The Shakespeare Riots

The Shakespeare Riots  by Nigel Cliff

This is a complex book that has taken me a long time to read. It is disturbing in many ways because  the rioters were used by the demagogues of their day. True, they were poor, but they were also violent and foolish. This was not a genuine revolution of the poor, but a symbolic battle. Granted that Shakespeare meant a great deal to Americans. They found him a spokesperson for their own ambitions. He talked about power, human frailty and did it with rousing plots and beautiful words.  This was also probably the first of the culture wars. Americans wanted to have their own literature and drama apart from the British. As they rebelled against their rule, they wanted to rebel against their sense of cultural superiority. The fact that the wealthy adopted British ways compounded the lower class anger. It’s just that the rioters were led by such frauds, like Ned Buntline who was an opportunist, a coward and a scam artist.

True the theatre was a place where all the classes went and after the riots, that was no longer possible in either the United States or England. It became what we despair of now, a theatre for the middle and upper classes. Although the cause may be just; a need for economic equality, the lack of knowledge and understanding that  is often a part of being poor leaves few choices. Rebellion happening  as a result of  emotions that are manipulated, not only by a Ned Buntline in his time,  but by contemporary politicians and media.

Of the two actors, Macready comes off best in this book. Forrest never grew in his art even though he represented an energy that was American. When he first went to England, Macready welcomed him and they were friends. When Macready did a tour of the United States where he was very popular, Forrest saw that it was good for box office if there was a competition between them, so he would play the same parts shortly after Macready did. In New York the b’hoys from the Bowery adopted Forrest as their champion of American culture. In the South the aristocrats much preferred Macready. Macready liked America and even thought of retiring here. Like other Englishmen, he was repelled by slavery, but he was not as turned off  as Dickens, his good friend, was.  Many years later when Forrest returned to England, the taste for his style of acting was waning and  he did not do well. He was convinced that Macready was behind his troubles, even though he was not. Forrest went to a production of Macready’s Hamlet and hissed him. He was reviled in the press for this, but he was so egotistical and arrogant that he defended himself in the press in the United States and in England.

The author makes the point that both men were great egotists and insecure, Macready more than Forrest. Macready did live longer than Forrest even though he had his share of tragedy. Seven of his ten children predeceased him although he did remarry a much younger woman eight years after his wife’s death. He lived a better life in retirement, while Forrest still performed to less and less enthusiasm, dying at a much younger age than Macready who lived to eighty-one. The author really sees the riots as demonstrating the triumph of the middle and upper classes against the lower and a separation of Shakespeare from the everyday life of Americans. Theatre changed. It was now a quiet place with well-behaved audiences in place of the rowdy, but dedicated and passionate theatregoers. Shakespeare became a part of high culture when it had been a vital part of the lives of all Americans previously. This is a fascinating book. I would have liked to have seen the play that was based on the riots. Twenty-seven to thirty people had been killed, more than in any other riot in the United States. It signaled a change in the country. After 1849, much was different and would continue to be so.

 Interview with Nigel Cliff

Astor Place Riot

2 thoughts on “The Shakespeare Riots

  1. It’s amazing to think in this day and age that people would have riots over theatre. Tragic as it was, you have to admire that people felt so passionate about theatre. I saw the Broadway production of “Two Shakespearean Actors” by Richard Nelson which is the play about the riots. It was an excellent production, with Brian Bedford as Macready and Victor Garber as Forrest. You got a sense of the 2 men’s stories, more than the social context, but it is a good play. As with your post I think the play, while presenting both men fairly, sided more with Macready, who was bewildered that he could be evoking so much hate. Possibly one of the early modern examples of the downside of fame.


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