Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Shakespeare Riots

The Shakespeare in American Communities project is an attempt to restore Shakespeare to the popular and working-man status that it enjoyed when America was first founded. Shakespeare was on the frontier with the settlers as they moved west. He was thought of as being the voice of the common man - a far cry from the elitist status given now. Earlier blog entries theorized that the shift was caused by the introduction of the film medium and the redefinition of popular culture. A new book, however, credits a single event that came long before film as changing the way we look at Shakespeare.

Nigel Cliff's Shakespeare Riots points to the New York riot in 1894 as the source of it all.

The short version of the story is thus: William Charles Macready was considered the greatest British actor at the time; classically educated and intellectual he was the darling of the upper class. On the other side was the up-and-coming American Edwin Forrest who was more of a ham and had the support of the working class and common man.

The one time friends turned rivals had a dispute over the interpretation Hamlet's line "I shall be idle."

Posters went up for mobs to gather in support of Forrest and his performance of Macbeth. The upper class, feeling threatened, called upon the mayor to deploy troops and as the two sides bore down on each other, the inevitable happened. Fear lead to the armed troops firing into the crowd killing 25. The fall out was that the "serious" theatre was driven from the public and working class theatre.

So in a conscious act, Shakespeare passed out of the American vernacular and became guarded by our bourgeoisie. They choose their art and defended it by force.

Listen to the excellent interview with author Nigel Cliff on NPR.

Happy Birthday: Alan Menkin

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