to Macready it was almost the last straw. In Archer’s words: ‘At Cincinnati, during the performance of Hamlet, a sportive gentleman threw half the carcase of a sheep upon the stage: but this seems to have been a mere ebullition of amiable vivacity, not an expression of opinion.’ Macready, though, could not help noticing that this unusual projectile had been withheld until the scene at which Forrest had hissed, and wrote in his diary that ‘for disgusting brutality, indecent outrage and malevolent barbarism’, the sheep-throwing must be ‘without parallel in the theatre of any civilised community’.

When Macready reached New York, Forrest was waiting for him, scheduled to appear as Macbeth at the Broadway Theatre on the night of 7 May, just as Macready was due to open as the Thane at the Astor Place Opera House. Only one of these performances was going to make it past the end of the third act, but it’s a pity that Cliff doesn’t pause at this point to say more about what the respective Macbeths of Macready and Forrest must have been like, or why both actors were so possessively attached to this role. For Macready, Macbeth’s soliloquies would have afforded ample scope for his cerebral, character-plumbing simulations of sudden turns of thought – often achieved using the surprising breaks that came to be known as ‘Macready pauses’ – while the overall trajectory of the play remained satisfyingly and unambiguously moral, the story of a bitterly self-conscious man who can only play-act at being either homicidal or kingly and who ultimately and inevitably descends into the angry self-loathing that Macready knew all too well. Americans, however, have usually preferred their Shakespearean protagonists to be more heroic and self-determining than this, and Forrest’s Macbeth seems to have offered not so much the story of regicide justly punished as the spectacle of a mighty self-made warrior tragically failing in his bid to defy Fate, escape the past and resist an English-backed invasion. Given that his father was a Scottish émigré who peddled tartan for a living, it is quite possible that there was a Braveheart element to Forrest’s Macbeth: certainly on 7 May 1849 the line that got a prolonged standing ovation at the Bowery was: ‘What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug/Would scour these English hence?’

Macready had by this time been booed and cannonaded off the Astor Place stage, both he and his cast sustaining minor injuries from coins and even chairs flung by organised gangs in the auditorium. All might have been well, according to Forrest’s supporter Lawrence Barrett, had Macready not come downstage and tried to stare the troublemakers into quiescence at the end of Act III, but in the atmosphere that had by now been stirred up anything he did would be understood as a nationally symbolic provocation:

Had he adopted a different course – one more suited to our National feelings, and the well-known good nature of the American people, – we question if the scenes which followed would have occurred. Allegorically speaking, however, it was the Lion defying the Eagle – practically, it was

JOHN BULL DEFYING BROTHER JONATHAN.

A committee of prominent citizens, however, led by Washington Irving, persuaded Macready not to cut short his engagement: steps would be taken to make sure that there were no more unpleasant incidents. At all costs, the honour and civility of New York City had to be vindicated. Macready bowed to their request, and agreed to appear as Macbeth once more, on 10 May. It was the last performance he would ever give on American soil, and it would end with Macready disguising himself as a member of the audience and mingling among a blood-stained dispersing crowd before fleeing by train upstate and thence back to England.

On 10 May, Forrest appeared in The Gladiator, but to a half-empty Broadway Theatre: his hardcore fans were busy elsewhere. The box office at Astor Place had been more successful at keeping tickets out of their hands this time, however, and despite some groups of catcallers Macready’s Macbeth ran all the way to the end of Act V, but by then the building was surrounded by a mob of 15,000 people. They were a volatile mixture of recent Irish immigrants furious with the English for their mismanagement of the potato famine, and diehard American nativists equally furious about the same mismanagement because it was flooding their city with Irish Catholic immigrants; but whatever their ethnic and gang loyalties all of them seem to have felt that the wealthy patrons of the opera house were unacceptably flouting the will of the people by giving Macready another hearing after the stormy verdict passed earlier in the week. They had been bombarding the building with paving-stones and trying to break through the hastily barricaded doors for some time when, pushed back against the walls so closely that there was no room to mount a bayonet charge, the troops assigned to its defence opened fire with rifles. At least 25 people were killed that night, and around a hundred injured; a small boy was crushed to death at the protest meeting in City Hall Park that followed the next day.

Just as it marked the end of the fiction that the people of New York, from Battery Park to the Fifteenth Ward, were all equal freeborn citizens, rather than being divided into haves and have-nots, so the riot marked the beginning of the end for live Shakespeare as cross-class mass entertainment in the United States. A century later, Forrest’s most obvious successors would play out their frontier melodramas and homespun versions of Spartacus in a mass medium to which Shakespeare would be a virtual stranger. The talkies’ Macbeth was played by the art-house Orson Welles rather than the barnstorming John Wayne, and Denzel Washington’s film-star Brutus is the exception rather than the rule. The Americanisation of Shakespeare took other routes: in the definitively national genre of the conspiracy theory, for example, a determination to identify the Bard’s works as consciously committed to Progress would be the main driving force behind Delia Bacon’s The Philosophy of Shakespeare’s Plays Unfolded (1857), which attributes his work to a secret committee of choice and master spirits convened by Sir Francis Bacon, not so much because Bacon was an aristocrat but because he was regarded as the founder of empirical science and thus a harbinger of America’s industrial modernity.

It may be hard to feel nostalgic now either for Forrest’s zealous brand of bardolatrous patriotism (in his will, he established a home for retired actors, and stipulated that they should stage quasi-religious public ceremonies twice a year, on Independence Day and on Shakespeare’s birthday), or for Delia Bacon’s well-nigh unreadable pseudo-scholarship. But it is salutary to be reminded that Americans once sought to rescue Shakespeare from history in the cause of a utopian future, rather than, as has been more common in recent scholarship, to consign his works to a distant, half-demonised and half-exoticised ancien régime past.

Cliff’s account of the Astor Place riot – its origins, its multiple significances and its consequences – manages to be both enthralling and scholarly. Its secure transatlantic perspective – especially its understanding of the events in London that anticipated many features of the New York fracas, the ‘Old Price’ riots of 1809 – helps it to avoid the sentimentality that sometimes tinges Lawrence Levine’s classic Highbrow/ Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988). It’s a shame that the publisher hasn’t been more generous with illustrations: those reproduced are terrific, but there are surviving images of Forrest and Macready in character that amply deserve inclusion, and a map of the Astor Place area would have been a very useful adjunct to Cliff’s vivid and minutely researched chronicle of the disturbance proper. It is perhaps a shame, too, that Cliff’s élan sometimes misleads him into needless footnotes which sound like highlights from his favourite undergraduate essays (on the meaning of the Gothic, for example, or the real motives of the characters in King Lear); and in a lifetime of being told daft and unsubstantiated stories about the unluckiness of the Scottish Play I’ve never before come across the one about Shakespeare having to understudy for Lady Macbeth at the premiere, or the one about James I hating the play and banning it.

Cliff misses a trick, too, in not hearing the ghosts of Astor Place in the background to that classic William Hargreaves music-hall song of 1922, which always deserves quotation:

CHORUS: I acted so tragic the house rose like magic,
The audience yelled ‘You’re sublime!’
They made me a present of Mornington Crescent,
They threw it a brick at a time.
Someone threw a fender, which caught me a bender,
I hoisted a white flag and tried to surrender.
They jeered me; they queered me,
And half of them stoned me to death;
They threw nuts and sultanas, fried eggs and bananas,

The Night I Appeared As Macbeth.

But despite all this, The Shakespeare Riots is a brilliant debut, far richer and more astute than the two earlier books on the subject, Richard Moody’s The Astor Place Riot (1958) and Richard Nelson’s strangely watered-down dramatisation, Two Shakespearean Actors (1990). If he and I are ever in New York at the same time again, the carrot cake at Karen’s is on me.